Saturday, May 4, 2013
The Audi SQ5 is a vehicle of both firsts and first-placings.
It is Audi’s first S-branded diesel, and its first S-branded SUV. It notches up a gold medal for outright performance, being the fastest-accelerating diesel SUV on sale regardless of price. It is also by default the number one car in its class, because with an $89,400 price tag this performance mid-sized SUV has no rivals.
Powered by the same 3.0-litre twin-turbocharged diesel V6 engine which debuted in the ($30K more expensive) Audi A6 earlier this year, the Audi SQ5 also produces 230kW of power from 3900-4500rpm and 650Nm of torque between 1450-2800rpm. Drive is sent to the front and rear wheels (split permanently 50:50) through an eight-speed automatic, allowing 0-100km/h acceleration in a claimed 5.1 seconds.
Closest competitor? A BMW X3 xDrive30d, which costs $15K less but takes 1.1 seconds longer to reach 100km/h, while the size-larger BMW X6 xDrive M50d needs three turbochargers to move its heftier body to within 0.2 seconds of the relatively petite (1920kg kerb weight) Audi SQ5.
Unlike the cheaper X3, the SQ5 gets a standard swag of sporting kit to both justify its price and the ‘S’ badge it shares with S3, S4, S5 and S7 stablemates. Standard are 20-inch alloy wheels, parking sensors with reversing camera, keyless start, electric opening tailgate, xenon headlights, satellite navigation, 20GB music storage, voice control, three-zone climate control and an auto-dipping rear-view mirror.
Typical S-model signatures, include thick chrome horizontal front grille bars, aluminium-finish door mirrors and roof rails, black brake callipers and, inside, Nappa leather sports seats, a flat-bottom steering wheel and alloy pedals.
For the first month the Audi SQ5 is on sale, however, only a Launch Edition model will be available for $104,130. Audi says it had the opportunity to take 60 cars one month earlier than originally planned, but all would be equipped with 21-inch wheels, variable-ratio ‘Dynamic’ steering, adaptive headlights, Bang & Olufsen audio, digital radio, front and rear seat heating, alarm, and privacy window glazing.
Regardless of specification, the SQ5 interior is typically superb for the brand. Soft-touch surfaces, textured inserts and slick controls continue to finally complement each other. Only the seven-inch colour screen appears too small by today’s widescreen standards, but the MMI user interface remains intuitive.
Practically speaking, as with all Q5 models, the rear backrest is split 40:20:40 while the seat base slides 60:40 to add boot space at the expense of legroom. The folding backrests allow the 540-litre boot to expand to 1640L. Rear air vents are standard, while legroom rivals some full-size SUV models. Seat comfort on the outer pews is excellent, but the middle rear seat is hard and narrow, and centre legroom is restricted by the bulky transmission tunnel.
We tested the Launch Edition model at the, erm, national launch, but unlike with regular Q5 models, adaptive dampers are not available in the Audi SQ5.
It sits 30mm lower than regular models, however, and gets wider tracks – 21mm front, 18mm rear – to complement the stiffer springs and dampers.
Without the adaptive suspension, Audi Drive Select adjusts gearbox mapping, throttle sensitivity and steering weight only, between its five modes – Efficiency, Comfort, Auto, Dynamic and Individual. With the variable-ratio steering option, the rack also quickens in the sportier modes.
Dynamic and – at your choosing – Individual modes also activate the Active Sound Exhaust and Sound Actuator. Essentially a computer relays information (engine load, road speed, etc) to an audio speaker mounted inside the exhaust pipe, which then adds a sporty note to that of the naturally created CO2 and NOx particles blurting out the quad pipes.
It sounds gimmicky, but the deep burble is the most striking thing about this performance diesel SUV. The twin-turbo V6 revs to 5200rpm, but even down low in the rev range it sounds almost like a petrol V8, with a guttural growl that suggests this as an unleaded-drinker not an oil-sipper.
An extra 150Nm over the single-turbo Q5 3.0 TDI has meant switching from a seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox to an eight-speed automatic. The regular auto is a fine, crisp and sporting unit, though it loses a launch control function.
Surging torque through the middle of the rev range, and a casual glance at the trip computer showing 7.4-9.8L/100km on our drive, are reminders that this is a diesel. The Audi SQ5 takes those positive diesel traits while injecting the sporty character of a petrol engine.
The sports suspension doesn’t quite hit the same lofty heights, however.
A general restlessness from the chassis over pock-marked and seemingly smooth roads, teamed with decent tyre roar – a consequence of the 255mm-wide tyres – means the Audi SQ5 can feel less refined than even a sporty SUV should.
Larger road irregularities don’t crash through the cabin, however, and the low-speed ride quality is reasonably good.
The suspension isn’t wound-into-the-ground stiff like some Audi S models past, with a few decent undulations highlighting impressively absorbent yet composed damping.
Driving downhill at speed approaching a bridge, the SQ5 neither bottomed out nor threatened passenger comfort when its suspension compressed then extended. It simply soaked up the change in altitude with a slight hint of float, gripped-up and continued.
The sizeable, grippy tyres do help with the handling, because this Audi isn’t the most naturally agile mid-sized SUV in its regular state.
The SQ5 doesn’t have a pin-sharp front end in tight corners, and works its tyres hard when pushed.
It quickly adopts an understeer bias and is only mildly throttle adjustable after the limits of adhesion are reached. At the same time, however, it rewards patience and moderation with controls, and can both reward and cover ground quickly in the right conditions.
Conditions like a tight mountain pass, for example, also bring out the best in the optional ($2400) Dynamic steering. In the mode of the same name, it fixes its rack ratio to the quickest setting, meaning successive changes of direction can be made using less steering rotation. Teamed with consistently meaty weighting, the steering proved surprisingly good dispatching with tight roads.
As with the suspension, however, there are blemishes. Around town the steering feels too heavy in Dynamic mode, yet otherwise light and vague. On touring roads, with long sweeping curves, the sharp initial turn in contrasts with the awful vague patch in the steering that follows – again, either too resistant in Dynamic mode, and too light otherwise.
BMW’s variable-ratio sports steering, only a $600 option on the X3 xDrive 30d, is superb by comparison. The same goes for the X3’s front-end sharpness and its finely tuned optional adaptive suspension ($1600).
As we said, the SQ5 technically has no competitors. Yet steering and ride issues dent this first diesel SUV S-model’s overall score, allowing valid comparison with the cheaper, range-flagship X3.
The Audi SQ5 counters with a brilliant drivetrain that few sedans for the price can match, and a lush, practical interior bettered by few rival SUV models, but it isn’t necessarily first in its class for driver appeal.