As little as 12 years ago, Audi didn’t have an SUV to its name. In 2006 the big, burly Q7 arrived, but it was a bit too bulky for most luxury shoppers’ tastes. Then in 2009 came the Q5, which took the small premium crossover segment by storm, climbing the ranks to the point where it outsold any other small luxury SUV in 2015, even outselling the Lexus RX north of the border in Canada.
The SUV onslaught helped grow Audi as a whole in North America, and last year was the first time Audi eclipsed 200K sales in the US and 25K units in Canada, though it has a long way to go to match American luxury sales leaders Mercedes-Benz, BMW, and Lexus.
What was it about the Q5 that so resonated with luxury shoppers and took the brand to new heights, becoming a global bestseller in the process? Aside from Audi’s impeccable interiors and solid, reassuring driving feel, the Q5 had just enough cargo and passenger space for family living, and a range of powertrains that offered consumers their choice of efficiency or a bit of excitement along with their utility. We drove the upcoming 2018 model that aims to repeat the success of the original Q5 by improving every facet of the vehicle, but is it enough of a step forward to get noticed in this intensely competitive segment?
The Q5 is all new from its very core to every panel on its body, and is even being built in an entirely new facility in San José Chiapa in Mexico, which was built from the ground up to produce this model for American and global consumption. In order to instill the same level of quality control and standards, Audi brought hundreds of Mexican employees and engineers to Germany for training and experience on the A4 line as it ramped up for launch. Those trained in Germany will be leaders at the new plant that will eventually employ up to 4200 staff aiming for an annual production capacity of 150,000 units. The cars we drove were some of the first to roll off their line, and even being pre-production units, it was hard to find any flaws in the fit or finish that are common even from established plants retooled for a new model.
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The new Q5 is based on Audi’s modular MLB platform, and although that is the same architecture underpinning the new A4, Audi engineers claimed the Q5 will have more in common with the next-generation A6 than the A4. The Q5 grows in every direction, now measuring 183 inches (4,660 mm) long with a 111-inch (2,820 mm) wheelbase, 74 inches (1,890 mm) wide and 65 inches (1,660 mm) tall, but as with any new Audi, the platform is a mix of high-tensile steel and aluminum aimed at saving weight and increasing rigidity. While some European models drop almost 200 pounds (90 kg), the new 2.0TFSI Quattro coming to our market is 110 lb (50 kg) lighter than its 2016 equivalent.
While the Q5 grows marginally, it’s not a dramatic expansion, adding a bit more than an inch in length and half an inch in the wheelbase, and the interior space remains largely the same size, gaining a bit of cargo space in the trunk, which now measures from 19.4 to 21.5 cubic feet (550 to 610 liters) depending on the rear seat position. Maximum cargo volume with the rear seats flattened is 54.7 cu ft (1,550 L), which is actually a bit less than the current model. Rear seats have a touch more legroom, and headroom is very good (I had a few inches of clearance over my head at 5’11”), but legroom for the middle seat is atrocious with a large driveline tunnel hump eliminating foot space and console with vents intruding on the knees.
Command and Control
Moving up to the driver’s seat brings Audi’s strengths back to the forefront, where one can focus on the materials, craftsmanship and seamless integration of technology. Among the vehicles on hand, there was a chocolate brown leather interior with open-pore wood trim and a light gray theme with aluminum dash accents and quilted leather seating inserts. Along with metallic accents on the switchgear, steering wheel and dash, both themes relieved the monotony of the typical all-black Germanic interior, and everything felt secure and solid, from the thick steering wheel grips and shifter to the knobs, buttons and stalks.
With the level of technology coming into play, it’s increasingly important to solve the myriad ergonomic and interaction issues, and Audi’s Multi-Media Interface (MMI) and Virtual Cockpit offer several ways for one to operate navigation, audio and car systems. My favourite is the steering-wheel thumb wheel and buttons on the left spoke, which lets you access the most common functions for stereo, phone and nav in the fully digital gauge cluster (Virtual Cockpit) without lifting a hand off the wheel. You can even switch from info-dominant view to gauge dominant view using the View button. The clarity and speed of the system and familiarity with the menu make this system intuitive and effortless, and a second screen atop the dash contains another layer of functions and controls, with a scroll knob, touchpad and some fixed buttons for shortcuts to main functions.
The latest addition to Audi’s MMI is the touchpad, which recognizes your scribbles and translates them into letters when you input information for route guidance or a contact and is said to offer tablet-like pinch and zoom control, though not in the models we sampled. For more verbal types, there is voice command with natural speech recognition, but despite repeated attempts, the Q5 refused to engage Warp 9 or brew up a nice Earl Grey tea.
