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Audi sticks with the fast diesel treatment for its mid-sized SUV. Is it a winning combo?

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Bring to mind one of Audi’s S-model fast executive cars and you are likely to picture a more traditional example – an Audi S8 limousine, perhaps, or an Audi S4 Avant performance estate. Quite understandably, since they are among the ones we have known for longest. But in 2022, Audi’s more familiar go-faster options are being commercially outperformed by its newer-groove models, one of which is in our road test crosshairs this week.

The Audi SQ5 Sportback entered Audi’s UK showrooms in early 2021, along with the rest of the Audi Q5 Sportback model line-up. It has since become one of the strongest-selling of all Audi’s modern S cars.

The frontal design includes a broader grille than the pre-facelift Q5, with higher-set headlights that are intended to give the car more visual presence. Honeycomb design for the grille is all black if you opt for Vorsprung trim.

Among the firm’s classic, longways-front-engined, four-wheel-drive performance execs, only one outsold the SQ5 in the UK market in the first half of 2022 (if you combine volumes for the regular Q5 and the new Sportback) – and that was the Audi SQ7.

Like them or not, fast luxury SUVs are now critically important for brands like Audi. But exactly what kind of fast Audis do they make, and how good? We will also consider the other main question any potential SQ5 owner would need to answer before committing to the car.

How comfortably does a diesel engine sit in a £62,000 performance car in 2022, seven years after the Volkswagen Group’s Dieselgate saga, and when more and more people are looking to plug-in hybrids or EVs for fast luxury SUVs? And are hot diesels with bigger appetites for fuel compatible with these £2-a-litre times, even for the well-heeled? Stand by to see what answers we can find.

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Range at a glance

There are four engine derivatives available on the Q5 Sportback, with the more powerful of two plug-in hybrid versions, the 55 TFSIe, having yet to make it into the 2023-model-year catalogue. That makes the SQ5 the only six-cylinder option.

Audi’s premium for a Sportback bodystyle is £2450 irrespective of engine. Trim levels start at Sport, rising through S Line, Edition 1 and Vorsprung.

EnginesPowerFrom
40 TDI Quattro Sport201bhp£48,425
45 TFSI Quattro Sport262bhp£49,495
50 TFSI e Quattro Sport295bhp

£55,415

SQ5 TDI Quattro*337bhp£61,945

*Version tested

DESIGN & STYLING

02 Audi SQ5 Sportback RT 2022 Front

Audi announced the Audi Q5 and Audi SQ5 Sportback model derivative in the autumn of 2020 as its latest development of SUV design, and in the mould of the smaller Audi Q3 Sportback and Audi E-tron Sportback. An example of what has become known as the SUV coupé, it is ostensibly a swoopier-looking take on a more traditional SUV with a faster-dropping roofline and a less boxy silhouette.

As a design phenomenon, it isn’t new. It is an interesting, and potentially confusing, new application of the Sportback nomenclature in particular, though, since that term also describes certain fastback or liftback-style saloons or GTs elsewhere in the Audi range.

The clamshell-style bonnet has been on this second-generation Q5 since its introduction in 2016 – although the protruding edge it leaves across the front of the car looks unusually clumsy and crude by Audi’s habitually high coachworking standards

And so a Q5 Sportback is marginally longer at the kerb than a regular Audi Q5 (only by dint of its revised bumper design) – and a little more aerodynamic with it – but, perhaps surprisingly, no lower of roofline in outright terms. The engine range mirrors the regular Q5’s, which means you can choose from petrol, diesel and plug-in hybrid petrol options, mostly of four cylinders.

But the SQ5 is where the mechanical recipe begins to differ. This is the only Q5 that can be had with a six-cylinder engine. In other global markets, it’s a 3.0-litre turbocharged V6 petrol engine making 345bhp, but European markets get Audi’s twin-turbocharged V6 TDI performance diesel instead, producing 337bhp and 516lb ft.

And so, while Audi’s rivals offer either petrol or diesel power for their hotted-up family SUVs, Ingolstadt takes a market-specific approach and says, to us Brits at least, have a diesel or lump it. And not just in the SQ5 but the S4, S5 and S6, too.

Downstream of that V6 TDI engine, where four-cylinder Q5s run with a seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox and a clutch-based ‘intelligent’ (read: automatically switching) four-wheel drive system, the SQ5 has an eight-speed torque-converter automatic transmission and a mechanical Haldex-style centre differential for what fans of traditional Audis might call ‘proper Quattro’ four-wheel drive.

