San Francisco's dense traffic, poorly timed traffic lights, and hills cause just about any car's fuel economy to plummet like a 1930s Wall Street stockbroker. Even the vaunted diesel efficiency of the 2014 Audi Q5 TDI suffered, the trip computer showing an average as low as 15 mpg while I drove it around town.
However, that same average leaped to over 34 mpg as I cruised down the freeway, my first hint that the Q5 TDI would offer a host of seeming contradictions.
The Q5, Audi's small crossover, hit the streets in 2009, and besides some engine and electronics updating, remains basically a first-generation vehicle. At a little over 15 feet long, it's a good fit for an urban environment, and didn't feel unwieldy as I maneuvered through heavy traffic. It fits five passengers with 29.1 cubic feet left over for cargo.
At the same time, this SUV-classified vehicle comes with Audi's Quattro all-wheel-drive system and a descent control mode. None of those systems means that it can climb out of canyons, but they will help it negotiate snowy, icy, or muddy roads. And for real utility, Audi rates its towing capacity at 4,400 pounds. The massive amount of torque from its diesel engine might be able to pull a bit more, but the monocoque architecture probably won't handle it.
As another contradiction, the outside of the Q5 looks a bit lumpish, yet the inside offers elegance and simplicity.
While not exactly ugly, the Q5 body is designed for its interior capacity. The roofline and general shape echoes that of theand , two other crossover vehicles introduced around the same time. Adorning the porky body are signature Audi style cues, such as a large, framed grille crossing over the bumper line, and headlights bordered with a nice LED strip.
On the other hand, the cabin is graced by satin-finished wood trim, a detail I particularly like because you can actually feel the grain. For vents, the LCD, and other dashboard features, Audi uses a thin border, similar to the look of the grille. Buttons on the steering wheel spokes are kept to a minimum, although I found that to hamper access to some infotainment functions.
The Q5 sports Audi's connected cabin tech, the most notable feature being the integration of Google Earth imagery with the navigation system. Relying on a data connection from T-Mobile, for which owners will have to pay a monthly fee, the car's 6.5-inch LCD shows stunning satellite photography of the immediate environs, with graphics overlaid to highlight roads. The result looks very cool, and should help drivers figure out upcoming junctions and find landmarks.
When the car was in an area without a data connection, the imagery devolved into a photographic blur. I could manually change the map to show its standard graphics, but it would have been nicer if the car automatically reverted to its stored maps when the data connection was lost. In some cities, such as San Francisco, those stored maps are as impressive as the satellite imagery, as they show extensive 3D renderings of buildings and landmarks.
Under route guidance, the Q5's navigation system offers useful turn graphics on the main LCD, complete with lane guidance, while arrows and street names on the instrument cluster LCD also help the driver. To top it off, voice prompts also called out street names. I wasn't likely to get lost in the Q5.
The electronics felt as responsive as any smartphone, reacting near instantly to inputs from the console-mounted controls. Audi uses a central dial with buttons around the perimeter for quick access to functions and menus. The system takes a little getting used to, but quickly becomes familiar. Voice command is advanced enough that I could say the address I wanted as a single stream, rather than having to speak each component as a separate input.
Audio in amber
Another portion of the interface, highlighted in amber, accesses all the car's audio functions. For stored media, the car offers room on its own hard drive for music, and even has a built-in Wi-Fi network you can use for streaming music from devices. However, I couldn't get my iPhone to play music over Wi-Fi, as the Q5 doesn't seem to be AirPlay compatible. For my phone, I relied on Bluetooth streaming, an adjunct function to the Bluetooth hands-free phone system.
Just to prove I could, I plugged an Apple 30-pin-to-Lightning adapter into the proprietary connecter cable in the glove compartment, then plugged my phone into that. Although inconveniently placed, it worked, at least for a little while. The sound quality suffered from the Apple adapter, which has its own tiny digital-analog converter, and it would occasionally stop playback entirely.
This Q5 was equipped with the base audio system, but I still came away impressed thanks to the soundscape created by 10 speakers around the cabin. The amp, rated at only 180 watts, lacked the punch for truly impressive playback, but the overall clarity was enjoyable. Audi offers an upgrade to a Bang & Olufsen system, adding four speakers and packing a 505-watt amp. The audio enjoyment from that option would make it worth the money.
Despite the data pipe built into the car, here's another odd contradiction with the Q5: it runs short on name-brand apps built into the dashboard. The navigation system integrates Google Earth and local search, and there are data services giving nearby fuel prices and even parking garage availability. The coolest feature shows Wikipedia-sourced articles for nearby landmarks. But you won't find Yelp, Pandora, TuneIn, Facebook, Twitter, or any of the other popular apps found in many other cars.
The Volkswagen Group, of which Audi is a part, has been one of the main proponents of diesel engines in the US, and the Q5 TDI demonstrates the benefits and oddities of these types of engines.
