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The Audi Q5 – the Ingolstadt-based manufacturer's rival to the Land Rover Freelander – may not be perfect, but it is a well rounded road-biased off-roader

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When it comes to economics, Ingolstadt has its own law of supply and demand: if a market niche exists, sooner or later a new Audi model will arrive to fill it. And so it is with the Audi Q5.

The Audi Q5, arriving after the Audi Q7 and before the Audi Q3, shows Audi's continuing determination to cover all the SUV bases.

The Q5 is no rock-crawler but full-time 4wd traction still impresses in very slippery going

As with its larger sibling, the Q5 is not a serious off-road tool, but rather the Audi for those who want a mid-sized estate but prefer an elevated driving position and enhanced ability in slippery conditions like snow or sand. The model is Ingolstadt’s response to the Land Rover Freelander 2, BMW X3 and Volvo XC60, and is the benchmark for the Land Rover Discovery Sport, Porsche Macan, Mercedes-Benz GLC and Jaguar F-Pace. In 2012, the Q5 got a minor facelift which was dominated by a more distinctive face through new LED day-running lights and little else.

The petrol option comes in the flavour of a 2.0 TFSI which, gets a seven-speed incarnation of S-tronic dual-clutch gearbox, along with the larger of the two diesels, the 3.0-litre V6. Want to change gears yourself? Then you need either one of the two 2.0 TDIs.

At this moment in time the Q5 is extremely long-in-the-tooth, and has stood the test of time as it is still sold by the bucketload and revered by motorists. However, at the 2016 Paris Motorshow, Audi revealed the new look Q5, which is 90kg lighter than this generation, a rugged exterior look and the addition of LED or Matix LED headlights as standard.

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From the outset the new Q5 looks akinned to the bigger Q7 and the smaller Audi Q2, which is no bad thing. The interior has been revamped too, and means the Q5 will get the latest MMI infotainment system and the ability to house Audi's impressive Virtual Cockpit display. There is expected to be a range of four-cylinder and V6 petrol and diesel engines available for the Q5, with five already confirmed for its launch in early 2017.

As much as the new Q5 is sure to be a headturner for those looking to buy a mid-sized SUV, it is important to remember that the first generation remains the initial blueprint that has blossomed into the 2017 model.

DESIGN & STYLING

Audi Q5 rear

Despite looking very much like a three-quarter-scale Audi Q7, the Q5 is engineered from quite different building blocks.

The Q7 owes its heritage to the Porsche Cayenne/Volkswagen Touareg, the Q5 to Audi’s new Audi A4. The major differentiating factor is height – the Q5 is some 210mm taller than the A4 – but in other respects the two share similar dimensions, with practically identical wheelbases, while the Q5 is fractionally wider and, surprisingly, a little shorter.

Q5 is same length as Audi A4, but 210mm taller

The extra height and glass area takes it toll on the scales. The Q5’s claimed 1730kg kerb weight is around 135kg heavier than a similar A4 quattro, and with options our test car weighed a hefty 1880kg.

The new Q5 doesn't share its underpinnings with the A4 per se, with the next gen adopting the Volkswagen Group's MLB platform, which is already used on the current generation A4 and Q7. Overall both Q5s are similiar in size, with the second generation incorporating better packaging to improve interior space.

Unlike the current generation, there are also plans to create for the first time a RS Q5 to follow a similar move for its smaller sibling - the RS Q3. Not many details exist about this hot Q5, but it is said to include Audi's 3.0-litre V6 petrol engine.

INTERIOR

Audi Q5 interior

For anyone with even a passing familiarity with current Audi products, the Q5 cabin is instantly recognisable. In many ways this is a good thing, for in all but one key element the Q5’s cabin is an example of excellent ergonomics.

The dials and the air-con and entertainment controls are all cleanly designed, logically placed and, for the most part, manufactured from quality materials. It is, however, disappointing that the cabin isn’t more tailored for the Q5; other than the slightly taller dash, you could be in an A4. There is none of the flair you find, for example, in the Volkswagen Touareg, with its enlarged controls.

