Review – 2009 Audi Q5 3.2 quattro

The Good: Sporty handling, willing engine, carlike ride and a trucklike view.

The Bad: “Convenience” options can border on pointless, doesn’t make as much sense as an A4 Avant.

The Verdict: Top of the class – if that’s your style.

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As the nearest Star Trek fan will tell you, natives of the planet Vulcan differ from humans in two major aspects – pointy ears, and an infallible belief in logic. Unlike hotheaded humans, Vulcans make their decisions entirely with their brains and rarely with their hearts.

The Audi Q5 would be a flop on Vulcan. Sure, pointy-eared car shoppers would appreciate the traction-amplifying all-wheel-drive system, the refined powertrain, and the comfortable seating, but ultimately, they’d probably just find the Q5 illogical. After all, the station wagon version of Audi’s A4 is lighter, just as fast, and more fuel-efficient – and it’s cheaper to boot.

Luckily for Audi, though, the Q5 is only for sale on Earth, where emotions tend to play a large part in the car-buying process. And here in America, the Q5 will almost certainly outsell the A4 Avant year in and year out, thanks to our nation’s rather irrational love of tall, four-wheel-drive vehicles.

That said, anyone who decides to take a Q5 home isn’t likely to regret his or her choice. Once one accepts the inherent compromises of the SUV form, this Audi becomes the sort of car people recommend to their friends – often without prompting. (“Catch the game last night, Steve?” “No, but I love my new Q5!”)

It certainly helps that the Q5 doesn’t feel very SUV-like from behind the wheel. Motivated by the same 270-horsepower 3.2 liter V6 as the A4 (with which the Q5 shares its platform), the medium-sized SUV prowls the streets with the verve of a smaller – or at least shorter – vehicle. The run to 60 takes 6.5 seconds, according to Car and Driver – only eight-tenths of a second slower than the V6 version of the A4 sedan.

Strange as it might seem, though, SUVs doubling as rocket sleds isn’t exactly news. Porsche, Mercedes-Benz and BMW all make sport-utes capable of ripping off 0-60 blasts in the low five-second range or quicker; hell, the Hemi-powered Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT8 does the sprint to mile-a-minute velocity in 4.5 seconds, and it costs more than $10,000 less than my loaded Q5.

But the SRT8 is more concerned with novelty than utility – a third or fourth car for sophisticated rednecks and NASCAR drivers. The Q5 wants to be your first car, the one you can commute to work in during the week and take out for a weekend drive on your favorite windy road, while still traversing the worst Mother Nature can throw at you on your way to Grandma’s house for Christmas. (And if Grandma happens to live up a washed-out dirt road, you’re still good to go.)
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Impressively, the Q5 doesn’t lose much momentum when the road turns windy. On tight mountain roads, the Audi wound through turns with similar aplomb to its smaller A4 sibling (are you seeing a pattern here?). Anyone used to more traditional SUVs – or even the others in the Q5’s class – will probably find the Audi’s handling revelatory.

Like the A4 reviewed here last February, the Q5 came with Audi Drive Select, a system that allows you to manipulate the suspension, steering and throttle response with the touch of a button. The system seemed a bit more useful here than in the A4; “dynamic” mode seemed a little more buttoned down and forceful in the twisties, but “comfort” mode just seemed floaty, even potentially nausea-inducing. I left it in “auto” at least 90 percent of the time, and odds are most buyers will do the same. Better to save the $3,000 the system costs for gas money.

As for the rest of the Q5’s optional gadgets, they tended to land somewhere between usefulness and gimmickry. The blind spot warning system, which illuminates amber lights on the side mirrors if there’s a car lurking in your blind spot, ranked towards the helpful end of the spectrum; however, the yellow glow tended to get washed out in direct sunlight, which could spell trouble if drivers become dependent on the system. And the panoramic glass roof opens wide enough to finally fulfill Homer Simpson’s wish for “a sunroof for the husky gentleman.”

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The electronically-closing tailgate, however, just seems stupid. In theory, it seems like a good idea to have a powered backup method of closing the hatch – say, for when someone’s hands are full, or if the car is owned by Verne Troyer. But the button to close the hatch is on the hatch – meaning you still have to have one hand free to reach up and touch it. Worse, there’s no way to manually override the plodding system – any attempts to quickly shut the gate by hand are stymied, as the electronics keep the door from moving even an inch.

Ultimately, though, a car is judged not on its electronic toys and options, but in how well it goes about whatever task it’s designed for – in the Q5’s case, carrying four or five people in comfort and style over any road. Style isn’t a problem; like most Audis, the Q5 leads the pack in classiness. From the outside, the Q5 strikes an eye-catching balance between muscularity and curviness, like Jessica Biel during her Blade 3 days.

Inside, the theme is pretty much standard Audi corporate interior – lots of leather and a clean design. Like most luxury cars these days, a center-console-mounted knob controls the navigation system/stereo/missile targeting system/etc; Audi’s is called MMI, or “Multi-Media Interface.” As I’ve said before, it’s one of the easiest of the systems to use, but it still requires attention you should really be giving to the road. (Luckily, redundant controls on the steering wheel allow you to at least control the radio without looking too far off-course.)

As for the interior accommodations, well, let’s just call them “adequate.” The front seats are comfy during long hauls and sweeping curves, and offer plentiful room. The back seat is a little tight for full-sized adults, though; they’ll fit (at least two of them would – but don’t put anyone you like in the bitch seat), but passengers won’t be confusing the Q5 for the large A8 sedan anytime soon.

Still, the moderately-sized back seat is an acceptable compromise, given the Q5’s proportions. Only someone trading up from a Yaris would consider this Audi a “big truck;” compared to its Jelly-Bellied giant brother, the Q7, the Fiver seems downright compact. Unless you really, really need that third row of seating the Q7 offers, the Q5 will be a more satisfying choice – and if you need to seat seven people that badly, there are quite a few dealerships that would be happy to put you in a very nice minivan.

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Bottom line, though, it’s hard to make a logical case for the Q5 – but that goes for the entire small luxury SUV class. For the money, every manufacturer offering one of these vehicles – Audi, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Lexus, Infiniti, and so on – also offers a similarly-sized sedan or wagon with superior performance and fuel economy. Most of them can be had with all-wheel-drive, and most of them are cheaper than their SUV equivalents.

If the Q5 makes a better case for itself than most of its competitors, it’s because it sits atop the class. Stacked up against the A4 Avant, it’s just about as quick, offers more cargo space and seats you a few inches higher off the ground for a few thousand dollars more. Enthusiasts looking for an all-weather people mover with added room for grocery runs will probably choose the lower, lighter Avant. But if the SUV looks and king-of-the-world seating position appeal to your heart, the Q5 will make you happy every day you climb behind the wheel.

Base Price/Price As Tested: $38,175/$52,950

0-60: 6.5 seconds (Car and Driver)

EPA Fuel Economy: 18 city/23 highway

Key Competitors: Lexus RX350, Mercedes-Benz GLK350, Audi A4 Avant

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