It may have lagged four years behind the BMW X3, but it's about five years better.
The sports sedans of German automakers such as Mercedes-Benz and BMW have slugged it out toe-to-toe for decades. But duking it out in the small-SUV arena is a newer phenomenon. Since the launch of the 3-series–based BMW X3 in 2004, both Audi and Mercedes have strangely declined to counterpunch, until now.
Showing up fashionably late to the so-called compact-luxury sport-utility segment means that Mercedes and Audi face already established competition from the Acura RDX, Infiniti EX35, and Land Rover LR2, not to mention BMW’s tidily sized X3. But it also means that the late-arriving Q5 is formed from Audi’s newest architecture, which also underpins the latest A4 sedan as well as the A5 and S5 coupes.
In fact, the A4 and the Q5’s relationship is close enough that they have a common wheelbase, chassis design, all-wheel-drive system, and 265-hp V-6 engine. Sharing these pieces is a very good thing because the Q5 retains much of the sports-sedan feel, solidity, and quiet refinement of the A4; it just happens to have a tall roof and a higher center of gravity.
Optional equipment includes Audi Drive Select (ADS), which gives the driver adjustable shocks and transmission settings, as well as variable-ratio steering that works transparently to give the Q5 quick steering at lower speeds and relatively lazy steering once on the highway. Ride quality even without the adjustable suspension is a superb compromise between comfort and body control. Although the option is expected to cost a whopping $3000, ADS, especially with the variable-ratio steering feature, gives the Q5 a deftness and carlike feel that is largely missing in other small SUVs.
Also missing in competing camps is the Q5’s designer sheetmetal. Sculpted in-house by Audi, the Q5 has elements of the A4 as well as the A3. The exterior design is muscular, free of froufrou, and when the vehicle is equipped with the optional 20-inch wheels, it’s remarkably sporty for something 65.1 inches tall. Inside, the Q5 again shows it is essentially an A4, as the dashboard and instruments are nearly identical. Between the front seats is Audi’s third-generation MMI multifunction controller, which works much like the current version. Navigation-equipped models no longer use DVD-based maps and directions. In the place of the DVD-based system is a 40-gigabyte hard drive that has enough space to store navigation information and more than 1000 MP3 music files.
Passenger space is on par with that of the A4. We wish the front seats would tilt rearward a bit more and offer more thigh support, but the driving position is still commendable. Back-seat occupants will find a split folding bench that moves forward or backward to increase legroom; there is also a reclining backrest.
But one piece has gone missing: the A4’s fuel-efficient 211-hp, 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine that makes more torque than the V-6 does. We were able to sample a Q5 with the 2.0-liter (that engine is, of course, available in Europe), and subjectively it felt every bit as quick as the V-6—Audi claims 0-to-62-mph times of 6.7 seconds for the V-6 and 7.2 seconds for the four. The smaller engine may be offered sometime in 2010. Meanwhile, the 3.2-liter Q5 goes on sale in March at an expected starting price of about $38,000.