Can a compact 4x4 really entertain on the tarmac? Jonathan Crouch looks at the much improved Audi Q5 3.0 TDI to find out.
Ten Second Review
Compact 4x4s aren't known for their performance or handling but the Audi Q5 3.0 TDI is one model that could make the keen driver's wish list. An uprated 245PS powerplant allows for a 6.5s 0-60mph sprint, so it has the power to embarrass some serious performance cars and it handles neatly too. The ride may be on the firm side for some family buyers though, and this range-topping model doesn't come cheap.
We're used to judging the roadgoing attributes of compact 4x4 vehicles by some fairly lax standards. The reasoning goes that such vehicles can be forgiven a lot because of their high centre of gravity, weighty 4x4 mechanicals and rugged off-road suspension. That's why we're often told that a product feels quick 'for a 4x4' or handles neatly 'for a 4x4'. With its Q5, Audi set out to do things differently. It wanted a small off roader that was great on the road, full stop. Did it manage it? If any car can provide the answer, it's the mighty Q5 3.0 TDI, now improved with a slight facelift, extra equipment and an uprated 245PS engine. It's true that the features which give a 4x4 its off-road ability tend to serve as a hindrance to handling and performance on tarmac. Given the fact that most 4x4s are used exclusively on the road, this would appear to be a good argument for not buying one in the first place but there are other advantages. People like the high driving position, easy access and outdoor image and they'll happily put up with vague steering, a choppy ride and lacklustre body control to get them. With its Q5, Audi has attempted to mix the best bits of a compact 4x4 with hatchback handling - a great idea in theory but a tough one to execute in practice.
The Q5 3.0 TDI immediately feels like it's got a lot of engine. The V6 powerplant now has 245PS at its disposal and that's some serious clout in a vehicle of the Q5's size but the crucial figure is the 427 lb ft of torque that the engine generates from 1,500rpm up to 3,000rpm. When overtaking or accelerating up to motorway speed this torque makes the Q5 seem brutally quick and a 0-60mph sprint time of 6.5s bears this out. This Audi 4x4 is quicker in a straight line than a Golf GTI and as quick as a BMW 330i Coupe. Happily, the Q5 can handle all this power and feels composed and controllable even when you let it off the leash. The ride is on the firm side but there's a mountain of grip and very little of the swaying and lurching that some 4x4s indulge in when they're pitched into a corner. The task of marshalling the power and torque from this advanced diesel engine falls upon the S-Tronic seven-speed dual clutch gearbox that's standard on the 3.0 TDI Q5. This transmission is teetering on the cutting edge of gearbox technology with its twin clutch system and clever electronics predicting and engaging the next gear prior to the driver selecting it with the wheel-mounted paddle shifters. It makes for a lightening fast and buttery-smooth transition between ratios, whether you're flipping the paddles in manual mode or letting the gearbox take care of the whole process. As before, a quattro permanent all-wheel drive system is standard and features a clever torque vectoring system for added handling sophistication. Changes to the spring, shock absorber and anti-roll bar settings improve ride and handling, while an electromechanical power steering system helps efficiency.
Design and Build
With this revised Q5 model, the front grille, the front bumper and the headlights - the usual facelift targets - have all come in for a revision. The grille and bumper changes are quite subtle but the lights now look a bit sharper. The xenon units that are standard in S line versions and optional for the rest of the range are now framed by the ubiquitous LED daytime running lights which form a continuous band surrounding more of the lens. Adaptive lights with dynamic cornering lights and static turning lights are available as an option. One welcome touch is that roof rails and cross bars are now standard, so you won't need to get bogged down with aftermarket foot pack kits and adaptor plates if you want to quickly mount a roof box. The interior of the Audi Q5 has been given a tweaking with more chrome and piano black fitments. The MMI system is now easier to use and a driver alertness system, not dissimilar to that which Mercedes have used for some time, now debuts on the Q5. Seat trims have been revised but other than that, it's much as you were. The rear seat backs can be reclined to increase comfort and the whole of the back bench can be folded at a stroke by means of a lever in the boot. Luggage space is 540 litres but once those seats are stowed, 1,560 litres is available.
Market and Model
The 3.0-litre TDI engine sits atop the Q5 range and isn't what you would call cheap, with pricing in the £38,000 to £43,000 bracket. It's available in SE, S line or S line Plus trim with the S-line model underlining the car's sporty flavour. SE models have an advanced 10-speaker stereo, leather upholstery, 3-zone climate control and parking sensors. S-Line models have all that plus sports suspension, sports seats, Xenon headlights with LED running lights and a host of other exterior styling upgrades. The Q5 goes head to head with the likes of Land Rover's Freelander and BMW's X3 at the plush end of the compact SUV market. It's the BMW that the Q5's focus on driving dynamics and on-road performance will put it in direct competition with, while the Freelander will probably remain the default choice for buyers actually intending to undertake off-road trips.
Cost of Ownership
Considering the kind of performance that the Q5 3.0 TDI can offer, the running costs aren't too bad. Thanks to the most recent engine revisions, combined cycle fuel economy has improved from 37.6mpg to 44.1mpg and CO2 emissions have fallen from 199 to 169g/km. That's despite this engine's small power increase. Credit for this goes mainly to an engine stop/start system that cuts it when you don't need it, stuck in traffic or waiting at the lights. Compare this model's returns with the 47.1mpg and 159g/km you get from the significantly slower 2.0-litre TDI engine with an S tronic auto gearbox and you'll conclude that the six-cylinder unit doesn't cost the earth to run. The purchase price, on the other hand, will cause some buyers to think twice, even if Audi's usually buoyant residual values will take the sting out of the ownership costs when the time comes to sell it on.
Most compact 4x4s are driven on the tarmac so it makes sense to buy one that's designed for the job. Audi's improved Q5 doesn't pretend to have much by way of off-road ability but on the road, it feels perfectly at home, particularly with the uprated 3.0-litre TDI engine doing the leg work. Fearsome pulling power and neat handling make this Q5 a family car that can really entertain. The price and the firm ride are the major drawbacks to a Q5 3.0 TDI. It certainly won't be the model for everyone as the lesser engines in the range fulfil the family car role just as well for a lot less. Running costs are reasonable for a car that can power from standstill to 60mph in six and a half seconds and if you want a compact 4x4 that can put a smile on your face, this is one of a very select breed.