Audi is a latecomer to the luxury crossover game, but the company's engineering and product planning staffs seem to have used their late arrival to good advantage. The second of Audi's three crossover SUV offerings, the Q5 was introduced for the 2009 model year, and has been a popular player amid a steadily growing group dominated by German makes, in particular the BMW X3.
Classified as a compact SUV, the Audi Q5 structure is consistent with contemporary crossover engineering, a unitbody incorporating the frame rails within the body shell. This approach keeps curb weight down while simultaneously yielding higher structural rigidity, which pays dividends in fuel economy and handling response. The old body-on-frame tradition is a better bet for durability in rugged off-road use, but like its contemporaries the Q5 isn't likely to see anything more challenging than a gravel road.
Like the BMW X3, the Audi Q5 offers two rows of seats, and is rated for five passengers. The reality is that four of those passengers will ride in comfort, while the fifth, in the rear center position, will be unhappy. This isn't limited to the Q5; it applies to all the entries in this segment: BMW X3, Infiniti FX, Lincoln MKX, Mercedes-Benz GLK-Class, Range Rover Evoque, Volkswagen Touareg, Volvo XC 60, and the Acura RDX.
The similarities between BMW X3 and Audi Q5 don't end with seating. The dimensions of the two vehicles are essentially identical, as are their cargo capacities, and pricing structures. We suspect this is not coincidence.
All the vehicles competing in this segment offer all-wheel drive, but for several it's an optional feature. It's standard equipment with the Audi Q5, regardless of engine choice.
There are two of the latter. A turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder became the standard engine in 2011, and the formerly standard 3.2-liter naturally aspirated V6 is now available as an upgrade option. The 2.0-liter turbo is ubiquitous in Volkswagen/Audi vehicles, a durable engine with years of development on its resume. Now with direct fuel injection, it's rated for 211 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque in this application.
The V6 raises the horsepower ante to 270 hp, although its torque rating (243 pound-feet) is a bit lower than that of the turbo four, it adds substantially to vehicle mass (about 250 pounds), and the extra power output comes at the expense of fuel economy. The turbocharged four is EPA-rated at 20/27 mpg City/Highway, whereas ratings fall to 18/23 mpg for the V6.
The 2.0-liter engine is paired with Audi's new 8-speed Tiptronic automatic transmission, while the V6 delivers power via an older 6-speed automatic.
Audi wants us to perceive the Q5 as the sportiest entry in its segment, which is a bit of a tough sell as far as power is concerned, since the BMW X3's optional 3.0-liter turbocharged six-cylinder engine delivers 300 horsepower and 300 pound-feet of torque.
The Audi Q5 looks sporty, with a wide stance and tightly wrapped sheetmetal that gives it a lean, action-ready look.
Although Audi's trademark LED accents have been adopted by a number of carmakers, there's no mistaking the big Audi grille for anything else, and a relatively low roofline, plus short front and rear overhangs, contribute to a visual persona that's more sport wagon than sport-utility.
Ground clearance is a factor in this as well. There's enough of it, 7.9 inches, to give drivers confidence on dirt road treks to summer cabins, but this dimension is at the low end of the scale for the class, which can be viewed as a plus in terms of dynamics, since it keeps the Q5's center of gravity a little closer to mother earth.
Inside, the Audi Q5 is a blend of comfort and tasteful style. Audi has established itself as a pace-setter in terms of interior design, and the Q5 is consistent with this tradition. The basic color scheme is black with wood and aluminum trim highlights. The bucket front seats aren't quite as sporty as those in the X3, but lateral support is respectable, power adjustability will satisfy a broad range of body types and driving positions, and the comfort quotient is high.
Cargo capacity is competitive in the context of this class, 29 cubic feet behind the rear seats, just over 57 with the rear seats folded forward. The fold-forward function can be achieved with a single touch, a unique and handy feature that would be even better if the seats folded completely flat.
As vehicles in this class go, the Audi has the look of an athlete, and its outstanding chassis rigidity, firm suspension tuning, excellent path accuracy, brisk responses, and powerful braking system deliver on the implied promise of the styling.
The steering is exceptionally tactile and linear, and the agility index is above average in a class with steadily escalating handling standards. Braking performance is smooth and strong, with firm pedal feel, good stopping distances, and no hint of fade in hard use.
Audi's 3.2 V6 delivers respectable punch, propelling this two-tonner to 60 mph in about 6.5 seconds. Top speed is electronically limited to 130 mph.
The 6-speed automatic is about average in terms of shift response time and smooth operation, although it's upstaged by the new 8-speed automatic in the 2.0 T. Still, the 3.2 has a high fun-to-drive index for a vehicle in this class, as well as all-day comfort, with a couple minor asterisks. For one, the suspension tuning can be a bit stiff on choppy pavement or washboard dirt roads, although the Audi Drive Select option can mitigate this phenomenon. In the same vein, a fair amount of noise can find its way into the cabin via the suspension on nasty surfaces, although the Q5 is otherwise a quiet operator.
The Audi Q5 looks good, is quick on its feet, and provides a level of sporty luxury that's at the leading edge for its class. It's a vehicle that's likely to make its owner happy day in, day out, long hauls or short. The Q5 3.2 is considerably more expensive than the Q5 2.0T, and doesn't really deliver a big edge in performance. Also, the 2.0T's lower curb weight pays off in livelier responses and better fuel economy. More power is always attractive in a hefty vehicle, but it doesn't always justify the added expense.
Tony Swan filed this NewCarTestDrive.com report after his test drive of the Audi Q5 near Detroit.