Photos copyright ©2009 Dan Roth / Weblogs, Inc.
Styling-wise, the Q5 is unmistakably Audi. Without carefully looking, it could be mistaken for its larger Q7 brother, if only ran through a clothes dryer. Initial inspection led your humble narrator to believe that the Q5 shares its underpinnings with Volkswagen's similarly-sized Tiguan
, when in fact, the Q5 is based on the A4/A5's Modular Longitudinal Platform. Relatively compact, the Q5's lines share the recent Audi family style, which suggests constant forward motion by playing light along the surface detailing in a raked manner; lower in front than in back, like a modern, Teutonic hot rod.
The sculpted form is subtle and controlled, not over-muscled or gratuitously flared to look like some kind of U.N. Peacekeeping vehicle. The Q5 nevertheless blends in with the noise created by America's booming two-box pseudo-truck market. It's nicely styled and clean looking, but there's only so many places the form factor can go without being overly radical. Everyone knows what a Hummer looks like, and the H1, H2 and H3 share that style. The Q5, too, looks like an Audi crossover should, it's just a much less bold outpost of the styling world.
Audi exhibits its typical restraint with brightwork, with an accent around the windows and brushed aluminum rails tracing the arc of the roofline. Wheels look like blades from some outsized food processor, with a design open enough to bare the calipers for binder-peekers. The batwing taillamps have a gestural motion to their cross-car arc, and finish the back end tidily. It looks like the lights out back hold the entire bodywork in tension, and it's just right. While the Q5 is not outlandish enough to be anything other than just another wagon in denial outside of Nordstrom, A6 drivers will give you that serious-looking nod and half-wave off the steering wheel rim when you drive by.
Even if you aren't an Audi fan, you still might have a dippy smirk on your mug when Mr. Serious A6 offers up his faint acknowledgment, simply because the Q5 manages to be a heck of a lot of fun behind the wheel. The speed-sensitive steering feels heavy until you're traveling at highway speeds, although the wheel's rim isn't the chattiest of Cathies when it comes to feedback from the tires. Audi's 3.2-liter V6 has been to its choir classes and studied the Porsche Songbook for Six Cylinders well. Using the shifter's manual gate, you can hold the V6 at full bellow and enjoy its snarly, metallic growl. Of course, there's really no need to play with the shifter. When left to its own devices, the six-speed Tiptronic transmission makes the most of the engine's 270 horsepower in a quick, precise manner. The Q5's class-average 4,200 pounds will boogie when you push the accelerator down. The fleetness is even aided and abetted by reasonable fuel economy of 17/24 – not bad for something sticking up in the air and carrying all wheel drive.
Bite the Q5 into a slice of trajectory change, though, and a mere three letters will comprise your initial impression: Wow. There's an actual, playful chassis under this thing. It'll hunker and let you adjust attitude slightly with the throttle and carve a line through your favorite backward-S curve in a way that very few vehicles of this type accomplish. Further, the athleticism underneath isn't gained in a Faustian bargain that trades away ride quality.
Bumpy pavement is not smothered by excessive syrup in the springing, but events are mere blips on the scope. Railroad tracks are felt, dealt with and gone, all within the time it takes to traverse them. The Q5 is at once taut and cushy. There's never any bump-stop pounding or nautical swell-riding – it's a rewarding mix. Add the disciplined ride to the enthusiastic cornering, and it adds up to serious entertainment for the individual lucky enough to plant his or her backside in the supremely comfortable driver's chair. Our sampler carried Audi Drive Select, a system that allows drivers to toggle the Q5's responses between "Comfort" and "Dynamic." It didn't really seem to do much – shift points moved up a bit with Dynamic selected – so rather than push another button, we just left it in "Auto" most of the time.
On the topic of button pressing: There's entirely too much of it in the Q5. Simple things have extra steps added. Just try and change the fan setting successfully on the first try. Putting multiple functions on the same set of interface hardware can be a good idea, but Audi's execution is maddeningly overthought. MMI can be inscrutable and distracting instead of returning on its promise of streamlining operation, too. There are a lot of buttons bristling on the center console, as well as Audi's habitually bad placement of the audio volume knob there, and a torpid start/stop button. Admittedly, the non-standard location of the volume knob allows the passenger easy access, and the driver's thumb has its own volume control on the steering wheel spoke. At least it all looks nice, especially the navigation screen and clean, legible gauges.
