Audi has been on something of a roll lately. Not only did their sales in India increase by 50% between 2008 and 2009, but their sales growth looks comfortably set to continue for the foreseeable future. Internationally, they’re making waves as well. In Europe, not so long ago, they acquired market leadership in the luxury car space – beating out compatriots BMW and Mercedes. And in the all-important Chinese market, they sell about as many cars as both combined. Clearly, they’re doing something right.
Audi launched their new compact SUV, the Q5, in India earlier this year. And not very long after, it began rolling off the Audi assembly line at Aurangabad – alongside the A4 and A6. The Indian market certainly has an appetite for luxury SUVs, and increasingly so for compact crossovers such as the Q5.
But that doesn’t mean that Audi has it all its own way though. BMW is expanding its plant in Chennai, and is preparing to roll out an all-new, and even smaller (therefore less pricey), SUV – the X1, towards the end of this year. The Q5’s direct rival, the X3, is also set for a complete revamp in the near future as well. And the Germans aside, Tata owned Jaguar Land Rover is also considering Indian assembly for some of its models, namely the thus far well accepted Land Rover Freelander.
The Q5, according to Audi, is a performance SUV that’s perfect for an active lifestyle. Well, what if your lifestyle is indeed active – to the extent of occasionally playing in the mud. We know that the Q5 has Audi’s famed all-wheel drive, but can it truly keep up on the rough stuff?
From the outside
Audi’s first SUV, the Q7, appears to be about the size of a small cottage. The Q5, on the other hand, has much more manageable and pleasing proportions. It has straightforward lines that are typical Audi, and it just looks right somehow.
The front end is chiselled and aggressive. In true Audi fashion, the headlights are heavily stylised and inset with LEDs. At the back, the curvaceous rear hatch gives it a Jennifer Lopez-like rear end, which is no bad thing in itself. The rear bumper has a set of dual exhausts poking out at each end – hinting at the firepower at the other end.
From the inside
No one does attention to detail in the cabin of a car like Audi. For instance, there’s a slight ridge in the bottom half of the steering wheel to rest your palm if you hold the wheel correctly at the three-and-nine position while driving. The dial for the MMI (Multi Media Interface) and knob for the volume control is bezeled to allow you grip it with ease. Plus, they both feel tactile and well engineered – as do all the other knobs and buttons.
Moreover, the layout of the controls within the cabin are near perfect – if not a little unusual. For instance, the majority of buttons and dials, such as the ones for the MMI, as well as the volume control, are on the central tunnel beside the gearshift – instead of on the center console where you’d normally expect to find them. The beauty of this is that the layout is much more intuitive, as the controls are closer at hand.
On the whole, the cabin has excellent quality materials, as well as just the right blend of two-tone grey and wood trim. Our test car also had a brilliant panorama roof, although it’s a pricey option at `1.3 lakhs. Another expensive options package includes the rear-view camera, a DVD player, and better screen resolution – all of which will set you back a stratospheric `2.6 lakhs. I can attest to the high resolution screen, but luckily the compact proportions of the Q5 mean that visibility while reversing is actually quite good – so you can do without the camera. On the other hand, what would have been a highly recommended option is the incredible B&O sound system fitted on our test car, which provides 505watts of power through a dozen watts of amplification. Even at max volume, there was no distortion of sound whatsoever. But, I suspect that if it were available, it would likely have set a new standard in the realm of pricey options. Opt for the panorama roof though.
There are a few issues inside the cabin mind you. Legroom in the drivers’ footwell is slightly scarce – to the extent that you actually have to position your left leg at a slight angle. And while the rear seat is adjustable, leg and foot room in the back is limited as well. A slight space constraint aside however, everything looks and feels brilliant within the Q5’s cabin.
