Audi has perfected the art of laying in the weeds. While other companies strike out in new directions, Audi sits back, watches, analyzes, and then strikes with deadly accuracy. The latest bolt from the blue is the 2009 Audi Q5. A new luxury compact crossover, the 2009 Audi Q5 arrives with a base price of $37,200 ($52,475 as tested) with a 4 year/50,000 mile basic warranty and EPA estimates of 18 mpg city/23 mpg highway. Let's drive.
First up, full disclosure. Audi treated me like a king while I was testing their new crossover. They dropped a beautiful white Q5 off at my house in Los Angeles, and invited me to drive up with my wife to spend a weekend at the Four Seasons Resort The Biltmore Santa Barbara, all expenses paid. I gladly accepted, because the 90-mile drive would afford me a great opportunity to explore and experience the Q5, and -- well, it's the Four Seasons, for heaven's sake. If you ever have an opportunity to visit this hotel, take it -- even if you will be forced to defend your integrity afterward.
Back to the car. Riding on a unique platform derived from the Audi A4, Q5 is the second SUV in Audi's lineup, following close on the heels of the excellent Q7. Starting in the front, Q5 wears a slightly more sedate edition of the Audi corporate grille, a big open mouth highlighted by a chromed Audi logo. Expressive headlamps wrap the front corners, leading into a strong character line that rises gently toward the taillamps. A round, slightly organic shape contrasts with the strong lines, giving the Q5 an approachable, friendly appearance that somehow projects an air of elegance. Standard 18" wheels (19" are optional) push close to the corners. The Q5 looks strong and capable, another lovely Audi design.
In the Driver's Seat
I almost have sympathy for product planners. Technology evolves so quickly that what was state-of-the-art last year is passé very quickly. So when they are ready to introduce a new vehicle to the middle of the lineup, they are faced with a challenge: Does the new crossover get features that might be perceived as better than some that are on the current top-of-the-line models? Audi has chosen to make Q5 a showcase for its latest electronics and technology, and the compromise to make the top-of-the-line feel better is an enormous upcharge. My test vehicle was equipped with the most expensive package of options I've ever seen on an SUV, the $11,000 "Prestige" package, which includes nearly every luxury feature that Audi can muster.
Most significant to Audi's engineers is the third generation of Audi's telematic control system, the Multi-Media Interface (MMI). A dazzling system that integrates audio, video, communications, climate control and other functions, new features include two PCMIA slots, BlueTooth, a hard drive-based music jukebox, intuitive voice commands, real-time traffic alerts with SIRIUS satellite radio, in-dash DVD/CD/WMA/MP3 player, iPod integration, and more. The navigation system is trick, with 3D imaging of major buildings and landmarks and bird's-eye view mapping. It would take pages to describe everything. The system is not without its quirks -- several journalists complained about being navigated down dead ends -- but operation proved intuitive. The more familiar I got with the system, the more useful it would become.
On the Road
Under the hood, things are very familiar -- the same 3.2 liter V6 you'll find up and down the Audi lineup, here tuned to deliver 270 hp and 243 lb-ft of torque. Standard all-wheel drive (Audi's "quattro") is driven through a six-speed automatic transmission. More technology: Audi's new "Drive Select" option ($2,950) adds a toggle on the dash with four settings: Comfort, Automatic, Dynamic and Individual, which allows a custom response profile. Drive Select controls suspension, steering, transmission and throttle settings, with nearly-instantaneous changes. So, as road conditions shift, you can shape the Q5's performance to your desires. I like everything about this system except for the placement of the toggle on the dash -- I'd love a redundant control on the steering wheel, so I could access Drive Select without taking my hands off the wheel.
I thought that the Q5 had a little too much wind noise. Turns out that Audi had installed the roof-rack crossbars in preparation for our bicycling tour (don't ask, you'll just get jealous). I removed the crossbars (a two-minute operation) for the ride home, and was rewarded with a quiet cruise down the highway. A storage cubby for the rails when they're off the roof would be nice -- but I guess that's what the corner of my garage is for. Luggage space is 29.1 cubic feet, expandable to 57.3 cubic feet of cargo room with the seats folded down.
Driving the Q5 is a pleasure. With a curb weight of 4,178 lbs, this is still a substantial vehicle, but the handling and acceleration can be described as "lively," almost sporting.
So, why do I accuse Audi of laying in the weeds? Well, most if not all of the key competitors have already hit the market. In fact, some are already into their second generations, and Audi seems to have benchmarked them to bring just a little bit more to the table in key areas.
The big Kahuna of the compact luxury field, the Lexus RX, is getting a major reworking for 2010, but Q5 has the previous generation in its sights. BMW's X3 is another obvious competitor, and Mercedes-Benz's new GLK crowds the German compact luxury crossover field. The new Volvo XC60 is a promising (if conservative) entry, and Acura's RDX loads up on the technology under the hood and behind the dash. Infiniti's EX35 and FX35 can both lay claim to the class -- FX is my personal favorite, especially when it's equipped with the big motor in FX50s garb. Land Rover's LR2 also merits consideration, especially if you have ambition to leave the pavement.
I hope that my view of the Q5 was not shaped by the circumstances of my testing. I like to think that anyone who is willing to fork over $52,475 for a compact crossover would also be willing to spend $525 and up a night on a hotel room. I can almost convince myself that I was embedded with the rich so that I could truly understand their vehicle. Luckily, the Q5 is good enough to stand alone as a compact luxury crossover, even without the amazing context.