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2014 Audi SQ5 First Drive

With open-range cattle grazing where they please -- and road signs warning drivers to that effect -- the beautiful, desolate canyon lands of Colorado are equally hospitable to old pickups, trailers, and campers. In this John Ford cowboy milieu, all sandstone monument and sprawling mesa, the 2014 Audi SQ5 looks as spit-shined and citified as a Boston minister fresh off the stagecoach.

Drivers of more primitive, jouncing coaches -- meaning SUV wranglers of the late twentieth century -- would scarcely recognize the 2014 Audi SQ5 as a kissing cousin. That's because, despite tracing roots to the SUV, the SQ5 may be the clearest expression yet of a second genetic strand in modern crossovers: That of the hatchback.

That car-based connection will be most apparent in Europe, where SQ5s will ride 30 mm (1.2 inches) lower than U.S. models. (Blame CAFÉ regulations, which would revoke the Q5s light-truck status if it dropped closer to the curb). Even in America, the Audi's layout, performance, and personality are far closer to a VW GTI than a Ford Explorer. Yet this German hatch is scaled, gussied, and powered up for American tastes: No hot hatch in history could carry five people and their gear so readily, or lap up miles with such luxurious haste.

The Audi seems like a yuppie dream machine for two-income, one-car-seat families: Faster than a BMW X3 35i, more fashionable than a Mercedes GLK, and the ideal petite footprint to be the new Cinderella of the suburbs.

That dream may seem a nightmare to owners of the Audi S4, S5, A6, or A7, though. That's a short list of Audis with the formidable 3.0-liter supercharged V-6, or formidable before this crossover cutie topped them all with 354 horsepower and 347 lb-ft of torque. Horsepower swells 30 percent over the latest Q5 3.0T and its 272 horses and 295 pound-feet. Audi manned up this 3.0T with a stiffened block and a beefier crankshaft and bearings. More air gets through the sizable single-frame grille than in Audi cars with the 3.0T. Enlarging the radiator further improved cooling, allowing boost to rise to set this new bar for 3.0T power.

Barry Hoch, general manager of product planning for Audi of America, asked and answered the question that was on many minds: "Does anyone really need a 354-horsepower grocery getter? Probably not. But this is a business, and some people want it. Why not swing for the fences?"

Well, the fences have been cleared and the groceries got. Audi pegs the 0-to-60-mph sprint at 5.1 seconds and the top speed is electronically pegged to 155 mph. The Q5 3.0T, TDI diesel, and 2.0T are left behind, lagging the 0-to-60 pace by a respective 0.9, 1.4, and 1.9 seconds.

Numbers alone, however, can't describe how the 2014 Audi SQ5 blitzed the near-lawless fantasy roads of western Colorado, carrying a triple-digit pace through canyons with almost spooky ease, stability, and cabin isolation. Forget SUV clichés: Body roll is practically nil thanks to firmed-up springs and hydraulic dampers (not the adaptive dampers from 3.0T and TDI models). The V-6 poured power like a bottomless boat of gravy. Tire and wind noise barely intruded even at mega speeds. And a new exhaust manifold and two-mode, quad-pipe outlet provide the rowdiest soundtrack yet from the usually subdued 3.0T.

"Best yet" also describes the 2014 Audi SQ5's eight-speed Tiptronic transmission, managed via a metal-and-leather cue-ball shifter or "alu-optic" shift paddles. The gearbox is so fleet and graceful that some journalists assumed it was a dual-clutch affair, an especially good one at that. Quattro all-wheel drive sends 60 percent of grunt to rear wheels in normal operation.

Stealth rules the sleek exterior, but fans will catch the "S" badging; standard 20- and optional 21-inch alloy wheels and aluminum mirrors; twin horizontal blades spanning the grille and foglamps; side sills, and a revised roof spoiler.

Big-bolstered sport seats are borrowed, not quite whole cloth, from the Q5's optional chairs: Leather is white-stitched and of a higher grade, especially with optional nappa hide. "S" upgrades include a bulging, flat-bottomed steering wheel, gray-faced instruments, aluminum-insert pedals, and optional inlays of carbon fiber or Audi's lovely, wafer-thin slices of aluminum sandwiched between wood.

The SQ5's take on Audi Drive Select lets you adjust engine and transmission, steering assist, and exhaust sound over comfort, standard, and dynamic modes and to store one "individual" setting. The electric steering, best left in the middle "standard" mode, can seem aloof at everyday speeds, but as g-forces approach Squealville and the Audi holds the center like Bill Clinton on the campaign trail, the steering's sheer precision makes it easy to forgive any feedback shortage.

The brakes are even more sensitive. Brembo brakes with four-piston calipers were part of the standard Q5's facelift for 2013, and the SQ5 finds 10 percent more brake surface area, with 15-inch front rotors, and adds larger, painted front calipers.

Flaws? Audi's redundant, over-large key fob doesn't need to be inserted to start the car via pushbutton, but once slotted it's still a bad practical joke, ignoring start attempts or refusing to come unglued from the slot. The muscular Audi gets a 16/23 mpg slapdown from the EPA, although we did see 25 mpg while cruising in eighth gear. And, while detouring down a dirt road past the Last Dollar Ranch -- with a "For Sale" sign appropriately posted at the gate -- we located muddy potholes that cast suspicion on the 21-inch wheels' ride quality on ruined urban pavement east of the Mississippi.

Finally, "S" still stands for "splurge." GTI lovers who chuckle at today's $30,000 iterations may upchuck over an the $61,420 price of our striking Estoril blue SQ5 test vehicle. (That'll be $1075 for the paint, bub). A $52,795 base price is $8300 beyond a BMW X3 xDrive 35i and smack atop the new Corvette Stingray. The SQ5 costs $7495 more than a Q5 3.0T and $14,595 more than the 220-horse Q5 2.0T.

Then again, top-tier Audi buyers aren't known as price shoppers, and with the original Q5 marking its sixth model year, the 2014 SQ5 gives trendsetters one last chance to top the neighbors before a new generation is unveiled. Call the SQ5 what you will: SUV, crossover, tall hatch, sport wagon. Free-spending hot-hatch lovers, all grown up and craving luxury and space, will want to call it their own.