A prime example of this is the Audi S4/S5 line. In America, we can have the supercharged twins in two-door coupe, four-door sedan, and cabriolet body styles. Meanwhile, our Euroland cousins get the same trio of bodystyles, as well as the A5/S5 Sportback, a characterful 'four-door coupe,' and a versatile hauler, the S4 Avant. At first glance, Audi of America lacks a vehicle that can compete with the latter's blend of performance, versatility and subdued looks. So, what's an American with around $60,000 and an obsession with quick, conservative haulers to do? Well, he can buy an SQ5. (Though it bears mentioning, our US-spec SQ5 is vastly different than what's available to our European friends.)
The SQ5 has a huge number of things going for it that make it a viable alternative to a proper hot wagon, and foremost among them are its looks – this is a sleeper. Audi has thankfully decided not to molest the clean looks of the standard Q5 when penning the sportier model.
The SQ5 gains a unique set of wheels: 20-inchers are standard, but our tester was fitted with a set of 21-inch rollers. Visually, neither make a huge departure from the standard Q5 though. Other standard features of Audi's S models are also found on the SQ5, including a set of quad exhausts, silver mirror caps and mildly different front grille and foglight surrounds. If anything, the Q5 TDI diesel I tested late last year looks sportier than today's tester.
It's a similar story of minor but purposeful changes in the cabin. Audi has ditched the Q5's standard steering wheel and slotted in the excellent, flat-bottomed unit found in other S models, which in this case is flanked by a set of high-quality "alu-optic" paddles. Upgraded leather seats complement the new wheel, while my SQ5 offered the Carbon Atlas interior trim (a $500 option). Outside of the S-specific changes, this is the same cabin I've enjoyed in other Q5s, with fresh, attractive materials and excellent fit and finish.
Audi has decided not to molest the clean looks of the standard Q5 when penning the sportier model.
The SQ5's interior updates are targeted specifically at the driving enthusiast, so it should come as no shock that the cabin is an excellent place to spend time. The seats are wide and comfortable, yet they aren't even remotely short on support. The 12-way power seats offer a wide range of adjustability that is supplemented by a leg extension (heat on these chairs is standard, while ventilation is optional). Combined with tilt and telescoping functions for the sport wheel, there's no reason that even the most oddly proportioned driver won't be able to arrange their seating position just so. Meanwhile, the ample paddles fall nicely to hand, as do the rest of the cabin's various buttons and knobs. It isn't a bad interior for the folks in second class, either, as Audi offers standard reclining seats in back, which pair well with the plentiful rear legroom (37.5 inches, more than a BMW X3).
The overarching influencer of the SQ5's drive experience is Audi Drive Select, the German brand's name for its all-encompassing electronics that manage throttle mapping, shift points, engine sound and steering effort. There are three global settings – Comfort, Auto (Normal) and Dynamic – which run the gamut of these adjustable systems. There's also an Individual mode, in which the driver can select his or her preferences for the CUV's systems (e.g. engine and steering in Dynamic, noise in Auto and transmission in Comfort). I greatly prefer this approach to global Sport and Comfort modes, as it really allows the driver to tailor the various systems to create a just-right driving experience.
So, the SQ5 is a match for the S4 Avant in terms of its exterior styling, interior function and custom-fit for drivers. That wouldn't mean much were it not also a match for the longroof's performance. Under the SQ5's hood sits the same 3.0-liter, supercharged V6 that's on duty in the S4 and S5. In this guise, however, it's more powerful, producing 354 horsepower and 347 pound-feet of torque versus the sedan and coupe's 333 ponies and 325 lb-ft. The extra power doesn't fully make up for the SQ5's 4,409-pound curb weight (551 pounds more than the S4), but this is still a riot in terms of outright quickness.
The SQ5 is a match for the S4 Avant in terms of its exterior styling, interior function and custom-fit for drivers.