Lending an airy feel to our test car – while also increasing the weight and raising the center of gravity – was an optional panoramic glass roof covering most of the ceiling. Trying to operate the overly complex human-car interface in any modern Audi may have you picturing that roof as an escape hatch when the machines go awry. Tech is the new thing, though, especially for luxury European makes, and the Q5 is right in line, with lots of menu-driven functions an excellent integration of iPods and even twin SD card slots right on the dash. The rest of the car is joyfully straightforward. Safety subsystems are there to dazzle and delight. Audi Side Assist lights little orange telltales in the side mirrors to warn you of a motorist occupying a blind spot. Optional rear-side airbags offer more pillow when you ignore that car, too, supplementing the already comprehensive list of safety and occupant protection equipment.
Comfort is good in all seating positions, though the roofline's arc may tickle the pompadour of taller occupants. Child seats are easily mounted with well-located LATCH anchors that don't require a search party to find. Materials throughout are high quality, and everything you touch feels damped, padded or buffed to a set of careful specifications. Since it is really just a gussied-up wagon, the cargo space is important. Stroller-bound parents may have some trouble fitting today's oversized kid hardware – there's not enough width for some items to fit any way other than diagonally. Outright space is available elsewhere, though, and the Q5 has enough room in the back for the day-to-day use most owners will give it. If hauling stuff and passengers is your game, the Q5's belly is going to fill up real fast, though.
So what's the bottom line – does the Q5 have the same goodness as a transformer-balanced Class-A microphone preamp? We think it does. Good, expensive hardware always has some kind of undefinable mojo that makes the output of its efforts flat-out brilliant, and that's what the Q5 feels like. The cockpit could use some de-complication, as it's the equivalent to a piece of audio gear's front panel controls, but once you figure out the Q5's deep function set, it becomes all the more endearing. Out of the box, it's simply the best driving crossover in its class, and Audi has put it all together with its typical careful execution. For now, it's the segment's ringer if you can afford it.
Second Look: Audi Q5 3.2 Quattro
With the glut of new premium small crossovers hitting the market as of late (Volvo XC60, Mercedes-Benz GLK, Cadillac SRX etc.), this reviewer wasn't prepared to enjoy the Q5 experience as much as he actually did. While Audi sedans have consistently been at or near the top of the sports/luxury heap, its Q7 big brother didn't properly prime us to drive the baby Q. It isn't that the Q7 is awful, mind, it just doesn't feel chock full of clever engineering like the rest of its four-ringed compatriots – it's absolutely huge on the outside, less so on the inside, and only moderately entertaining to drive. So, if you've got it in your head that the Q5 is merely a Shrinky Dink'd Q7, get that out of your head right now.
As Roth correctly points out, the Q5 is easily the driver's car of the entry-level premium CUV niche, and you notice it right from the off – particularly when specced out with Audi Drive Select, whose variable ratio steering is clearly more heavily weighted than its contemporaries. ADS allows one to tweak both the quickness and the heft of the helm, but even at its lightest setting, it's simply more direct than the others we've sampled. That's not to say that it's not a bit synthetic in feel (it can add weight suddenly at low speeds) or that it's the last word in feedback, but it does a better job than similar systems and the added resistance helps one feel more in control. In fact, it adds a feeling of solidity and security to the whole vehicle, as does the rear-biased Quattro all-wheel drive.
In contrast to Roth, however, this author is significantly less critical when it comes to MMI. While the infotainment system has its ergonomic challenges, familiarity beyond a week of driving helps facilitate ease-of-use greatly, as does the voice activation capability that understands normal conversational terms. And latest generation's updated navi graphics are both fun and helpful. Most of us would just assume abandon the all-in-one ICE solution adopted by Audi and its chief German rivals, but MMI doesn't strike yours truly as any less rational a solution than BMW's iDrive or Mercedes-Benz's COMAND system.
All-in, the Q5 is a clever (if costly) tool that we can see being very easy to live with on a daily basis – both as family men and women – and as enthusiasts.
–– Chris Paukert