One Engine, more to come
Although the Q5 will be loaded to the roof rack with driver assistance systems, the focus of the event was its essential driving quality in a variety of settings, both external and internal. Exploring the southern tip of Mexico’s Baja Peninsula, we set off from our resort (which looked like the lair of a Bond villain) on some intermediate highways, skirted the edges of a small mountain range, climbing the twisting and sweeping curves, picking our way through the narrow cobbled streets of a small rural town, cutting across the landscape on a dirt road, driving onto a sandy beach for photo ops and then cruising back on a highway that saw us reaching and holding autobahn speeds. It’s hard to say whether the chassis or the engine was the star, because both were so impressive in every way, and perhaps it was their seamless cooperation that sets a new benchmark for this segment.
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The initial powertrain offering for North America will be Volkswagen Group’s 2.0TFSI, a 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder tuned to 252 horsepower and 273 pound-feet of torque paired with the seven-speed dual-clutch ‘S tronic’ gearbox. At about 4,090 lb (1,855 kg) for an AWD 2.0TFSI model, that power and low-end torque is enough to shove it to 60 mph in under seven seconds. It’s no rocket, but it’s plenty of thrust for shuttling the kids to school and launching it up to highway speeds without any stress. The transmission is quick and smart, finding the right gear without delay at throttle prompts, making easy work of passing maneuvers, although it still suffers from a bit of hesitation off the line and in low-speed crawling, as when making a three-point turn.
Also on hand for testing was Audi’s new 3.0-liter V6 TDI, forbidden fruit for now, but Audi execs didn’t rule out a later arrival date, and when asked, confirmed that North American Audi customers still have an appetite and demand for diesel. Dieselgate aside, it remains a tantalizing power plant, with 286 hp and 457 lb-ft of torque mated to an eight-speed automatic that is smoother and just about as fast as the dual-clutch. That kind of torque would outstrip even the SQ5 that will arrive some time after the Q5’s launch, and which should make something similar to the S4’s 354 hp and 369 lb-ft 3.0L twin-scroll turbocharger V6. A hybrid version is in the works too, and could this be the platform that will host Audi’s upcoming all-electric SUV by 2018? Time will tell.
All Roads, All Modes
But back to our 2.0TFSI drive, in which the standard Quattro AWD puts power down to all four wheels, favoring the front, but able to send up to 50 percent of torque to the rear when conditions dictate. The Q5 uses the same disconnecting clutch in the rear differential as the A4 Allroad that allows it to run in front-drive mode when cruising steadily or just poking around. In addition to that, the Q5’s 0.30 drag coefficient and an Efficiency mode should help it achieve improved mileage. Helping it tackle light off-roading is Allroad mode that adjust shift points and throttle response to suite mud, gravel, sand and loose traction, while standard hill descent control can take over on steep inclines and ease you down with controlled braking at a slow, steady speed.
We got a small taste of these off-road features on a sand and packed dirt trail that cut across the Baja countryside, but more impressive was the little crossover’s composure and solidity over the washboard surface and rutted tracks, and although the cabin gets quite loud, the ride feels controlled and unbothered by all the rough stuff. The test cars here were equipped with the adaptive dampers and air suspension, which gives it a slight lift in Lift/Offroad mode. Although air suspension will not initially be offered in North American models, the adaptive dampers are on the menu, and demonstrate a significant range of comfort to sporty characteristics.
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On the sporty front, the Q5’s solidity and advanced five-link suspension are an excellent framework when dialing the Drive Select system into Dynamic mode, which firms up the adaptive dampers and steering, and sharpens throttle and transmission responses. Equipped with 20-inch wheels and sporty summer tires, the Q5 was perfectly happy diving into corners with strong braking, staying planted with surprisingly little body roll through the turns, then the all-wheel-drive system balancing torque between the axles when coming on the power out of turns. It’s far more capable than a small, unassuming crossover has a right to be, and it’s not at the expense of comfort, as Comfort mode reveals a soft, slightly floaty ride, and pinky-light steering that would make crowded mall parking lots and underground garages a breeze. The back-up camera and parking sensors sure don’t hurt, either, with a hyper-clear picture and a variety of angles to choose from.
As good as Comfort and Dynamic modes are, Auto was the sweet spot, overlapping the two extremes proving smooth and comfortable under normal circumstances, but quickly detecting and seemingly anticipating more aggressive maneuvers and transitioning to the firmer set of Dynamic mode.
Verdict: 2018 Audi Q5 Review
The 2018 Audi Q5 is set to arrive in spring of next year with more standard content and plenty of advanced features like adaptive cruise and new driver assistance systems, onboard wifi, wireless charging tray, and rear headrest-mounted entertainment system, but it is not defined by its features.
If there’s one significant criticism, it would be the conservative looks, which don’t quite capture how special it is. Sure, it’s handsome enough, but it doesn’t stray far from the original and just seems somewhat plain (and awkward from some angles, to my eyes) when everyone is stepping up their design game.
In the end, the Q5 nails every point that a small luxury SUV needs to, with a premium, high-quality interior, well-integrated technology, convenient utility and a refined, sporty driving experience, and is sure to make many luxury shoppers happy and propel the Q5 and Audi to further sales success.
This story first appeared on AutoGuide.com