It's not only the power on offer that's so seductive, it's also the quickness with which this engine revs. Particularly in first gear, the SQ5 comes with a sense of urgency that is shocking at first, and becomes exhilarating with subsequent drives. The sharpness of the throttle is dependent on how the Audi Drive Select system is set, yet to its credit, it avoids dead spots or sluggishness in all three settings. Power is robust throughout the rev range, delivering a particular punch in the middle of the tach without feeling out of breath as the 6,800-rpm redline approaches. 60 miles per hour arrives in a manufacturer-estimated 5.1 seconds, but I thought it felt quicker from behind the wheel.
This sensation may be down to the evocative sound coming out of the SQ5's four exhaust pipes rather than actual performance. If Audi could bottle and sell the sound of this 3.0-liter, supercharged six-pot, I'd buy it by the case. It's rorty and buzzy (in a good way) at first, and it builds into a potent, smooth V6 scream. Keep the radio volume low and leave the Audi Drive Select system's engine noise setting in Dynamic, and not only can you better hear the boisterous exhaust, you can even hear the supercharger working its magic.
Adding to the experiences provided by the engine's performance and sound are the effects of the SQ5's eight-speed Tiptronic gearbox. I'll admit that I was initially disappointed to learn that Audi hadn't fitted the seven-speed, S-Tronic dual-clutch found in the S4 and S5, but as it turns out, the automatic seen here is a gem.
If Audi could bottle and sell the sound of this 3.0-liter, supercharged six-pot, I'd buy it by the case.
Upshifts are quick, almost dual-clutch-like, and at wide-open throttle the first few gear changes are accompanied by a satisfying burp from the quad tips. Downshifts are similarly rapid, and the 8AT will happily drop multiple gears at a time. Truth be told, if given a Pepsi Challenge between the S-Tronic and the Tiptronic, it'd be difficult to distinguish the two. Perhaps the big difference happens to be the 8AT's main weakness – in manual mode it won't hold its gears to redline. Admittedly, that's a very minor niggle, but it still bears mentioning. While the trans is just fine when left to its own devices, it's still just more fun to do it yourself, plain and simple. Auto mode is just fine, but I enjoyed relying on the paddles for more interaction.
Like the transmission, I was initially dismayed to learn that Audi opted not to fit an adaptive damping system to the SQ5, even though it's optional on the lesser Q5 TDI and 3.0T. Despite the lack of this increasingly common technology, you'll take little issue with the SQ5's five-link front suspension and multi-link rear when the road gets curvy.
This is a sharp handler, despite its crossover profile, with remarkably composed behavior through bends. It rolls progressively without feeling top-heavy or tipsy, and is almost car-like in its attitude, with plenty of feedback. This allows the driver to really push the SQ5 around the bends with a higher degree of confidence than most other vehicles in its class. Its higher center of gravity can be noticeable, though, and the SQ5 is (unsurprisingly) unable to duplicate the pinned-down handling character of the S4 or S5 (it should be noted that Audi offers a sunroof delete option, which would lower its center of gravity a smidge). That said, in terms of overall handling, it's easily one of the most agile and composed crossovers I've ever driven.
This is a sharp handler, with remarkably composed behavior through bends.
In terms of ride comfort, however, the SQ5 would benefit from the adaptive dampers available on other models in the Q5 line. Not that it's particularly uncomfortable for the intended purpose – indeed, if speed and comfort are your game, you'll be better served by the SQ5 than the stiffer S4 or S5 – but under certain conditions, you're reminded of that permanently firmer suspension.
There's too much vertical motion, though to be clear, it's not that the vehicle is porpoising down the road – the degree of movement is quite small. No, the issue is that the body seems to be constantly moving and responding to the road surface, a condition that can grow tiresome, particularly on roads that still bear the scars of winter (thanks, Michigan Department of Transportation). Perhaps the issue isn't so much one of suspension tuning, as it is wheel choice. As previously mentioned, my tester arrived wearing 21-inch wheels wrapped in 255/40R21 Dunlop Sport Maxx GT tires. They look spectacular, but so do the standard wheels, which are an inch smaller and boast a slightly taller 255/45 sidewall. Bottom line: if you're keen on comfort, save yourself the $800 and stick with the standard alloys.