According to Audi's spec sheet, the turbocharged 3-liter V-6 engine in the Q5 TDI produces a massive 428 pound-feet of torque. That compares with the 295 pound-feet of the gasoline V-6 available in the Q5 model. However, the Q5 TDI's horsepower is only 240, compared with 272 from the gasoline engine.
And 428 pound-feet of torque, the amount of force the engine makes over a foot of rotation, is a huge amount for a passenger car. By all rights, that kind of torque should rip the rubber from the wheels every time you push the accelerator. That amount of force should plant you flat against the seatback and make the Q5 slam forward like a dragster.
But, probably for the best, it doesn't.
Instead, pushing the pedal started a gentle pull forward, an easily modulated acceleration with no twitchiness, and no sudden turbo thrust. When I got into it, the exhaust made a nice growl, and the Q5 kept its speed moving up and a steady rate, long after many cars would have hit a power plateau. Audi cites a zero to 60 mph figure of 6.5 seconds for the Q5 TDI, half a second slower than the equivalent gasoline version.
The Q5 TDI's diesel hounds of hell get reined in by electronics intended to make the car drivable for the masses: a combination of traction control, Quattro all-wheel-drive systems, and the eight-speed automatic transmission. Not only do these systems promote control, but they also helped it hit the 28.6 mpg average I achieved while driving the car on freeways, in the city, and on twisty mountain roads.
Maybe not too surprisingly considering previous Audi and Volkswagen TDI models, the Q5 didn't betray its diesel-ness much beyond a faint scent in the cabin. Whether on the freeway or poking along in traffic, it was boring and easy to drive.
I wasn't crazy about the electrically boosted power steering, something that seems endemic to Audi vehicles. The wheel turns too easily, and I could feel the electric boost from a slightly whirring sensation. Other carmakers have done a better job of masking that electric feel.
On the flip side, I liked how responsive the steering felt. At speed on the freeway, wheel input caused a reaction, but the steering wasn't twitchy, and did not need constant, close monitoring. The Q5's steering wouldn't prove exhausting on a road trip.
Taking the Q5 up to more interesting roads, I was struck by another contradiction: it handled very well as I pounded it through a set of turns. The fixed suspension was screwed down tight, preventing wallow and giving the Q5 a very stable feeling. There was some lean and a bit of understeer, but it offered a good feeling of control throughout. Getting the tires to actually squeal would have taken some seriously reckless speed.
More impressive, this Q5 TDI lacked the available adaptive suspension, which would have made for even better cornering. Audi's Drive Select feature serves as an all-in-one control, letting you choose Comfort or Dynamic settings that cover parameters such as suspension, steering, and throttle response.
The only Sport setting in this Q5 TDI was through the transmission, pulling it back a notch from the Drive position to toggle more-aggressive shifting. One quirk of diesels is a lower redline, shown on the Q5 TDI's tachometer at 4,500rpm. Even with that lower engine speed, Audi uses the exact same gear ratios in the eight-speed transmission as in the gasoline version.
The Sport setting proved a little more satisfying when it came to tapping power at speed, but given the lower redline there wasn't much of an rpm range to work with. The Q5 TDI felt more like a cruiser and suburban errand-runner than sports vehicle.
Given the nature of the crossover segment, contradictions come with the territory. So of course the 2014 Audi Q5 TDI will cover a lot of ground in its features, suiting it for a variety of uses. Its fuel economy may swing wildly depending on where it's being driven, but my average of 28.6 mpg proves diesel's efficiency.
The Q5 TDI proved comfortable and easy to drive, and exhibited nice driving dynamics when pushed. However, hard-core speed demons will want to look at the SQ5, Audi's new version of the Q5 designed for serious sport driving. Or, those who want their efficiency with a high-tech touch might consider the new Q5 Hybrid, which offers fuel economy almost as good as the TDI version.
In the cabin, high-tech is Audi's signature, starting with the data connection powering Google Earth and other location-based services tied into navigation. The audio system boasts an array of sources that should satisfy any driver, although the proprietary port in the glove box could be more convenient. It certainly made me explore other audio options.
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|Model||2014 Audi Q5|
|Trim||TDI Premium Plus|
|Power train||Turbocharged 3-liter V-6 diesel engine, eight-speed automatic transmission|
|EPA fuel economy||24 mpg city/31 mpg highway|
|Observed fuel economy||28.6 mpg|
|Navigation||Optional hard-drive-based system with traffic and satellite imagery|
|Bluetooth phone support||Standard|
|Digital audio sources||Onboard hard drive, Wi-Fi streaming, Bluetooth streaming, iPod integration, USB drive, SD card, auxiliary input, satellite radio, HD Radio|
|Audio system||180-watt 10-speaker system|
|Driver aids||Blind-spot monitor, rearview camera|
|Price as tested||$51,445|