Other than the slightly taller dash, you could be in an Audi A4

Audi’s excellent MMI control system, however, continues to impress with its ease of use, and in this third generation the graphics are much improved, particularly for the satellite navigation.

The critical flaw in the Q5’s cabin, and one inherited from the A4, is the driving position. In the translation to RHD, the gearbox bell housing pushes the pedal box to the right. Although the Q5’s higher-set driving position means this is less problematic than in the A4, it still necessitates an uncomfortable twist in the lower body, damaging long-distance comfort. For a premium manufacturer, this is a surprisingly basic mistake.

Elsewhere, the cabin is impressively spacious, with plenty of leg and headroom for four adults, five at a push. The rear seats – which split 60/40 and both slide and recline if you’ve specified the Rear Seat Plus option, are comfortable enough to ensure longer journeys will pass without complaint.

The deep 540-litre load bay is the biggest in its class, shading even the Volvo XC60's and putting the Freelander’s 405 litres to shame. As standard, the boot has a useful selection of hooks, power sockets and fastenings, which can be added to with Audi’s rail-mounted load securing system.

the SQ5 comes with its own bi-turbo 3.0-litre V6 engine, and comes in two trims - SQ5 and SQ5 Plus. The main differences include a far more aggressive bodykit, quad-exhaust system, bigger alloys and a Nappa leather interior.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

Audi Q5 side profile

The longitudinally-mounted engines in the Q5 are familiar but still relatively fresh: the 2.0 TDI is the VW Group’s more recent common-rail unit, tested here in its higher-output guise with 168bhp and 258lb ft although there's also a 141bhp version. The 2.0 petrol TFSI is the reworked design first seen in the VW Scirocco, except here it has variable valve lift to boost power to 228bhp.

Whether manual or seven-speed S-Tronic, Audi, as it did with the A4, has positioned the Q5’s front differential ahead of the gearbox, and directly behind the engine, allowing the front axle to move forward to help improve ride comfort. With its impressive smoothness, this high-output diesel engine is one of the Q5's stand-out features. It powers this SUV to 60mph in 9.9sec, and requires 7.8sec to accelerate from 50 to 70mph in fifth.

The diesel variants of the Audi Q5 are the stand-out choices in the range

The facelifted Q5 builds on these strengths even further, the revised TDI unit delivering even greater performance thanks to its power and torque increases. It is noticeably more refined also, especially on start-up.

Inevitably the Q5 is slower than a similarly-powered A4 thanks to its extra weight and height, but in real-world driving the Q5 feels brisk enough. Offset driving position aside, the six-speed manual transmission is satisfying to use, the slick, weighty and direct change feeling quite different from the insubstantial-feeling shift we sampled in the A4. As both use Audi’s ML311 transmission, we can put this down only to a different linkage.

With a shorter final drive ratio, the Q5 is lower geared than the A4, presumably to help the engine overcome the extra weight. This results in a pretty short first gear, which means you’re changing up almost as soon as you’re on the move. Similarly, at 29.8mph/1000rpm, sixth is a touch low by the standards of modern diesels. While the engine is refined, emitting a not entirely unpleasant turbine-like note, at 80mph the constant 2700rpm thrum intrudes on the Q5’s otherwise quiet cabin. The intervening ratios are well spaced, and with a broad, linear spread of power and torque, gearchanges are less frenetic than you might expect.

At 320mm in diameter, the Q5’s ventilated front discs are a fraction larger than those fitted to the equivalent A4, while the solid 300mm rear discs are carried over. The Q5 stops perfectly adequately, the slightly longer than usual braking distance we recorded (51.2m from 70mph) being due to wet weather. Predictably enough, prolonged track use results in extended pedal travel, but stopping distances remain acceptable.

RIDE & HANDLING

Audi Q5 cornering

Other than the standard Audi quattro all-wheel drive (which usually sends 60 percent of torque to the rear wheels), hill descent control and an off-road ESP setting, Q5s have little extra technology to help should their owners wish to head off road. Few will, but it is worth noting that the Q5 lacks the height-adjustable air suspension of the Q7, instead running conventional steel springs.

