It’s quite remarkable how, in the short span of a few years, the compact-crossover segment has blossomed from a handful of vehicles to a category nearly as dense as the mid-size-sedan field. But then, small utes are an entirely rational, left-brain purchase, because they offer both family-car practicality and trucklike utility. It’s a solid formula for sales, if not excitement.
The Audi Q5 first caught our attention during an April 2009 comparison test against a Mercedes-Benz GLK and a Volvo XC60. Along with sharp looks and a competitive price, the Q5 exhibited a dynamic edge that made it stand out against its rivals. Shortly thereafter, we decided to add one to our Four Seasons test fleet and ordered an ibis white Q5 in Premium Plus trim, which added a panoramic sunroof, xenon headlights, heated front seats, Bluetooth, and a power tailgate. Our only other option was the $3000 MMI navigation system, which also adds front and rear parking sensors and a backup camera.
The Q5’s dominant trait is its particularly potent 3.2-liter V-6. The 270-hp, direct-injected engine is fluid, responsive, and strong through the rev range. “At any speed, in any gear, full throttle or part throttle, the 3.2-liter V-6 provides an instant burst of acceleration and never seems to run out of breath,” observed assistant editor David Zenlea. The six-speed automatic was similarly both well mannered and frisky. In typical driving, shifts are relaxed and gentle, but drive aggressively and the gearbox cleverly steps up its game.
“I am particularly impressed by how well the transmission holds gears during hard acceleration followed by a brief lift off the accelerator,” said senior web editor Phil Floraday. “Audi doesn’t program the transmission to upshift as quickly as some other companies, which is much nicer for those of us who drive a little more aggressively than the Buick we’re stuck behind in traffic.” Floraday was referring to the transmission’s behavior when the gear selector was in “D”; things got even better when we shifted into “S” for sport mode.
As inviting as the right pedal is, we showed enough restraint that our Q5 exceeded its EPA combined fuel economy rating by a single mile per gallon, averaging 21 mpg over nearly 32,000 miles. Still, most of the staffweren’t impressed by that number, questioning whether it would be better to trade some of the Q5’s performance for improved fuel economy. Sure enough, Audi now offers the Q5 with a 211-hp turbocharged four-cylinder paired with an eight-speed automatic transmission. Fuel economy with the smaller engine is appreciably better, with an EPA city/highway rating of 20/27 mpg, compared with 18/23 mpg for our Four Seasons example. Our desire for an optional diesel engine remains unfulfilled, however.
The Q5 handles like an Audi sedan, not like a taller vehicle, and body motions are well controlled. As senior editor Joe Lorio noted, though, “The downside is that the ride can be brittle over small- and medium-size road irregularities.” Indeed, that’s typically the case when automakers try to make high-riding crossovers handle like cars. Lorio’s observations were echoed by most of the staff; however, there wasn’t a clear consensus on what to make of the Q5’s road manners. Unlike the outgoing BMW X3, the Q5 isn’t jarring or intolerable. Rather, Audi simply settled on a sportier tune for models like ours without the adjustable dampers of the available Drive Select program. That philosophy may be a bit out of place in this segment, but whether you should like it or loathe it is a matter of personal taste.
“For around-town driving and the daily commute, I often find the Q5’s heavy steering and stiff suspension tiresome,” wrote managing editor of digital platforms Jen Misaros. “But once I start hustling the Q5 down a windingtwo-lane, those negatives turn into positives. The car is remarkably responsive when the road gets curvy.”
To complement the agile chassis, the Q5 boasts precise, quick steering. The electric-assist motor, however, is tuned such that it ruins the fun. “Like many other Audis, the Q5 suffers from weirdly divergent steering-effort levels,” Lorio pointed out. “At very slow speeds, efforts are quite low, but once you’re moving along, the steering gets much heavier and this change is strangely artificial.”
Audi’s MMI infotainment system, on the other hand, is much more natural to use. From the core concept to the fine details, it’s one of the best systems you can buy today. The rotary dial located on the center console behind the gear selector, right where the driver’s hand automatically falls, gives full access to audio, navigation, and vehicle settings. We love the crisp screen, the simple scrolling, and the ability to see what’s playing on a satellite radio station without selecting it. The color display centered in the instrument cluster is capable of showing a list of songs, radio stations, navigation directions, or vehicle information, all controlled by a dial on the steering wheel. Operating the climate control, however, is significantly less intuitive, requiring both the push of a button and the spinning of a knob to adjust the temperature, fan speed, and heated seats. If your fingers don’t move quickly enough from button to knob, however, you’ll have to start over.
Interior space is reasonable, but the Q5 feels a bit cramped compared with other vehicles in its segment. Behind the front seats, modest amounts of rear legroom are further undermined by a floorpan that encroaches on foot room. Other minor annoyances include the mesh sunshade of the large sunroof, which isn’t able to keep out the heat on the hottest, sunniest days, and the power liftgate, which can be opened but not closed from the key fob. The cargo hold isn’t particularly commodious, either, although the Q5 was still able to carry four people on aweekend getaway on several occasions during its year in our fleet.
Increasing cargo capacity is easy enough, as every Q5 is prewired for a trailer hitch. With the $795 Audi accessory hitch installed, the Q5 can pull up to 4400 pounds, the highest rating among compact crossovers. We never asked our Q5 to move such a heavy load but frequently saddled it with 2000- to 3000-pound burdens when pulling utility trailers and boats. Never once did the Q5 flinch in acceleration, stability, or ride quality when loaded.
Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for reliability. With about 15,000 miles on the odometer, our Q5 illuminated a check-engine light and refused to spin the engine higher than 4000 rpm. Although cycling the car off and on cleared the light and returned the engine to normal operation, a service visit revealed the need for a new camshaft adjuster. During that same visit, the dealer updated some software that fixed an issue we’d had with an intermittently inoperable air-conditioning system. Later, during the 25,000-mile service visit, a leaky water pump and a failing driveshaft seal were replaced. All these items were covered under warranty, but that kind of track record would certainly make us nervous once the four-year/50,000-mile coverage expired.
We challenged the Q5 with its most demanding task in August during a day trip to the off-road trails in Saint Helen, Michigan. Fording deep puddles, climbing rutted hills, and slogging through soft sand, the Q5 proved to be a surprisingly competent off-roader, thanks to its smart dimensions, good forward visibility, and confidence-inspiring maneuverability. “I wish the driver could fully defeat stability control, but I was impressed by how well the Q5 handled our back-roads romp,” noted Floraday, our resident trail expert. “The 3.2-liter V-6 provided enough power to haul the Q5 up some steep sandy hills, and it felt quite a bit lighter and more powerful than the Acura ZDX, even though it’s actually down 30 hp.”
But what really sets the Q5 apart from many other crossovers is a distinct character that endears it to the people who care about driving. “Does it matter if an SUV comes with aggressive transmission logic?” mused Floraday. “Probably not to most buyers. But if an enthusiast lives with someone who just wants to commute, this is the sort of bonus that keeps a compromise in vehicle purchase from becoming a compromised driving experience.” Audi’s infusion of liveliness via crisp handling and a muscular engine keeps the Q5 from succumbing to the standard of softness that pervades the segment. Floraday summed it up well: “Audi has put together a package that’s just as easy for nonenthusiasts to drive as a Lexus RX but much, much more rewarding for enthusiasts.”
Pros & Cons
+ Responsive powertrain
+ Exceptional handling
+ Great nav system
– Firm ride
– Middling reliability
– Modest interior space
4-yr/unlimited-mile roadside assistance
1-yr/5000-mile first scheduled maintenance
5952 mi: no charge
15,728 mi: $130.47
30,281 mi: $306.24
15,728 mi: Replace camshaft adjuster; update A/C software
30,281 mi: Replace water pump; replace driveshaft seal
809 mi: Purchase, mount, and balance four Michelin Latitude Alpin winter tires, $748.08
15,728 mi: Remount stock Michelin Latitude Tour HP all-season tires, $95; replace windshield wipers, $60
16,525 mi: Purchase and install trailer hitch, $1092.70
EPA city/hwy/combined 18/23/20 mpg
Observed 21 mpg
COST PER MILE:
(Fuel, service, winter tires) $0.20 ($0.48 including depreciation)
PRICES & EQUIPMENT
Price as tested
ABS; traction and stability control; all-wheel drive; trailer-hitch prewiring; three-zone climate control; leather upholstery; tilting/telescoping steering column; multifunction steering wheel; heated power side mirrors; AM/FM stereo with in-dash CD player; Sirius satellite radio; front, side, and side curtain air bags
Premium Plus package (xenon headlights with LED daytime running lights, sunroof, power tailgate, heated front seats, Bluetooth, garage door opener, driver’s seat memory, auto-dimming mirrors, iPod audio input), $4050; Audi MMI Navigation Plus package (navigation with voice control, parking sensors, rearview camera, color driver information system, single CD/DVD player), $3000
*Estimate based on information from intellichoice.com
Body style : 4-door crossover
Accommodation: 5 passengers
Construction: Steel unibody
Engine : 24-valve DOHC V-6
Displacement : 3.2 liters (195 cu in
Horsepower: 270 hp @ 6500 rpm
Torque: 243 lb-ft @ 3000 rpm
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
Steering: Electrically assisted
lock-to-lock: 2.9 turns
turning circle: 38.1 ft
Suspension, front: Strut-type, coil springs
Suspension, rear: Multilink, coil springs
Brakes f/r: Vented discs/discs, ABS
Tires: Michelin Latitude Tour HP
Tire size: 235/60HR-18
headroom f/r: 38.1/37.7 in
legroom f/r : 41.0/37.4 in
shoulder room f/r: 57.7/56.4 in
L X W X H: 182.2 x 82.2 x 65.1 in
Wheelbase: 110.5 in
Track f/r: 63.7/63.5 in
Weight: 4244 lb
weight dist. f/r : 53.6/46.4%
cargo capacity: 29.1/57.3 cu ft (rear seats up/down)
fuel capacity: 19.8 gallons
est. fuel range: 420 miles
fuel grade: 91 octane
Our Test Results
0-100 mph: 17.3 sec
1/4-mile: 15.2 sec @ 94 mph
30-70 mph passing: 7.0 sec
peak acceleration: 0.52 g
speed in gears: 1) 32; 2) 60; 3) 92; 4) 120; 5) 130; 6) 120 mph
cornering l/r: 0.86/0.87 g
70-0 mph braking: 187 ft
peak braking: 0.95 g