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New performance SUV has it all to do in a class of talented rivals. Is it up to the task?

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The European car-making business’s love affair with the SUV is showing no signs of cooling – and the good news is the variety that infatuation is fuelling makes the phenomenon anything but boring.

Big ones, small ones, rugged ones, hybrid ones, premium ones, cheap ones, square ones and rakish ones: all seem to be good news at the moment – even the ‘sporty’ ones.

Imitation quad exhausts will annoy those who like form to follow function. Look underneath and you’ll see the real exhaust dangling down inboard

If you still look on the very idea of a ‘performance SUV’ as an unfathomable contradiction in terms, you can plainly consider yourself well out of step with the tastes of those with a generous five-figure budget to lavish on a fast, daily-driven, luxury family car in 2017.

This year, we’ve already seen a new über-powerful version of the Porsche Macan Turbo, the quicker versions of the new Alfa Romeo Stelvio are imminent (along with all the others), and all the while we’re still getting used to the sight of the Maserati Levante, Audi SQ7, Mercedes-AMG GLC43 and Jaguar F-Pace on our roads. They may be variously big, burly, pacy, pricey, noisy, thirsty and mud-loving, but the choice is getting alarmingly wide.

Here comes more of it: the new Audi SQ5, which, this time around, will offer UK buyers the option of three-hundred-and-something-horsepower six-cylinder petrol or diesel engines.

The first generation of Audi SQ5 (2012-2017), you may remember, this car was Audi’s first production model to be powered by its 3.0-litre BiTDI diesel V6. It was available with a supercharged petrol V6 in other markets, but that version was never offered for sale in the UK.

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Rarely a firm to repeat a mistake, Audi has observed that petrol power is no barrier to the success of some of the SQ5’s key competitors and is launching its second SQ5 with the same 349bhp 3.0-litre turbocharged petrol V6 you’ll find in the current S4 and Audi S5 (2017-2019), with a diesel version (for European customers only) to follow.

The big question around these parts is whether the inclusion of that petrol engine, and the car’s wider performance makeover, makes this a significantly better driver’s car than the regular Audi Q5.

Although we rated that car for plenty of other reasons, this performance version will have to be a much more engaging prospect if it is going to cut it in this road test. 

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DESIGN & STYLING

Audi SQ5 front end

The 2995cc all-aluminium turbo V6 that powers the Audi SQ5 is quite a clever one. It uses Audi’s variable valve lift technology to run more efficiently under part loads by effectively shortening the engine’s induction stroke and running with a higher compression ratio.

Under wide throttle loads, the cam followers run over a different camshaft profile, returning to a longer induction stroke and a more normal compression ratio. And that allows this 1870kg SUV to combine a 349bhp peak power output and a 5.4sec 0-62mph claim with claimed combined fuel economy of 34.0mpg.

Not often you find a torque-converter auto that’ll let you downshift manually to within 500rpm of the redline, as well as upshift to less than 1000rpm on the tacho. For an SUV, I certainly wouldn’t swap this for an S tronic dual-clutch gearbox

A 30bhp power deficit compared with the Jaguar F-Pace 3.0 S doesn’t prevent the Audi from being marginally superior in both headline figures – and 20g/km kinder to the sky in CO2 emissions.

As before, the SQ5’s engine is mated as standard to an eight-speed Tiptronic automatic gearbox, which automatically switches to a freewheeling mode once you take your foot off the accelerator. The transmission feeds Audi’s traditional quattro all-wheel drive system rather than its new, clutch-based quattro ultra version.

The SQ5’s self-locking centre differential is nominally biased to the rear end, but also traditionally keen to send most of the torque forwards when it deems it necessary. Vectoring is managed by braking an inside wheel, although a sport differential for the back axle is available (and fitted to our test car) to distribute power from side to side in a more traditional sense.

Adaptive dampers are a standard feature of the all-round multi-link chassis, although there is a choice here, too: an S-specific air suspension (another feature of our test car) is available and means that the predominately road-focused SQ5 comes with the added SUV capability of adjustable ride height. The optional equipment tailoring also extends to the car’s steering, which can be had with Audi’s actively variable Dynamic Steering system or with a fixed ratio (our test car was equipped with the latter).

The alloy wheels being turned are typically vast: 20in as standard, or 21in if you prefer, with six-piston brake calipers behind them on 350mm brake discs at the front. The model-specific rims complete a design makeover based on the customary tweaking of bumpers, grille, air inlets and diffuser – not to mention the conspicuous spectacle of a quite obviously fake, outsized, quad-pipe make-believe exhaust.

INTERIOR

Audi SQ5 interior

To create the Audi SQ5, the designers have added sporting garnish to the Audi Q5’s cabin in similar ways as it did in transforming the Q7 into the Audi SQ7, but it has created a marginally less stunning interior here.

Although classy, our test car’s mix of grey leathers, grey Alcantara trims and carbonfibre fillets produced a slightly gloomy cabin ambience made only slightly more special-feeling by the inclusion of Audi’s quilted sports seats and sports pedals.