On the road (and off it)
If there were ever an engine that could convert a petrol-head to a diesel lover – the 3.0 litre TDI motor in the Q5 would be it. These modern day diesels have truly relegated the days of diesel clatter and black smoke to the dusty pages of the history books. There’s barely a hint of clatter at idle, and the engine actually sounds pretty good when revved. Moreover, it wins out to a comparable petrol engine by providing near instant torque at any rpm. Plus, it’s free revving, and you don’t feel the lack of top-end in any way because the 7-speed DSG is so responsive that gear changes are virtually indistinguishable. Yes, at low speed, gear changes can at times be a little abrupt, which is symptomatic of all DSGs. But step on the accelerator pedal and the burst of power is instant – the rev counter rushes towards the redline, and the next gear is selected with no drop in momentum whatsoever.
The Q5 does come with steering mounted paddles, but there’s virtually no need to use them since there’s always power when you need it – all you need to do is put the gear lever in ‘S,’ and let the engine and transmission sort out which gear you ought to be in. And should you need a lower gear, just tap the throttle, and the shift is instant.
The Q5 truly is all the car you’ll ever need on the road. A stiff chassis, enhanced by a multi-linked strut brace under the bonnet, ensures that it responds to your every input. However, while the chassis is capable, the steering transmits very little feedback to the driver. It’s light at low speeds, which makes it easy to manoeuvre in the city. And, while it loads up at speed, the transition isn’t masked particularly well, and it feels artificial in your hands. That apart, the Q5 is an impeccably engineered machine – mind you, it could do with Audi Drive Select, which allows you to choose between a couple of variable driving modes. In its current set-up, the ride is on the firm side, which is actually required to reign in 240 horsepower, but it would be nice to have the option to choose a slightly more compliant setting on our deplorable city streets.
On the whole, though, this Audi crossover is perfect for the less-than-ideal surface of our roads. The relatively compact size ensures that it’s manageable, while the ride height enables it to effortlessly conquer the many obstacles on the way. The real question, though, is how does it perform on dirt?
Now, there are a couple of clear signs which indicate that the Q5 was engineered more for on-road use than off it. For instance, it comes with Dunlop SP Sport 235/65 R17 tires that are clearly road biased. And, while its ESP (Electronic Stability Program) does have an off-road map – to allow for a little wheelspin before it intervenes – it doesn’t have a low range gearbox or locking diffs. It does have hill descent control, which Audi calls Downhill Assist Function, and the ESP consist of ABS, Brake Assist, traction control, which limits torque to the wheel that’s spinning, and what Audi refers to as EDL (Electronic Differential Lock), which effectively just brakes the spinning wheel. It does, of course, have Audi’s famed all-wheel drive system that revolutionized the World Rally Championship in the late 80s.
Well, the weather ensured that Audi’s Quattro system was not going to get an easy ride. The surface was badly rutted, and the soft earth provided very little grip. Plus, the Q5 had to deal with elevation changes, dips, gullys, and a lot of slush. And straight away, the road-biased Dunlops showed signs of struggling. With the ESP in its off-road mode, the tires strove unsuccessfully to dig into the ground and find some grip below the soft surface. Our every move had to be carefully planned, as the thought of having to tow the Q5 out of a rut wasn’t very tempting at all. The Audi struggled on some occasions, but always managed to pull through. However, the lack of wheel travel and articulation, coupled with the tires, meant that it just about made it on a few occasions.
Come across a decent patch of dirt though, and the grip levels afforded by the Quattro system is immense. And the instant torque meant that you could cover ground very quickly indeed if the surface enabled you to. In fact, the rear biased all-wheel drive system, which ordinarily splits torque 40/60 front-to-rear, allows you to shoot out of corners and enjoy massive power slides on the way out – very entertaining!
The Q5 is an extremely competent machine on the road. The engine and gearbox are phenomenal, and they work seamlessly to transmit the intense grunt of the diesel mill to the road surface below. And it does have the ability to tread off the beaten path on occasion, but it can be reluctant! However, if you’re smitten by the Q5, but want better performance off-road, fear not – simply by changing the tires to a more aggressive off-road tread, you’ll likely be able to alter the nature of the vehicle drastically.
It’s very hard not to recommend the Q5 for on-road use though, especially with the condition of our roads – or lack thereof in most places. It’s an impeccably engineered machine in true Audi fashion. However, the options list ensures that your bank balance is depleted very quickly indeed. I would, nonetheless, choose the panorama roof, but try and keep any spare change very close to my hip pocket thereafter.