On the road there is an option of adjustable damper control and variable-ratio steering as part of Audi’s Drive Select package, neither of which were fitted to our test car. Clearly Audi’s ride and handling engineers were tasked with making the Q5 handle like a car of normal height. Of all the environments in which you might find yourself while driving a Q5, the one where it excels and surprises most is on a cross-country strop. Despite the elevated driving position and 1.8-tonne mass, the Q5 turns with remarkably little body roll and changes direction without protestation, with a pivot point set nicely around its driver.

Steering is finger-light at low speeds but weights up far too quickly

Which would be a fine achievement if, in the pursuit of saloon-like handling, the engineers hadn’t somewhat overlooked the Q5’s abilities in two more relevant habitats. In town, at speeds below 20mph, the steering is finger-light, but beyond this it weights up suddenly. Accelerate onto a roundabout and the change in assistance can catch you unawares, the wheel unexpectedly needing a great deal more force to stop it from centring, making the Q5 feel larger and more unwieldy than it actually is.

Town driving reveals another dynamic flaw: the ride is far too firm. The problem isn’t just larger potholes or speed bumps, which the suspension deals with without any problems, but also small to medium-sized intrusions. Our test car came equipped with optional 19in alloys – base Q5s have 17s but can be upgraded as far as 20s – but in this case we feel the problem of poor ride quality runs deeper than just big wheels.

The combination of relatively stiff spring rates (needed to keep body roll in check) and damper settings (both in bound and rebound) doesn’t allow enough suppleness over less extreme bumps. More worrying, though, it is the discovery that the problem is not limited to low speeds. Take on a bumpy B-road at any sort of speed and the Q5 is so easily deflected from its line that it often requires corrective steering. Even on a motorway the Q5 refuses to settle. The movements are not sharp or immediately uncomfortable, but small undulations on the road surface cause a restless, tiresome vertical motion.

To an extent, some of our original criticisms with the Q5 have been addressed with the mid-life update. Softer springs, combined with dampers that feel far more progressive in their rebound motion, result in much less high frequency vertical movement and thus a more comfortable ride.

Moreover, the switch from hydraulic to electro-mechanical steering has benefitted the Q5. The weighting of the rack is much more consistent and it feels more responsive at the helm.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Audi Q5

The Q5 is available in three levels of specification, even the most basic of which includes 17-inch alloys, ESP with hill descent control and six airbags as standard. The mid-level SE model tested here adds 18-inch wheels, rear parking sensors, leather upholstery and a 10-speaker stereo and takes the price towards that of a mid-price BMW X3, Land Rover Discovery Sport or Mercedes-Benz GLC and more expensive than a Volvo XC60 SE.

The Audi counters its price with a stronger equipment list, in particular the standard leather. It should also hold its value better than rivals and, after the BMW, has the best claimed emissions and economy ratings. Even so, running a tall, heavy SUV incurs extra costs; our 2.0 TDI achieved no better than 36.0mpg and averaged 28.6mpg, and all other Q5 models apart from the 141bhp versions of the TDI will be thirstier. Revised engines as part of the recent facelift should enhance these figures slightly.
 

The Audi Q5 has a stronger equipment list than its main rivals

VERDICT

Audi Q5 rear quarter

If Audi’s ambition with the Q5 was to produce a Freelander, but with less of the rugged go-anywhere tech and a bit more glitz, it has achieved its goal.

It is perhaps a missed opportunity that the styling is not more individual, but we can’t argue with the spacious and classy interior, equipment and excellent engine. The Q5 will also impress those looking for a mid-sized SUV that handles like a saloon; its agility is quite an achievement.

The Audi Q5 is the best soft-roader for those not heading off road

But one not without cost. And again, the problem is ride, partly because the restless fidget seriously damages the Q5’s long-distance comfort, but mostly because it feels like a car not quite finished. And yet, even considering this and the offset driving position, the Q5, by the thinnest of margins, is the best soft-roader for those not heading off road.

Not because it is perfect, but because its rivals have flaws of their own. With Audi already stealing a march on its nearest rivals, the new Q5 has some tough shoes to follow in.

Audi Q5 2008-2016 First drives