Credit to Audi for the sliding back seats but they don’t seem to liberate much leg room. When ‘sitting behind myself’ as it were, my knees are on the front seatback even with the back ones slid fully aft

Audi does offer lighter grey leather, and a choice of brushed aluminium or piano black inlays – and it’s clearly worth taking time to consider the trim options.

Whereas the bigger SQ7’s perceived quality lands on your senses like a heavyweight jab, the SQ5’s wow factor is less pervasive. This looks and feels like an expensive interior almost everywhere – with its sophisticated Virtual Cockpit digital instruments, its solid and smooth switchgear and its gleaming precision applications of satin chrome in particular.

And yet there are also places where it falls short of Audi’s singularly high standards on material finish. One tester observed that the car’s roll-top looked more shiny and felt more hard than he expected, and likewise the tops of the interior door panels; another tester felt the cabin air vents look strangely plain.

There were no complaints about the driving position, which is as lofty and semi-recumbent as that of most traditional SUVs – and so quite unlike that of the Porsche Macan.

The driver’s seat is firm and well bolstered but comfortable, offering extendable under-thigh support, cushion height and cushion angle adjustment to serve up the perfect tailored driving position.

In the rear, passenger space is good, although not exceptional. Our test car’s optional panoramic glass sunroof ate into head room somewhat, leaving enough for adults of average height but no more, and both leg room and cushion length also left a little to be desired for occupants over 6ft 2in.

To be fair to Audi, we’re at the more compact end of the SUV class here and some compromise on cabin space is to be expected. Compared with the Macan, the SQ5 is limo-like in its rear-quarters accommodation – and it beats both the Macan and the Jaguar F-Pace we measured on front-row head room, available boot width and boot loading height.

The SQ5 offers what’s undoubtedly the best infotainment set-up available in this particular market niche. You get Audi’s 8.3in MMI Navigation Plus set-up as standard and have to pay extra to get Bang & Olufsen surround audio, Virtual Cockpit instruments, a head-up display and a wireless phone charger — but none is expensive enough to warrant avoiding it.

We’re docking the car half a star on this score because whereas other Audis allow you to fold away the central screen when you want to, the SQ5 doesn’t (and neither does the S4 or Audi S5), but there’s very little to complain about otherwise.

The car’s navigation mapping is excellent, its route programming fast and effective and its traffic monitoring also very useful. Should you want to use Apple CarPlay to follow the navigation system on
your phone while double-checking against the fitted sat nav in the Virtual Cockpit, you can.

The car’s optional Bang & Olufsen 3D surround audio system (19 speakers, 755W) is very good indeed.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

3.0-litre V6 Audi SQ5 petrol engine

The Porsche Macan Turbo was a sub-5.0sec-to-60mph prospect even before Porsche got around to adding an extra 40 horses for the Macan Performance Pack, and our timing gear has already revealed that Mercedes-AMG is right to claim something beginning with a ‘4’ for its new Mercedes-AMG GLC43.

The mid-sized performance SUV is clearly getting quicker. And that’s the backdrop against which Audi is pushing this SQ5 out into the limelight – unfortunately, with a quiet admission that the new SQ5’s petrol engine isn’t quite as potent as the BiTDI in the previous Audi SQ5 (2012-2017) was, and so we can expect the new car to be 0.3sec slower to 62mph than the one we Brits have just waved goodbye to. It’s not the most auspicious start for any performance machine.

Lack of incisiveness makes it hard to pick up apexes every time, but there’s enough handling adjustability to keep the car turned in and powering on mid-corner

The SQ5 feels brisk and what its engine gains relative to that of the outgoing car in terms of combustive range and audible richness may well be worth more to some people than what it has lost in outright torque. Still, this Audi isn’t about to blow anyone’s mind with its outright pace. It’s a car with a familiar mix of speed, flexibility and refinement that you’ll find in most modern Audi S-badged cars, engineered to give up the last fraction of the dynamism it might have had in return for a healthy dose of luxuriousness.

With Comfort mode on the Drive Select controller, the SQ5 has a silken side that you just don’t expect of a car of its ilk riding on 21in alloy wheels and low-profile tyres. Wind and road noise are very thoroughly suppressed and the exhaust noise dialled down to the level of a distantly sweet hum.

Depart from that mode, cycling through Auto and into Dynamic, and you may wonder what has happened to the reserved V6 you were previously listening to – because the SQ5’s audio speakers start filtering greater and greater levels of ‘engine sound modulation’ into the cabin.

It ultimately becomes sufficiently loud and contrived that few could mistake it for authentic engine noise. And once you’ve recognised it for what it is, there’s no way back.

The car’s Individual driving mode allows you to deactivate the annoyance while keeping other systems in a more sporting state – but what’s missing, of course, is the genuinely soulful warble of a great petrol V6, the promise of which could conceivably have motivated you to chop in your old diesel SQ5 in the first place.

The SQ5’s eight-speed automatic gearbox is suited to it very well for the most part. It’s smooth and quick-shifting and its control logic works as well to deliver a sporting edge in ‘S’ mode as it does relaxed progress in ‘D’.

