For Audi enthusiasts

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11 September 2012

Let’s be honest. Enthusiasts tend to loathe crossovers. It’s not that those cars spanning the gap between full-on SUV and low-slung station wagon are bad vehicles… just that their very presence (looking at you Audi Q5) are likely the reason for the endangered status of the Avant here in America. With its quick rise to #2 in sales volume status for Audi of America, you can’t deny that the Q5 isn’t better suited to American tastes… but as en enthusiast I’d always thought I’d opt for an S4 Avant over a Q5. It is with that mentality and knowledge of the preference of our most ardent readers that I boarded a plane to Germany this summer in order to test Audi’s new and improved Q5 range.

To be forthright, nearly every form of Q5 that might grab an American’s attention was on hand for the sampling. There was limited time to try them all, so we focused on them in order of pertinence and interest. To cut to the chase, we did drive the SQ5 and will be reporting on that very soon, but we found the 3.0 TFSI to be the most profound given its imminent launch status in the States and our heavily American reader base.

Fortunately for comparison’s sake, each 3.0 TFSI at the launch was built in S-line format. There is no SQ5 locked in for America yet, but with nearly identical bodywork and a de-tuned version of the same engine found in the S4 and S5, the Q5 3.0 TFSI S-line isn’t exactly a consolation.

We actually drove the Q5 3.0 TFSI S-line back-to-back with the SQ5. While we’ll be running a full write-up on the SQ5 shortly, we will use it briefly as a reference to the 3.0 TFSI S-line as that seems a natural for anyone following the performance lineage of cars from Ingolstadt.

Based on its quick uptake in sales, the first-generation Q5 was well tailored to American tastes. For brand enthusiasts though, Audi’s mid-sized crossover may have been just a bit off. The Q5 launched here with Audi’s 3.2 FSI V6 – a fine buttery smooth engine, but not exactly the most sporting. While lower on power, the 2.0 TFSI did carry more cred around Audi discussion forums, but that smaller engine had been billed internally as the budget model and as such you couldn’t get it with S-line kit or the loaded up with Audi’s top-level Prestige packaging. It was obvious that the Q5 wasn’t making a performance move in an effort to win over the S4 Avant type. Alas, I was one of those enthusiasts.

As with the rest of the lineup though, the 3.2 FSI V6 is being phased out and replaced by Audi’s potent supercharged 3.0 TFSI. This is the same mill fitted in the S4 and S5, though running different software. Rather than the S4’s 333 hp, the Q5 (on paper) has 272 hp and 295 lb-ft of torque. That new engine is paired with Audi’s 8-speed Tiptronic transmission – the same quick-shifting and highly efficient unit available in the A6, A7 and A8. While not a DSG or manual gearbox for weekend WEC wannabes, we’ve found it is both sporting and efficient.

This new configuration replaces the 3.2 outright as the MY2013 Q5 rolls into dealerships while the 2.0 TFSI drivetrain remains unchanged for the U.S. market. A 2.0 TFSI hybrid arrives later this year and a 3.0 TDI lands early next year. Thus far, S-line will only be an option on Premium plus and Prestige packaged versions of the 3.0 TFSI. As such, the 3.0 TFSI S-line like our test car marks the first real performance-minded Q5 offered in the USA.

Built as our test car was with 20″ x 8.5″ alloys and 255 45R 20 tires, Audi states the Q5 will make the run from 0-62 mph in 5.9 seconds and turn an average of 27.67 mpg US. The only notable difference on the outside between our German-spec car and its US equivalent is that Audi of America product planners have swapped the familiar “tri-five” alloys seen on our car for a new 20-inch 5-spoke design and fitted with summer performance tires.

Outwardly all new Q5s gets some very subtle changes. The Audi grille has morphed from rounded shield to hexagonal in keeping with the latest look from Ingolstadt, and the lower S-line bumpers like those on our tester get the pincer-split lower air ducts just like the current A4 and A6… identical to those on the SQ5 minus the aluminum brightwork. Other than the hood changing slightly to accept the new grille design, the rest of the Q5’s previous sheet metal with subtle box flare fender creases paying homage to the original Ur quattro carries on largely unchanged.

Press the starter button and the outward visual differences come more into focus for those nearby. Audi’s new use of solid tubes to shape its outward LED light signature is markedly different than the lit dots of the previous model. While many manufacturers have begun to copy Audi’s bullet point light signature look, Ingolstadt has moved on. In fact, the new Q5 is hard to miss and most menacing looking with its running lights activated.

So as not to confuse, its worth pointing out that our tester was also specced with a full line of Audi Exclusive upgrades. American customers can replicate its Daytona Grey Pearl Effect paint by going for the Audi Exclusive exterior paint option, though the Alcantara roof liner and two-color Alabaster White Fine Nappa Leather won’t be offered in the States. Audi’s Milano leather will be offered as an upgrade for North Americans, and more importantly this car’s 4-way adjustable lumbar sport seats will be offered as part of a Sport Interior Package ($500) along with the same meaty flat-bottom 3-spoke steering wheel found in the S4 and S5. This shift-paddle equipped wheel is but an option in Europe, though standard for the American S-line models.

