We think it's normal to feel some trepidation when driving an SUV outside the United States, even a compact crossover like the 2009 Audi Q5. Utility vehicles don't get any kind of special treatment here in Valencia, Spain, and once you stray from the main motorways, the roads get narrow and drivers in subcompacts get fearless. Yet even as we're squeezing the Q5 between medieval buildings with tiny Renaults underfoot, we're relaxed, because Audi's new SUV is the right size.
Probably you're not surprised to hear this, as the 2009 Audi Q5 is built in Ingolstadt, Germany, from the same unibody platform architecture as the 2009 Audi A4. Both ride on a 110.6-inch wheelbase, and the Q5 is actually 3 inches shorter than the A4 sedan at 182.2 inches. Audi's compact SUV is 3 inches wider, however, at 74.8 inches from shoulder to shoulder.
Overall, the 2009 Audi Q5 feels a lot like the A4, albeit one that sits 7.8 inches off the ground. This is a space-efficient approach to SUV design, and it makes sense given that the U.S. is not the No. 1 market for the Audi Q5. Of course, we'll take a significant 28 percent chunk from overall production when the Q5 goes on sale here in March 2009, but Western European drivers are expected to buy up 38 percent of the annual run.
Full-on Luxury in a Compact SUV Plenty of competition awaits the 2009 Audi Q5, and as you'd expect, its exterior proportions nearly match those of the BMW X3, Infiniti EX35, Land Rover LR2 and the upcoming Mercedes-Benz GLK and Volvo XC60. Audi also names the Lexus RX 350 — the progenitor of the not-too-large luxury crossover SUV breed — as a likely rival, but the midsize RX is a few inches longer than the others.
The Bimmer and the Benz are the ones that matter most to Audi, though, and the dedication of the Ingolstadt designers to this rivalry is evident from the moment you open the driver door. The cheaper materials you typically see in this class are absent in the Q5, which has the same top-quality plastics, vinyls, leather and wood as the A4. The control layout is identical, too, and the only appreciable difference is the ability to outfit the Q5 with a panoramic sunroof.
Even without the extra-large skylight, the 2009 Audi Q5 manages to feel roomy whether you're seated in the front or rear. The rear seats recline, and Audi says fore/aft adjustment will be available, too. We catch a ride in a German-spec Q5, and there's ample space and comfort for all 70 inches and 150 pounds of us. We probably wouldn't say this about the X3 and certainly not the EX35.
Although the Q5's luggage capacity of 19 cubic feet doesn't seem like much compared to the 30 cubes of the BMW X3, the cargo bay feels roomier than that. With luck, the sturdy adjustable cargo tracks in the Euro-spec model will show up in the U.S. version.
Folding down the 60/40-split rear seats yields 55 cubic feet — 5 more than the '09 A4 Avant but 16 fewer than the Bimmer. A fold-flat front passenger seat will be optional.
Lots of Drivetrains, but Only One for Us Europeans will also see a long list of optional drivetrains for the 2009 Audi Q5. The base combination is Audi's 2.0-liter diesel four-cylinder (2.0 TDI) paired with a six-speed manual transmission. The next step up is a turbocharged, direct-injection 2.0-liter four-cylinder (2.0T), followed by a direct-injection 3.2-liter gasoline V6 and a 3.0-liter diesel V6 (3.0 TDI). Audi's new seven-speed, dual-clutch S tronic transmission is standard for the 2.0T and both V6s.
In contrast, our Q5 will come only with the 3.2-liter FSI V6, rated at 270 horsepower and 243 pound-feet of torque, and it will have a conventional six-speed Tiptronic automatic transmission. As in Europe, though, this automatic will drive all four wheels through the all-wheel drive. The center differential is located right behind the engine, and ordinarily it apportions 40 percent of available torque to the front wheels.
After driving both a Q5 3.2 and a Q5 3.0 TDI with the S tronic gearbox, we're feeling a little wistful. In contrast to most automated manual gearboxes, S tronic really does approach automatic-transmission levels of smoothness, and we putter along in Valencia's beach traffic without unduly irritating our passengers.
What really makes S tronic worthwhile, though, is its rapid response under full throttle, especially when you use the steering wheel paddle shifters. When the S tronic brain determines that you're driving with some commitment, it serves up rev-matched downshifts. Unfortunately, Audi is concerned that you might complain about rough shift quality with the S tronic.
A Capable V6 Most people will be content with the 3.2-liter V6's torque, as there's enough here to accommodate most driving situations. Still, this V6 lacks the low- and midrange punch of the Infiniti EX35's 3.5-liter V6, and as a result, the Q5 comes across as a bit less athletic.
In a utopian America untroubled by smog and high diesel prices, we'd prefer the 3.0 TDI, which offers 236 hp and 369 lb-ft of torque. It moves the Q5 around with more muscle while offering acceptable refinement for a diesel.
Audi expects the U.S.-spec Q5 3.2 with the six-speed automatic to hit 60 mph in 6.8 seconds. The Audi Q5 3.2 S tronic carries a 6.8-second 0-100 km/h (0-62 mph) time, so it might have a tenth-of-a-second advantage. If we were allowed to have the 3.0 TDI, it would hit the mark in 6.5 seconds. We've timed the EX35 at 6.3 seconds, and the X3 is far behind at 7.2. Audi's internal tests suggest the U.S.-spec 2009 Q5 will return about 17 mpg in the city and 24 on the highway.
Handles Well, but Don't Get the 20s Keeping weight down in sport-utility vehicles is always a challenge, and no company knows this better than Audi, builder of the 5,400-pound Q7. However, we expect the 2009 Audi Q5 to come in about 1,000 pounds lighter than the full-size Q. In service of this goal, the company has used aluminum for the suspension links, reducing unsprung weight. The Q5 uses the same five-link front suspension design as the A4, while its multilink rear is shared with the A6 and A8 sedans.
Around turns, the Q5 feels balanced and secure, even if doesn't quite replicate the sport sedan feel of the EX35 and X3. The steering is precise, but as on the A4, the variable-ratio rack feels a little artificial in its weighting and feedback.
Audi will offer a selection of 18-, 19- and 20-inch wheels on the 2009 Audi Q5, and after experiencing a Q5 with both 235/45R20 Dunlop SP Sport Maxx GT tires and 235/55R19 Bridgestone Dueler H/T tires, we'd caution against getting the 20s. Even when we put the adaptive suspension in Comfort mode using the Audi Drive Select (ADS) interface that's part of the optional Multi Media Interface (MMI), the ride is simply too stiff, especially for those in the backseat. The 19s allow for much more compliance.
Audi's Balanced Approach Although we might prefer to drive a 2009 Audi Q5 with an S tronic transmission, a torquey diesel engine and more alert steering, the compromise that Audi has worked out here just might be the best one in the small luxury crossover SUV class.
The Q5 looks and feels more luxurious than either the X3 or the GLK, and it's simply more practical than the EX35. In addition, Filip Brabec, Audi USA's general manager of product planning, tells us the Q5 will offer "usual Audi pricing" in this segment, meaning this luxury crossover will likely come in a bit less expensive than its German rivals.
Premium-brand manufacturers are just beginning to figure out the way to build compact luxury utility vehicles that Americans actually want to drive. The 2009 Audi Q5 is perhaps the first small luxury SUV we've driven that feels like a complete package. It's pleasant to drive, capable of carrying four adult passengers, and almost everything about it feels upscale enough to justify what you'll pay for it.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.
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