These oversized wheels and tires also have an impact on the SQ5's acoustics. There is more road noise than expected, and impact sounds are a bit more noticeable, too. Wind noise, though, is hardly an issue, even at freeway speeds. The engine's lovely sound doesn't wear out its welcome, as it doesn't drone, even when the Drive Select's engine note is set to Dynamic.
There is more road noise than expected, and impact sounds are more noticeable.
Regardless of wheel size, the SQ5 benefits from thoroughly uprated brakes. The vented rotors have grown from 13.6 inches in front and 13 inches in back on the standard Q5 3.0T to 15 inches in front while retaining the 13-inch plates in back. Aesthetically, these new stoppers are highlighted by having "SQ5" emblazoned on the front calipers. It shouldn't be a shock with this kind of disc acreage, but the SQ5's brakes proved up to the challenge posed by this 4,400-pound wagon replacement, delivering confident stopping power, as well as a communicative and easy-to-modulate left pedal.
While the SQ5 generally feels solid in most areas, its electromechanical steering would prove to be a low point, as it lacks clear feedback and exhibits too little effort for the CUV's sporting character. Even when set to its heftiest mode, the steering lacked the sort of weight that one expects of a racy German vehicle, feeling particularly lifeless on center. Every piece of armor needs its chink, I guess.
Let's be honest, fuel economy is not the SQ5's raison d'etre, so its EPA estimated rating of 16 miles per gallon in the city and 23 mpg in the city isn't particularly shocking. I finished my loan out with this fast Audi sitting nearer to the city rating than the 19-mpg-combined figure, although I place all blame squarely on the ear-pleasing exhaust and lickety-split transmission, not on my over-exuberant right foot.
Of course, I'm attempting to justify the SQ5 based on its similarity to the not-for-US S4 Avant. Part of that means looking at the wagon's biggest selling point – its cargo space. According to the EPA, the SQ5 comes with 29.1 cubic feet of cargo volume, which can be expanded to 57.3 cubic feet by folding the second-row seats down. Those are both big gains over the S4 Avant, which makes do with just 17.3 cubic feet with the second row up and 50.5 with the back row down. Also factor in the large aperture and high-opening tailgate, and America's lack of an S4 Avant doesn't sting quite so badly.
The SQ5 is, in some ways, better than the wagon we yearn for an ocean away.
I've already gone over one chink in the SQ5's armor, but unfortunately, there's a second: it ain't cheap. Prices start at $52,700. To get an SQ5 like the one seen here, though, will run you $60,750. Of course, that adds Monsoon Gray paint ($500), a $3,400 Navigation package (including Audi's excellent MMI infotainment system and rearview camera), Nappa leather upholstery ($1,500), a 14-speaker Bang and Olufsen stereo ($850), 21-inch wheels ($800), the aforementioned Carbon Atlas interior ($500) and blind-spot monitoring (also $500). Or, you could just pick up the $60,200 Prestige trim, and add the B&O stereo, navigation system, blind-spot monitoring and a smattering of lesser extras free of charge. That may be the better option, overall, as the $1,500 Nappa leather, $800 21-inch wheels and $500 carbon-fiber trim are really take-it-or-leave-it options.
Regardless of how you build your own SQ5, the resulting vehicle is in some ways better than the wagon we yearn for an ocean away. Sure, it's a tiny bit slower and less maneuverable, but it's more comfortable, too, and boasts a noticeable improvement in versatility. And if anything, it does its job as a sleeper even better than the S4 Avant. No one, and I mean no one, will expect this Audi to scamper away from a red light or confidently carry speed through a bend as well as it can. Yet it will do just that, all while providing the kind of comfort and class that's expected from the Q5 range. That makes it, if anything, a better all-around vehicle to own and live with than its five-door cousin from the Old World. So be happy, America. For once, we've got it as good as Europe.