Another significant upgrade not immediately obvious upon first inspection is the Q5’s adoption of Audi’s latest MMI system complete with Google Maps, Google Search and Audi connect. This means the new Q5 can be a rolling WLAN hot spot for up to eight mobile devices, and that navigation will now be augmented by satellite overlays of maps via Google complete with traffic data. A much-lauded voice-controlled search pings the vaunted Google search engine in the cloud rather than just what is saved on your phone or the car’s own hard drive.

Aside from the engine, the next most notable change in driving experience comes from the Q5’s changeover to electromechanical steering – a new system being adopted by all MLB-based Audis whereby level of steering assistance is determined based on vehicle speed. It replaces the less-efficient hydraulic system that constantly pulled energy from the engine. As such, this system can be adjusted via software so the same hardware can provide the various feels between the three settings in Audi Drive Select (ADS) or an even more aggressive configuration that sees duty in the SQ5. There is a bit of artificiality in the feel, but strides in both programmability and efficiency make that seem well worth the price.

Our car test car also came with Audi Drive Select. The equivalent of America is the Driver Assist Package ($3250) that includes adaptive cruise control as well as ADS – adjustable steering, throttle response, and transmission. The S-line package ($2,500) adds adjustable damping suspension to this system, along with the 20-inch wheels, brushed aluminum interior inlays, black cloth headliner and the aforementioned flat-bottom sport steering wheel.

Just like the steering, software is used with Audi Drive Select to adjust the driving experience of the car though the various elements available in these two packages. It is configured in with four setting choices just as other modern Audis – Comfort, Auto, Dynamic and Individual whereby you can adjust each component between the three other settings. Say you want a Dynamic suspension but don’t want to keep your transmission revs high or your throttle response needle sharp. No problem.

Speaking of options, there are two more that need mentioning. First, there’s the addition of a rear seat entertainment system ($1,950) that includes 10” LCD screens on each side and paired with controls mounted on the center armrest to a separate media server. The second option, definitely geared toward the enthusiast, is a no-cost sunroof delete that will drop a lot of weight above the belt line and add a little extra space for tall drivers.

On the roads outside of Munich, the Q5 3.0 TFSI S-line felt very good. To our enthusiast tastes, the Q5 felt slightly stiffer and more composed than the previous Q5. It is a satisfying setup that someone seeking an S4 Avant would find acceptable, but it’s not as aggressive nor as satisfying as the SQ5. There isn’t a cavernous difference between S-line and SQ5, but it is significant and bears mentioning. Think of it as the difference between Very Good and Great.

We’ll refrain from describing the SQ5 in too much detail here and leave that for its own review, but our experience with this first S-crossover does come into play here. We can honestly say we really and truly like the new Q5 and that it’s a much more credible option for enthusiasts. Still, the SQ5 with the S-spec torque vectoring rear differential and what looks to be a lower ride height simply improves the vehicle that much more. If we bought a new Q5, we’d be curious about doing our own DIY SQ5 with S-spec trim pieces and that car’s springs as well as suspension and steering software.

Regarding the SQ5, Audi of America representatives remain enigmatic. There’s nothing yet that they’re willing to confirm, and that car’s 3.0 Bi-TDI V6 isn’t due to go to the USA just yet. That engine would be the real hurdle. That’s not to say America isn’t interested, but it would likely need another solution if it were going to happen within the lifecycle of this new Q5.

Interestingly, Audi of America chose very specifically not to badge the 3.0 TFSI as the SQ5 for America, something it effectively did when the S4 replaced the A4 3.2 in the lineup. It’s not like this is without precedent, as other markets like Europe and Australia do have 3.0 TFSI S-line A4 models… but it does make you wonder why they didn’t. Perhaps American Q5 buyers aren’t currently the S-car types, though that is destined to change because we think the 3.0 TFSI S-line will win over those types. The other reason for this could be that the a version of the SQ5 could eventually be in the planning. And, if we’ve got an accurate read, then we think the SQ5 (diesel or petrol no matter) would make those S-car Avant types leave their wagons with few looking back. We believe it’s that good.

Since returning to the States, we’ve noted that Audi of America has updated its consumer website. We used the site to compare option packages for this story and it is worth noting that the tool now includes full pricing for 3.0 TFSI, 2.0 TFSI and even the hybrid model. Given that, we’ve found the base Q5 2.0 TFSI begins at $35,900, the base S-line 3.0 TFSI weighs in at $48,270 and a fully loaded version close to what we tested will net out at $59,020, minus the Daytona Grey Audi Exclusive Paint.

Recalling the Q5 3.0 TFSI and how much it stirred me so much more than its predecessor, the inner Avant lover within starts to nag. I shouldn’t feel as drawn to it as I do, and a little performance snob devil on my shoulder is starting to liken me to a minivan buyer. Chatting up the dreaded minivan around friends with kids, I find they’re severely loyal due to the level of versatility and ease. “Once you go minivan, you’ll never look back,” say those who’ve made the plunge. As an enthusiast I’ve often wondered if that’s not just their way of defending the choice to give in. I can confidently say I’ll never go minivan, but to crossovers this enthusiast thinks he’s ready and a Q5 3.0 TFSI S-line has become the answer. Now, about that SQ5 suspension…

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