As I maneuver the new 2018 Audi Q5, more than a few thoughts cross my mind. I am more than 20 miles away from civilization. I have no water supply and no spare tire. I do not want to be the first journalist to crash this thing, but the soft sand doesn’t look unfathomably deep. Still, this unassuming freeway cruiser, a pseudo-SUV shod with 20-inch on-road tires, is devoid of a low-range transfer case. The only precautions I can take are to switch off ESP while keeping a finger within reach of the hill descent control button and to lock the optional air suspension in Allroad mode. While Allroad puts traction control and torque vectoring on alert, Lift adds an invaluable 1.77 inches of ground clearance.
Second gear down the slope into the molasses, up into third to maintain momentum, keeping the Audi’s nose up. The Q5 rocks and rolls but pulls through nicely. Now comes a ford. I zoom in, and the trail becomes one with the slow-moving river. I spot a barely elevated grassy island on which to park. That is the good news. The bad news starts with a look downriver, where a split rock formation narrows the riverbed until it disappears in the late afternoon haze. The temperature gauge reads 118 degrees and vultures circle high above. Welcome to Baja California, rather far away from the beaten track.
It’s necessary to make a choice, but neither option bodes well: Go back to where I started, three hours away via wilderness trails, or move forward into uncharted territory with the coastline near San Pedrito no more than seven hours on foot away. I decide to put the Quattro all-wheel drive to the test; the Q5 treads water successfully to the next safe photo op as the Eagles’ “Hotel California” streams from the speakers for the 37th time (Audi, er, prioritized the track in the test cars’ infotainment system because the real thing is allegedly located just down the road in Todos Santos).
Audi sold more than 1.5 million first-generation Q5s, which became one of the brand’s key cash cows. “Never change a winning team,” company chairman Rupert Stadler replied when asked why the new model looks so much like its predecessor. “Furthermore, the 2018 Q5 is considerably lighter, more efficient, safer, and easier to use thanks to up to 30 new assistance systems.”
Designed by Wolfgang Egger rather than by his more progressive successor, Marc Lichte, the new Q5 is a pretty and well-balanced vehicle like the A4 and A5 launched before it. But this is a fast-moving business and I wonder how this crossover will fare over the course of its seven-year life cycle. While its size and packaging are virtually unchanged, the aluminum-intensive body has shed up to 200 pounds and drag coefficient is down to a strong 0.30. Meanwhile, the number of on-board bytes has at least tripled, Quattro all-wheel drive is now of the fuel-saving, on-demand kind on all models other than the V-6, and most of the engines are tuned for better performance and reduced fuel consumption. The fully adjustable air suspension is the main new feature; Audi says it improves ride and handling as well as off-road ability.
The test cars are equipped with a choice of two powerplants, the 248-horsepower, turbocharged 2.0-liter gasoline I-4 and the 282-horsepower, 3.0-liter turbodiesel V-6. However, now that “diesel” has become a dirty word, many markets are likely to swing toward the gasoline engine, which is in fact a good choice for the new Q5. The four-cylinder’s 273 lb-ft of torque won’t peel tarmac like the six and its 457 lb-ft, but thanks to the lighter and more slippery bodyshell, the 2.0 model can accelerate from 0 to 62 mph in 6.3 seconds, top 148 mph, and average 41.4 mpg. Additionally, those figures do not reflect the four-cylinder’s distinct willingness to rev, its smooth running characteristics, and brisk throttle response. While the V-6 works with an eight-speed automatic, the I-4 is mated to a seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox. Both transmissions engage neutral to save fuel as soon as you take your foot off the accelerator.
There is only one way to conquer the gator-back mountains that form the spine of lower Baja, and that’s via the Carretera Transpeninsular, also known as Highway 1. Only beyond El Triunfo can you begin to look for a gravel path leading down to the Valle de La Laguna. For most of the year, this is a beige-brown hotplate overgrown with shrubs, perennials, and 120 species of cactus. Toward the end of the rainy season, however, even the typically barren plains shine in lush green splendor. Navigating the second- and third-rate trails involves dodging polished sharp-edged stones, earthquake-like crevices, and washed out ruts. All of these are a constant threat to wheels, tires, and the underbody. In these conditions, and in a dedicated city slicker like this, crawling pace is the only safe way to travel.
