There are large, comfy SUVs that are made to haul large families to idyllic picnics in the countryside. You can just see them parked under a tree while sunbeams shine down, birds sing and an angel plays a harp.
On the other side of the valley, where snow falls, thunder booms and all hell breaks loose, the Audi Q5 is quite at home cruising down the road, thank you very much. I got to test a 2010 Q5 during a snowy, wet, nasty week, and I found it equal to the task. It has its shortcomings — it’s not an SUV for large families, and I wonder about an inconsistent feeling you get from Q5’s steering — but it’s also very enjoyable.
So, yeah, this is not the car for you if you’re the Waltons, but families aren’t the only people who buy cars.
The high point of the Q5 is its drivetrain. The spec sheet tells you there’s a 3.2-liter V-6 with direct fuel injection under the hood, making 270 horsepower and 243 pounds-feet of torque, hooked up to a six-speed automatic transmission. But numbers don’t tell the story.
What’s important is that when you press the gas, you get a nice, immediate response, in which I have to think the engine’s direct injection has to play a role. It doesn’t matter if you’re pulling away from a light or passing at highway speeds; the power is there. That’s usually the result of a good engine/transmission marriage, in which both complement each other, and the Q5 really gets it right.
The Q5 is the only SUV I’ve driven lately that’s surprised me with the power on hand in every situation; I kept thinking, “This is going to be the car that gets me a speeding ticket.” That’s not to say it’s a drag-racer, but I’d put it near the top of its segment in terms of acceleration, along with competitors like the Infiniti EX35 and Mercedes-Benz GLK350.
The steering isn’t at the top of the class, however. It shares a trait I’ve noticed in many all-wheel-drive luxury vehicles: inconsistent feedback, especially when driving around parking lots. It feels like the front wheels don’t want to turn, and then it feels like they want to turn too much. It’s most noticeable when driving around parking lots or making tight turns from a stop; it’s less noticeable at higher speeds. Our test car didn’t even have the optional Audi Drive Select system, which adds a variable-ratio steering system that may exacerbate these tendencies.
The ride and handling deserve a mention, as they’re quite good. The Q5 manages to isolate you from bumps, yet still be firm in turns and on highway on-ramps. It makes you feel comfortable when driving fast. Some cars don’t manage to strike that handling/ride balance just right, but with the Q5, Audi does.
The Q5 felt planted — in a good way — in a couple of inches of wet, sloppy snow; in general it seemed to get on well with the bad conditions. Some SUVs feel like they sort of float across snow, and while that’s not necessarily a bad thing, the Q5 felt more like it was clawing through the snow, and I liked that. It should be noted, however, that all of my snow driving was done at slower speeds, tooling around the city — not on the highway.
The Q5 is a mixed bag in this department. The cargo area is a nice size, and I don’t see it shirking from any trips to the grocery store. With the rear seats folded, the SUV should be able to handle the odd trip to the hardware store (or, I don’t know, a triathlon). The rear floor’s load height wasn’t too high for me, but shorter folks may want to try it out for themselves. The button to close the rear hatch is mounted in the hatch itself, so it will be a stretch for some people to hit, but they can just use the fob. Either way, to my mind, the best systems mount the power-close button down in the cargo area.
Where the Q5 really comes up short, though, is in second-row room. With the driver’s seat in position for me, I simply could not fit comfortably in the second row. My legs were jammed into the front seat, and headroom was very tight. That could be because of the optional panoramic sunroof, but that wouldn’t explain why my legs were so jammed up. I’m about 6-foot-1, but most of my height is in my torso, so things really shouldn’t have been so bad back there. If you’re 5-foot-8 but have long legs, you’ll also likely feel jammed. If you plan on taking more than yourself and one passenger in the Q5, you really need to check out that second row.
Another thing to check out is the noise level in the cabin. The Q5 did a good job blocking out ambient noise, such as idling buses and other big-city din, but you’ll hear the tires rolling down the road. That doesn’t bother me — I think cars isolate people from the road too much these days — but you might disagree. Also, our test model came with roof-rack crossbars, so there was a fair amount of wind noise at highway speeds. Removing the crossbars could cut down on wind noise, but it still might be too loud for your liking.
The driver’s seat in the Q5 is quite comfortable; it’s firm enough to offer support, but it has enough give to not beat you up. The optional heated front seats offered a wide range of heat settings (as opposed to just high or low), which is a nice touch.
The 2010 Q5 is only available in one trim level, but you get the choice of several option packages. Ours came with two, the Premium Plus and MMI Navigation Plus packages, and each offered its share of niceties.
Navigation Plus gives you (duh) a navigation system. Now, I don’t normally get all excited about a navigation system’s graphics, because I tend to rely on the audible commands to get where I’m going. But I have to say that Audi’s system is the coolest-looking one I’ve seen yet. Nearly all the buildings in Chicago’s skyline were represented, and the street labels were easy to read, too. Is this really important? Maybe not, but some cars are just cool — and this feature is cool.
Parking sensors are also part of the navigation package, and the sensors are set low in the bumper. This is a good thing, as it helps you avoid piled-up snow and curbs. Something I absolutely loved was that when I turned on the parking sensors, the radio volume was muted. It’s nice that the system eliminates a distraction right when I want it eliminated. (Now, if only they made a similar feature for my desk so I could mute the inconsiderate people who hold loud meetings across the hall from me …)
The Premium Plus Package includes things like a power tailgate, heated front seats and LED daytime running lights — all of which are neat, but the highlight is the panoramic sunroof. There are a lot of “panoramic” sunroofs on the market these days, but what makes Audi’s noteworthy is that it extends all the way from the front to the back of the car. Some panoramic roofs aren’t as large, but I had the impression that the Q5’s entire roof was glass. If I’m going to shell out money for a sunroof, this is what I want.
The Q5 gets an estimated 18/23 mpg city/highway. As it was introduced for the 2009 model year, there isn’t sufficient data for the Q5 to have reliability ratings yet, but Audi offers a 48-month/50,000-mile warranty that’s competitive with Mercedes-Benz and Lexus. BMW throws in free maintenance for the length of the warranty. The Q5 received the highest score, Good, in both frontal offset and side-impact crash tests by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Q5 models with power seats also received a Good rating for rear crash tests. It has not yet been subjected to IIHS’ roof-strength tests.
As the Q5 is so new, changes between 2009 models and the 2010 we tested aren’t major, but you can check them out for yourself here.
The Q5’s price is something to keep in mind. Our test model, with options, came in at $45,700, and the base Q5 costs about $37,000. That’s more than a base Acura RDX and roughly the same as a larger Lexus RX 350. There’s also the lack of reliability data to keep in mind. That’s not to say the Q5 will be unreliable — it’s just that we don’t know.
How well the Q5 stacks up in the market depends on what market you’re in. If you’ve got a large family — in terms of numbers or height — the Q5’s second row will come up short, which cuts it from the “established family” arena. (If you have urchins who are still strapped into child-safety seats, you might be able to scoot by with the Q5 for a while.) Also, if you’re on a tight budget, this isn’t the SUV for you. As far as I’m concerned, though, compact luxury SUVs aren’t aimed at “established families” — that’s what larger SUVs are for. And “luxury” negates “budget” in my book as well.
The Q5 seems to be aimed at couples or singles who want to be able to pick up their friends at the airport, go to a hardware store, feel secure driving in snow, and maybe go a bit fast now and again. In this realm, the Q5 does very well. If I had the money and were in the market for a compact luxury SUV, I’d at least scrape out an afternoon to test-drive one.