The most astonishing thing about my time in the 2009 Audi Q5 was that I actually took it off road, with dirt and everything. Granted, I was in the Brentwood neighborhood of West Los Angeles, where the creeks burble with Bollinger and raccoons wear rhinestone collars. Nonetheless, for most buyers in the compact luxury sport-utility segment, my little excursion on a home construction site might as well have been crossing the Gobi.
You know these vehicles. Indeed, you cannot swing a rhinestone-wearing raccoon on the Westside without hitting one: Acura RDX, BMW X3, Infiniti EX35, Land Rover LR2, Lexus RX350, Mercedes-Benz GLK350, Volvo XC60. Let's be clear about the psychology of these preppy, princessy soft-roaders.
Generally speaking, the buyers of these vehicles are not price constrained. They are guilt constrained. They want a luxury SUV -- powerful, sumptuous, swimming in privilege -- but they themselves are appalled at the overage of tonnage in vehicles such as the Mercedes-Benz M-class, BMW X5 or Land Rover LR3, the latter of which looks as if it should be throwing out its hawsers next to the Queen Mary.
Having gazed into the abyss of their own automotive vanity, buyers blink and opt for SUVs that are smaller and more appropriately sized, quasi-crossovers whose fuel economy is at least defensible if not commendable. I'm not saying that plopping down 40 grand on one of these leather-lined trucklets makes you Aldo Leopold, but at least these buyers have some kind of conscience. In the weird morality of American consumerism, they are practically plaster saints.
Until now, Audi had nothing to offer buyers who backed away from the Q7 plus-sized SUV, which could never be surgeon general. The new Q5 ($37,200 with Premium package) brings the luxe and the supper-club swank of the Q7 to the more petite platform.
The Q5 shares a chassis and greasy bits with the A4 sedan/wagon: direct-injection 3.2-liter, 270-horsepower V-6; a six-speed automatic with manual-shift mode (Tiptronic); and Audi's proprietary all-wheel drive system, branded as Quattro. All of this is honeyed with the eerie lack of stiction and micro-machined smoothness that is now typical of Audi powertrains.
You can appreciate these cars on many levels, but for me, a shade-tree mechanic, Audi's dazzling, aerospace-like fusion of electronics and metallurgy makes me want to throw my toolbox into a lake.
The A4's interior fitments -- switches, instruments and readouts -- have been transplanted wholesale into the Q5 and wrapped in leather stitched tighter than Barry Manilow's face. Likewise, the cockpit exhibits the same degree of agonized-over craftsmanship as the sedan's. There are none of those cost-saving plugs that cover exposed screws, no gaps between interior panels.
The Q5 launches with Audi's latest version of its multimedia navigation system, called MMI -- which, among other upgrades, incorporates real-language functions. You can simply announce to the car "I'm hungry," for instance, and the Sirius satellite navigation will set to work to offer nearby dining suggestions. It's only a matter of time before these systems can analyze a driver's breath to see which nutrients he or she is lacking and offer appropriate meal recommendations. I sincerely hope it's the breath, anyway.
The cabin, limned in pencil-thin chrome and walnut, is a lovely, well-constructed space. The rear 60/40 bench seat reclines, slides fore and aft and folds down to enlarge the cargo area. There are releases built into the rear cargo bulkheads to flip forward the seat backs -- handy when you're loading big objects. The center ski pass-through port is large enough for snowboards. The downside of the rear seats is that they are firm, bordering on cruel, and flat.
While I'm on the matter of ergonomics: Twice I accidentally bumped the headlamp switch with my knee as I got out of the Q5, leaving the exotic-looking LED lights on.
As for looks, because they are diminutive versions of a butch shape (SUVs), compact luxury SUVs -- crossovers, if you like -- tend to read as effeminate and cute. Attempts to make them look more masculine can go badly. The Mercedes GLK, for instance, looks like a chain saw sculpture from somebody's summer camp art class. And yet the Q5 manages nicely. Buff, toned and well proportioned, the Q5 is visually nothing so much as life support for its enormous trapezoidal grille, which looks especially cool with the horizontal chrome stripes in the blanking plate (where the European license plate would go.)
It helps that the Q5 is wider than anything in its class save the Land Rover LR2, with the longest wheelbase in class (110.5 inches). So the thing's got a halfback stance, if not a lot of ground clearance.
On the road, the Q5 drives exactly like the excellent A4 with the slightest bit of a hangover. Still quick (6.7 seconds to 60 mph, with 243 pound-feet of torque twisting the shafts), still eager to break 100 mph and still keenly athletic and agile in cornering and under braking.
But the Q5 does shed some degree of the A4's manageability and handling confidence on account of its height. The car comes with Drive Select, a system that enables drivers to incrementally raise the aggressiveness of the steering, transmission and the suspension systems. If you put the system on the highest setting -- Dynamic -- and go all Naomi Campbell on a canyon road, you'll find the Q5 is seriously sporty. Not Subaru Impreza WRX sporty, but definitely respectable.
One other feature of note: The Q5 has the highest towing rating in this class, 4,400 pounds. In case you buy Jacko's hyperbaric chamber at a yard sale.
If compact luxury SUVs are a bit of retreat for conscience-plagued buyers, don't fret for them. They aren't suffering. Automakers offer plenty of luxury up-sells in this segment. My test car started at $37,200 but with the $9,000 Prestige package -- panoramic sunroof, power tailgate, Bang & Olufsen audio, rearview parking camera, etc. -- and some other goodies, our test car came to a stunning $52,475.
No wonder people don't want to take these things off road. They might get dirty.