AFTER years of BMW’s X3 soaking up all the sales in a sector it invented, finally Audi’s here with a premium compact SUV rival, but is it really the right time to be launching another SUV? Well, Audi certainly thinks so. This is a sector manufacturers have eyes on for success in the future. They believe as large SUV sales dry up, customers will downshift into more economical, publically-acceptable cars like these. These are the friendly face of 4x4s – if there really is one!
It’s one of the reasons Audi instructed its design team to come up with anything but a conventional SUV. No squared-off edges or bluff, boxy, InterCity train-like fronts here. The Q5 has a well-profiled and proportioned nose that has more in common with an A6 Avant than a traditional off-roader.
We particularly love how all the vertical lines rise up then rush rearwards; it’s a subtle effect, but really striking once you notice it. As you move rearwards, instead of Tonka-toy wheelarches, you get a smoothly flowing shoulderline that blends in and out of them, not unlike the same feature on the A5. It’s elegantly subtle. And the roofline gently arcs rearwards, flowing into the tailgate rather than stopping then plunging vertically down.
Audi makes a big deal about its wrap-around tailgate, taken from the Q7. It may well be – but here, the effect works. Subtle contouring means, from dead-on rear, there are obvious links with the TT roadster, and if this sounds implausible, wait until you see it. You may not instantly be drawn to it, but give it time. This is a real grower.
Of course, it’s not really a true SUV. It’s heavily based on the A4 and A5 underpinnings – they’ve been suitably spec’d up, to give 200mm of ground clearance, a wading depth of 500mm and class-leading cross-axle wheel articulation, but few are likely to discover this. Audi admits that only two per cent of drivers will ever stray off the Tarmac.
That’s why it’s been biased to being used on it. Using the A4’s clever new flexible platform, quattro four-wheel-drive is standard, and both ride and handling tuned, according to Audi, to match not only rival machines, but the best from the compact executive sector, too. This is crucial. A large chunk of sales will be from those who’d otherwise buy a BMW 3-Series Touring or Audi A4 Avant – people who want more flexibility and, crucially, want to stand out from the crowd. If it were inept to drive, all the hard work done by the stylists would be for nought.
It’s far from it, though. No sooner do you stray onto urban roads, do you appreciate one big advance over its X3 archrival: a much better ride. Yes, the BMW is way too firm, but even so, the absorbency Audi has engineered in is impressive. City centres are a much more comfortable affair, and upping the speed doesn’t introduce excessive roll or lurch, either.
Going faster also shows off the fast-responding steering. The variable-assistance rack has a big disparity between low-speed lightness and higher-speed heft (particularly in sportier models), but there’s no denying its accuracy, even if overall feel is lacking. You also can’t argue with the stability of the chassis, nor the confidence it breeds. The quattro system constantly shifts its torque split front to rear: the nominal bias is 60 per cent to the back, but it can send up to 85 per cent rearwards. If you time it right, you really can get a whiff of oversteer!
Ok, it’s not as flat and roll-free as the BMW, but levels of roll are far from excessive, and again, it’s all so well controlled. It’s even more impressive if you choose the ‘Audi Drive Select’ option. This throws in electronic dampers, plus variable settings for the steering throttle and gearshift points. It makes the Q5 both a better-controlled, more roll-free machine, as well as a better-riding one, too.
And the new S-tronic semi-auto gearbox is good too. This is like VW’s DSG unit, but boasts seven speeds and peerless shifting. It’s brilliant, and standard on the 2.0-litre TFSI petrol and 3.0-litre V6 TDI. Both are cracking engines, but it’s the 2.0-litre TDI four-cylinder that will take nearly four in five sales. Luckily, this is good, too.
Mated to a six-speed manual gearbox, it produces 167bhp, and while not a rocket ship, is usefully punchy on the road. It’s quiet, too – the lack of clatter is almost unnatural for a diesel machine.
An 1,800kg kerbweight is, of course, weighty, but not uncommonly so by sector standards, and doesn’t hinder economy. The 2.0 TDI cracks 42mpg and emits 175g/km of CO2, superb figures that help make the Q5 justifiable.
Buyers will be appreciating these good road manners from the best cabin in the business, which feels anything but downsized. Ok, the BMW is certainly no great shakes; we’ve always moaned about its plasticky interior, just as we’ve always griped about the ride. But Audi has still pushed the game on – a Freelander doesn’t know where to look either, such is the quality of the smooth-finish plastics.
Seats are set high, intentionally, but are extremely comfortable, and the dash design, while very Audi, is also quite exceptional in places. Three in the back (there won’t be a seven-seat model) will also enjoy equal comfort, and split seats that slide back and forth.
All told, then, quite some on-road performance. So how do the finances stack up? Well, an SE, with leather, 18-inch alloys and daytime running lights, in 2.0 TDI guise, costs a smidgen under £30,000.
For something with the best retained values in its sector, we reckon that’s far from excessive. And full justification in it earning a slot on our front cover. Green, good-looking and financially sensible, Audi dealers should have no trouble selling the 8,000 they’re being given to sell next year… Perhaps this could be part of a new breed of socially acceptable 4x4s!
by Richard Aucock