At last, Audi makes a four-ring circus out of the middle-class SUV market

 

The Audi Q5 brings nothing particularly new to the SUV market, writes Michael McAleer, motoring editor, but it offers good handling and an alternative to BMW's X3

FINDING SOMEONE bullish about the new-car market in 2009 is like spotting a Bugatti Veyron with an 09 CN number plate. And yet, under the spell of the four rings of Audi there remains an air of confidence that seems completely out of place amid all the doom and gloom.Audi accepts it will be tough, but unlike many of its rivals, it sees potential for growth this year. With operations now controlled directly from Germany - with all the support that entails - it would be foolish to dismiss their ambitions too lightly.

It's only fitting then that the four rings of Audi should make a play for the SUV circus. Indeed, such a prominent brand in middle-class suburbia is remiss for coming to the party so late.

For several years now the onslaught of mid-range SUVs created something of a dilemma for the aspiring middle-class motorist. Loathe to leave their German premium marques, they were offered little choice if they wished to join the race to rugged motoring. The very idea of swapping a 3 Series for a Santa Fe seemed like middle-class heresy. Thankfully Land Rover was on hand with its Freelander, though the first-generation version of this probably did more harm than good to the previously sturdy reputation of the British brand.

Even when the Germans got into the SUV mix, the price tags were steep for their flagship models: the most dramatic of which was the Q7, a monster SUV. It caught the end of the boom years, but these chastened times required something less ostentatious, if a little less practical. What was needed was a premium SUV for the €50,000 to €60,000 price range. Enter BMW's X3 and now the Audi Q5. Next up will be the long-awaited right-hand-drive Mercedes GLK.

The Q5 claims direct lineage to the Q7 but in reality, while some design touches are similar, this new model is a distant cousin. The Q5 blood brother is the new A4 and A5 coupé.

We did not expect to like the Q5. Given the underwhelming performance of its rival the X3, it might have been yet another model fashioned from the minds of marketing analysts and accountants.

At first, the Q5 comes across - just like its BMW rival - as being a touch too cynical in its creation. Nothing in the Q5 is startlingly new to the SUV audience. It's only function seems to be adding the four rings to the options list. Yet that's a welcome development. Audi, after all, is on something of a model assault, determined to keep up with its German rivals in expanding volume sales and as a result its audience reach.

There's a near-religious belief within the brand that once they wean a customer off rivals and get them behind the wheel of an Audi, the motorist will leave the brand only if the format they require is not on offer. Hence the R8, A5 coupé, Q5 and upcoming A1 supermini.

It's obvious from the exterior design there's a relative link to the Q7. The large grille carries its four rings like a sovereign chain on a hairy chest. It's brash but effective in distinguishing it from the host of rivals on the market. A Sport options pack - worth the extra €4,995 - includes LED light clusters, a nice touch that gives the Q5 added presence on the road.

Inside, and like the engineering underpinnings, the fascia is taken from the new A4. It's distinctly saloon car in appearance, seating position and controls. Even Audi's praiseworthy MMI control system and colour screen feature as standard.

In the back, there is no third row of seats - a loss to the school-run mums. The rear bench accommodates three adults comfortably. Bootspace is a respectable 540 litres with the rear seats up and 1,560 litres when loading up to the front row, although some angles for entry have been sacrificed in the name of design.

On the road, the Q5 really starts to show some mettle. The A4 chassis is already well-regarded and despite being hoisted 200mm off the ground, the car remains surprisingly poised when cornering at speed. In fact it is probably the most car-like SUV in this price range.

The steering could feel a little more weighted to remove some of the lighter movement at lower speeds, but there's little to fault it in terms of either body roll or holding its line. It's better than the main rivals from Land Rover or BMW in this regard.

The basic laws of physics require a little roll but, compared to say a mid-1990s off-roader, it was incredible to see just how far chassis development in SUVs has come. For all the stiffness in corners, the ride in the Q5 is never harsh or jarring, though it bottoms out when faced with some larger potholes. Particularly on motorway runs, it's agile yet comfortable.

Where the Q5 must give ground to the likes of the Freelander is in off-road endeavours. Even with Audi's Quattro four-wheel-drive credentials and its decent ground clearance, the Freelander's Terrain Response system has it beaten by some margin. As an occasional working vehicle, the Land Rover is the only option.

The test car was powered by Audi's latest 2-litre diesel, the only engine likely to prove worthwhile in Ireland under our current emissions-based tax regime. It's a relatively silent block that offers great chunks of torque when you kick down. Again, the Land Rover might pip it for effort, but the smoothness is well-matched with the Q5's overall premium fit and finish. The Q5's lower emissions also make it less costly to tax than its British rival, with a saving of €420 a year.

While the standard specification is better than on rivals, the price tag is some distance off the likes of the new Volvo XC60, which has a similar following. Then there's that Freelander again, winning out here on price and off-road ability.

In many suburbs, however, those joining the admittedly dwindling ranks of SUV fans will only buy German. BMW's X3 will find the going a lot tougher now Audi has joined the game.

What you have here is a higher, brasher, more in-your-face version of the A4, complete with the quality touches of the saloon and A5 coupé. For us,we'd always choose the car. But for some, it's as much about the statement as the drive. If that's you, welcome to the Q5.

Audi Q5 CC: 1,968 0-100Km/h: 9.5 seconds BHP: 170 Consumption: 6.7 L/100km (42.2 mpg) CO2: 175 g/km Motor tax: €630 Price: €58,945

Engine: 1,968cc inline four-cylinder diesel engine with VTG turbocharger, DOHC TDI direct injection putting out 170bhp @ 4,200rpm and 350Nm of torque @ 1,750rpm

Specification: Quattro: four-wheel drive; ESP stability control system; front airbags plus side and curtain airbags; 17" alloy wheels; 6-speed manual transmission; rear parking system; dualzone auto air-con with sun sensor; concert radio with aux for mp3 players; cruise control; front and rear electric windows; electro-mechanical parking brake with hold assist; heated side mirrors; front fog lights; hill descent assist; leather-covered multifunction steering wheel; MMI operating concept with 6.5 colour screen; radio remote-controlled central locking. SE specification adds: Milano leather upholstery; symphony radio system; colour co-ordinated bumpers; 18" 6-spoke alloys.

L/100km (mpg): urban: 8.2 (34.5); extra-urban: 5.8 (48.7); combined: 6.7 (42.2)

CO2 emissions: 175 g/km

Tax: VRT - 28 per cent; motor tax - €630

Price: €58,945