Our drive program had us taking the SQ5 from Durango, CO to the city of Gateway, before heading to Grand Junction the next morning. There's nothing like spending five hours strapped into a seat, traversing hill and mountain, to truly test a vehicle's comfort and driving dynamics. From the first touch of the SQ5's push-button starter, we knew this was no ordinary Q5. As the engine came to life with a deep burble and raspy pops, and we spent the rest of the day trying to come to terms with the fact that not everything needs a diesel. Wait. What?!
The first order of business in creating the US-spec SQ5 was to add more power under the hood courtesy of the same supercharged 3.0-liter V6 used in the S4/S5. The SQ5, however, gets an upgraded crankshaft and a stiffened block allowing the engine to produce 354 horsepower and 347 pound-feet of torque. While that's a far cry from the 479 lb-ft of torque available in the SQ5 TDI, this power output represents an increase of 82 hp and 52 lb-ft over the Q5 3.0T model, and even a gain of 21 hp and 22 lb-ft over the S4 and S5.
Along with the engine mods, the SQ5 also gets an entirely new exhaust system from the manifold to the quad outlets with butterfly valves, all of which helps the engine breathe better and belt out its inspiring exhaust note.
Audi engineers tweaked the Q5's eight-speed Tiptronic transmission to give it a sportier DCT feel.
Between the exhaust pops and the quick shifts, more than one person during the day asked if the SQ5 had a dual-clutch transmission. That misdirection was understandable, as Audi engineers tweaked the Q5's eight-speed Tiptronic transmission to give it a sportier DCT feel in this application. In the transmission's normal driving mode, the SQ5 is a docile vehicle without jerky shifts or too much cabin noise, but drop the shifter down into Sport mode (or pull on the shift paddles) and the whole attitude of this crossover changes.
We'd love to complain about missing out on a diesel-powered SQ5 here in the States, but the truth of the matter is that this engine is plenty strong – even while driving at elevations surpassing 12,000 feet. Despite tipping the scales at 4,409 pounds – a curb weight that is around 400 pounds heavier than the base model but lighter than the standard diesel-powered TDI model in the US – Audi says the SQ5 can accelerate from 0-60 in just 5.1 seconds and hit a top speed of 155 miles per hour. Even better for us, this engine had enough midrange power to make an easy task of getting around slower traffic in the surprisingly short passing zones of the winding mountain roads on which we were driving. Even with the added power, the SQ5 doesn't pay too much of a penalty at the pump with fuel economy estimates of 16 miles per gallon in the city and 23 mpg on the highway compared to 18 mpg city and 26 mpg highway for the standard Q5 3.0T.
Audi says the SQ5 can accelerate from 0-60 in just 5.1 seconds and hit a top speed of 155 mph.
After massaging the powertrain, Audi also went to work stiffening up the suspension for the SQ5. For the most part our SQ5 uses the same setup as its Euro, diesel-powered counterpart, with stiffer spring rates than the Q5. But while the SQ5 TDI has a 30-millimeter suspension drop, our version has the same ride height as all other Q5 models. This taller ride height was necessary to allow it to keep the "light truck" vehicle classification here in the US, which affects emissions credits, but it also affects handling – it was easy to tell this was no S4, especially entering a turn a little too hot. As a whole package, the stiffened suspension, bigger front brakes, instant throttle response and slightly wider track still made the SQ5 more fun to drive on some of Colorado's best roads than a crossover has a right to be.
Those road sections were joined by a handful of impromptu off-roading sections to test the SQ5's Quattro all-wheel-drive system. We encountered some mud/dirt-covered roads that had been washed out by recent rain in the area – albeit to a much less devastating degree as areas further north like Boulder.
Sadly, no changes have been made to the steering, which while not awful, left us a little disappointed. The overly light steering lacked the feedback we want from such a sport-oriented model, but at the end of the day, fuel economy and ease of everyday driving do come with some concessions. In total, we drove close to 250 miles with countless hairpin turns always greeting us with sharp drop-offs where the pavement ends, and, as a whole, the SQ5 handled itself perfectly in all conditions.
The overly light steering lacked the feedback we want from such a sport-oriented model.
Unlike other S-tuned cars in its lineup, Audi played it quite conservative when it came to the styling of the SQ5. Standard S/RS treatments like the silver mirror caps, quad exhaust outlets and horizontal slats in the grille and front air intakes were all present. For a little extra flair, the SQ5 also stands apart from lesser Q5 models with its rear fascia diffuser, Porsche-like split rear spoiler and, of course, the "SQ5" logo written on the front rotors. Finishing off our SQ5 was a stylish set of 21-inch, split-spoke wheels wrapped in summer tires as a $800 option. Surprisingly, not much was done to improve aerodynamics or change the SQ5's appearance from a standard, updated-for-2013 Q5 model. Spending time with the SQ5 also served as a reminder of the good work Audi's design team did to prevent the CUV from looking like a lifted wagon or hatchback.
Inside, changes to the SQ5 are equally minimal but are nonetheless effective at relaying the crossover's sporty intentions. They include a distinctive gauge cluster, a round shift lever knob, carbon-fiber inlays throughout the cabin, a flat-bottomed steering wheel with shift paddles and metal-finished pedals. Leather and Alcantara sport seats are standard, but this tester had dark Nappa leather seats (an $850 option) with contrasting stitching and the SQ5 logo embroidered onto the front seatbacks. The seats proved to be perfectly balanced; delivering the lateral support required for spirited driving with the comfort needed for long drives.
The goal of the SQ5 is to stand as the next rung up the ladder for owners of the S4 and S5 cars.
The 12-way adjustable front seats (with extendable thigh supports) made it easy for front occupants to get comfortable, but even with plenty of headroom and a standard panoramic roof, the rear seats felt quite confining. On more than one occasion, though, Audi reps pointed out that the true goal of the SQ5 is to stand as the next rung up the ladder for owners of the S4 and S5 cars – more specifically, men with growing families – so we'd imagine Audi is expecting the rear seat to be filled with child seats rather than adult occupants. The SQ5 is also a good grocery getter with up to 57.3 cubic feet of cargo space in total, including 29.1 cubic feet with the rear seats in place.
Targeting an internal customer is one thing, but Audi has a bigger challenge when nailing down what vehicles the SQ5 goes up against. With its focus on performance, $51,900 starting price and almost $61,000 as-tested price (and that's not even fully loaded), the SQ5 will surely be shopped against the Infiniti QX70 (the crossover formerly known as FX), Mercedes GLK350, BMW X3 and likely even the upcoming Porsche Macan, which shares its platform with the Audi Q5.
In terms of projected sales, Audi is looking for the SQ5 to account for around 10 to 15 percent of the Q5's volume. With 28,599 units sold through September, the crossover is the top-selling model in Audi's lineup so far this year. Expanding the model mix will likely help this trend continue; Q5 buyers can opt for a budget-minded 2.0T, a more powerful 3.0T, the fuel-efficient TDI and hybrid models and, now, the sport-tuned SQ5.
Audi is looking for the SQ5 to account for around 10 to 15 percent of the Q5's volume.
At the end of the day, we were a bit conflicted. There's always that nagging voice in the back of our minds shouting "needs more diesel," but the execution of this gas-powered SQ5 was enough to suppress our desire for everything oil-burning. Recalling how well Audi's first-ever S-tuned utility vehicle had just handled itself on some of the most exciting roads in the US, we have no problem trading the diesel pump for premium gas. Even as we dropped off the SQ5 at the Grand Junction airport, though – peering back at its stylish LED running lights just one last time – we get the feeling Audi isn't even close to throwing in the towel on a hotted-up diesel crossover in the US.