Unlike some other autos, it doesn’t deliver a launch control mode, it won’t hold on to a gear at the engine’s redline and it doesn’t deactivate the kickdown switch at the bottom of the accelerator pedal’s travel when manual mode is selected – all of which you might regret a little, but you might also be more willing to forgive in a sports SUV than in a sports car.

RIDE & HANDLING

Audi SQ5 cornering

The Audi SQ5’s driving experience confirms the same impression we got from the Audi S5 Coupé: that it’s Audi’s intention with its modern breed of S-badged models to produce cars that are luxurious, inclusive, accessible and exciting.

To that list you can, of course, add ‘versatile’ and ‘capable’ where this particular newbie SUV is concerned.

Steering filters out the influence of the transmission bumps, but that ultimately means you’re getting less feedback than you might be

And, just as the S5 did, the SQ5 leaves you with the sense that such a long and diverse list of dynamic qualities remains, even in 2017, a lot to expect of any new performance car; and that if Audi asked for less, it would probably get more.

Our test car had the optional air suspension and sport differential fitted, but did without active-ratio Dynamic Steering. Wider experience of Audi products would have suggested that our test car’s set-up may well be the optimal mechanical specification, and the SQ5’s generally quiet and composed ride, good body control, strong and stable grip level and broadly intuitive and natural-feeling steering bear that out.

With the Drive Select mode in Auto, the SQ5’s ride mixes compliance and control well and the car corners fluently and with decent precision. Comfort mode is useful in town and for laid-back long-distance covering.

Dynamic mode feels overblown. It makes the car’s steering become leaden but filters no more than a semblance of load or contact patch feel through the rim, and it makes the car’s ride become over-damped and unsettled. Simply put, you don’t need it: the Audi’s body control is at its best on the road in Auto mode, and its steering likewise.

But even in Auto mode, the SQ5’s propensity to constantly remodel its driving experience depending on your prevailing speed and driving style can be a touch troubling. Turn into a bend at 40mph and you’ll find quite a different amount of steering weight than if you turn in at 70mph, for example.

It’s hard to build trust in a car whose primary control interfaces seem so changeable – and that limits the amount of enjoyment you can take in driving it.

When you do find the confidence to throw the SQ5 around, it responds with a creditable sort of agility and fun factor — although you can tell that Audi wasn’t aiming to outdo the Porsche Macan or Jaguar F-Pace with its handling.

The car has good stability and although it lacks the directional incisiveness and the steering feedback you’d like for a really committed corner entry, you can maintain a high cornering speed so long as you accept some initial understeer.

You can push through it and neutralise the car’s attitude with the application of power, making it feel more adjustable and engaging mid-corner than the car’s other dynamic traits might have led you to expect.

But you can never forget the SQ5’s height or bulk, or drive it like a two-seater in the same way you can a Macan, and you don’t get the same sense of balance and sweetness from its handling as you do from an Jaguar F-Pace.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Audi SQ5

The SQ5 comes into its niche as one of the better-priced and more economical options, and its availability with a petrol engine will do its ownership prospects no end of good, given the bad press that diesel is currently suffering.

As a fleet owner, you’ll need to keep the car on its standard 20in rims in order to avoid paying anything other than the maximum 37 percent benefit-in-kind tax, but given that few rivals allow any route to avoid this, we might consider it a selling point.

SQ5 fares well initially but can’t match a like-for-like Macan for value retention after two years or 24,000 miles

And if the fuel you put into the car’s tank comes out of your own pocket, you’ll likely be moderately impressed to hear that we recorded just under 33mpg from the car on our touring economy test, which is a considerably better than most owners of similarly powerful petrol SUVs will be getting.

Residual values on the car are forecast to be good, and Audi’s standard equipment list includes LED headlights with automatic high beam, privacy glass, heated nappa leather and an MMI Navigation Plus infotainment system.

A car equipped to hold its value best would probably include close to £10,000 worth of options on top of the standard kit, but that’ll get you air suspension, a locking rear differential, Virtual Cockpit instruments, a head-up display, premium audio, adaptive cruise control, 21in wheels, a five-year warranty and more.

VERDICT

3.5 star Audi SQ5

The new SQ5 is a car of many qualities. Too many, really.

That it’s not the most exciting SUV you may ever have driven is obvious – but it’s that way by design.

Audi’s mid-sized performance SUV bites off more than it can chew

Audi quite plainly wants you to think of this not as the ultimate driver’s SUV but rather as the one that can do it all: climb a steep gravel path, ford a river, run with a sports car, dominate the autobahn, and then shut down its more imposing facets and be as quiet, comfortable and undemanding as a modern limousine, but a whole lot more practical and versatile with it.

Such breadth of capability is likely to stretch any new car thin, making it unlikely to approach greatness in any one area, but in this sporting SUV, it certainly erodes that which should be its clearest selling point: exciting handling dynamism.

Although it could punch harder on performance, the SQ5’s outright pace isn’t so underwhelming to its driver as the isolated, changeable remoteness of its controls or its shortage of genuine character.

This means overall the new SQ5 makes our top five but is no match for the Mercedes-AMG GLC43, the Alpina XD3 Biturbo, the Jaguar F-Pace 3.0 V6 S and the formidable Porsche Macan GTS.

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Audi SQ5 2017-2019 First drives