The Q5 could not have ventured off-road without the indispensable adaptive air suspension. There are five different trim heights to choose from. Normal is 0.86-inch lower than the standard suspension offers, Dynamic reduces the ground clearance by another 0.6 inch, and Cargo drops the loading lip by 2.16 inches. Allroad (active up to 50 mph) pumps up the body by almost an inch, while Lift (up to 20 mph) puts an even more substantial 1.77 inches between floorpan and pavement. In addition, the system acts as a self-leveling device, dynamic anti-roll bar, and an anti-squat and anti-dive feature. Even in combination with the S-Line sports pack and a set of low-profile tires, air damping improves the low-speed ride quality. It also softens the response to sharp edges while ensuring a flatter cornering stance at speed. At the same time, the brand-new five-link aluminum rear axle beefs up the roadholding limit and cements the directional stability.
Inside the cockpit, the electronic evolution ranges from an upgraded head-up display over the dual-mode virtual cockpit instrumentation to MMI “all-in-touch,” which is Audispeak for improved voice control, touchpad operation, and free-text search. Ergonomically, the Q5 is a mix of Q7 and A4/A5 elements designed for intuitive access. Connectivity highlights include a WLAN hot spot, online-media streaming, and Apple Car Play/Android Auto.
There is no button to permanently engage four-wheel drive, no sport differential acting as on-demand torque distributor, and no extra-tall first gear for those slo-mo rock climbs. As I tiptoe over the sharp stones and stay far enough away from the crumbling edges of potential drama, the car finds its own way through the dips. I leave the gearbox in first from beginning to end, which means scrambling occasionally for traction and with too many revs for precise throttle modulation. Exceeding 15 mph feels like a big step towards disaster. On steep downhill sections, one stab at the control button freezes the speed in the 3-to-20-mph bracket. This is a hold-your-breath adventure and a thoroughly impressive performance by the new Audi Q5.
On the way back to Los Cabos, I focus on the new electrically assisted power steering. Not too long ago, these devices were a vague and artificial no go. But now that even Porsche has switched to the chip-controlled methodology, the feel-good factor is improved dramatically. If you desire, Audi will fit the more sophisticated dynamic steering, which varies rate and effort in relation to speed and steering angle. At the adhesion limit, the helm will self-adjust your line to enhance active safety and vehicle dynamics. But like the sport differential, I would not select this option without testing the trick steering some more.
How about more power and fewer emissions? Audi has earmarked the brawny SQ5 for next year, featuring a 350-horsepower V-6 diesel for Europe and a 340-horsepower gasoline unit for the U.S. As a top of the line offering, we should eventually see a 450-horsepower Q5 RS powered by a twin-turbo 2.9-liter V-6.
Still unconfirmed is the plug-in hybrid boasting the familiar 252-hp 2.0-liter four supported by a punchy electric power pack. Since the all-electric 2018 e-tron, known formerly as the Q6, is based loosely on the Q5, there is probably not enough room for a smaller crossover battery-electric vehicle. According to the Ingolstadt grapevine, the same components set will yield ESS, short for Electric Super Saloon, which effectively looks like a Q6 coupe. Also on the cards, reportedly only for China, is a long-wheelbase Q5. Prices? Virtually unchanged, unless you succumb to the extended option list’s temptations.
2018 Audi Q5 Specifications
|On Sale:||Spring 2017|
|Price:||Price: $42,000 (est)|
|Engine:||2.0L turbocharged DOHC 16-valve I-4/248 hp @ 5,000 rpm, 273 lb-ft @ 1,600 rpm
3.0L turbo-diesel DOHC 24-valve V-6/282 hp @ 3,750 rpm, 457 lb-ft @ 1,500 rpm
|Transmission:||7-speed dual-clutch auto (I-4), 8-speed automatic (V-6)|
|Layout:||4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, AWD SUV|
|L x W x H:||183.5 x 74.4 x 65.4 in|
|Weight:||4,000 – 4,200 lb (est)|
|Top Speed:||130 mph (est)|