The car’s wider drivetrain and rolling chassis specification depends on the version you buy. Our lower-rung derivative had lowered and stiffened coil suspension and standard-fit adaptive dampers, all tuned to what Audi calls an S-specific calibration (so it’s different from what you get on a Q5 S Line, and cradles the chassis some 30mm closer to the road than a regular Q5 rides).

Have an SQ5 Vorsprung, however, and you will get height-adjustable adaptive air suspension instead, as well as a mechanical, torque-vectoring Sport rear differential, but it will cost you a £15,000 premium (which buys plenty of other on-board technology as well).

INTERIOR

08 Audi SQ5 Sportback RT 2022 dashboard

The Audi SQ5 Sportback is an interesting mark of how far the mission of the modern luxury SUV has drifted from the function-first versatility that used to characterise these kinds of family cars. It’s fairly practical, comfortable, commodious and versatile, and there are certainly modern performance SUVs out there that are less spacious, mild-mannered and efficient.

However, in its bid to combine some sporting athleticism of design with both SUV-typical size and space with modern, equipment-heavy luxury car appeal, the SQ5 does raise the odd eyebrow. Our test car had no spare wheel at all, for instance (since an audio system subwoofer is a lot less useful in the event of a puncture on a stony track, we tend to prefer our SUVs with at least some kind of spare).

Lateral support and adjustability of standard nappa sports front seats are very good. Touring comfort might depend on how much the pedal offset affects you. The rear cabin gets its own climate control zone, but is only adequately spacious for most adults and not especially comfortable. Lateral visibility is restricted by C-pillar.

It also had a fixed-height boot floor with little useful storage underneath and an annoying loading lip at its trailing edge. There was some cargo bay variability, thanks to 40:20:40-split folding rear seatbacks, but no sliding second-row seats as standard (another perk of Vorsprung models).

The SQ5 Sportback’s rear seats offer reasonable leg and head room for adults of average height, but taller adults won’t be particularly comfortable in them owing to their flat bases and their slightly restricted lateral visibility. Up front, there is more generous adult-appropriate space. Taller drivers won’t struggle to find a comfortable seating position in the standard sports seat, which had extendable under-thigh support and a massager in our test car’s case.

One tester noted the SQ5 Sportback’s offset pedals, however, which inadvertently inclined him to perch on the outboard lateral bolster of the seat base a little, so as to be straighter on the pedals. That, in turn, adversely affected comfort on longer trips.

The dashboard layout is dominated by a free-standing 10.1in infotainment screen, which is of Audi’s latest MIB-3 software generation. But it also means there is no longer any tactile input device, nor any auxiliary controller for it (which the regular Audi Q5 lost as part of its 2020 facelift). Most testers found the new system less easy to browse while driving as a result of losing its separate input device (see ‘Multimedia system’, right), although the system’s menus are clearly presented.

Elsewhere on the fascia, the SQ5 has kept its metallised physical heater controls, which may look dated but are undeniably easy to use. It has quite a plain, monotone mix of cabin materials, which are smart-looking but typically reserved, lacking a little bit of richness, intrigue and performance flavour.

Multimedia

12 Audi sq5 sportback rt 2022 infotainment 0

A new, third-generation infotainment system was among the key features of the facelifted Q5, and the Sportback got it automatically. It expands the regular Q5’s connectivity offering to include wireless mirroring for Apple and Android devices, while Audi Phone Box supports wireless charging as standard.

Amazon Alexa voice control is fully integrated, but even so, with Audi having taken the old system’s separate tactile input device away and gone touchscreen/voice control only for information and command input, usability has taken a step backwards. There is no means by which to move a cursor around the screen while you are driving, either on the transmission tunnel or the steering wheel, and the screen itself is a bit of a stretch to reach without leaning forward in your seat.

The layout and navigability of the touchscreen interface, once you’re jabbing and swiping at it, are both pretty good; you can set up your own home screen; and there are separate physical heater controls. Really, a cursor controller is all that’s missing – but it is now a conspicuous omission.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

16 Audi SQ5 Sportback RT 2022 engine

The Audi SQ5 Sportback’s diesel engine was never likely to make it the most effusive or the quickest performance SUV of its kind, but the blend of pace, flexibility, refinement and real-world efficiency that it offers is nonetheless appealing – and it remains so even compared with electrified options in 2022.

The combination of a torque-converter gearbox and mechanical centre differential makes for a slightly malleable feel about the take-up of power, which the occasionally lazy turbocharged engine’s power delivery builds on. If you feed in throttle midway through a bend, for instance, you’ll notice the driveline seems to pause and flex a little as it overcomes the friction caused by the four-wheel drive coupling, only to release torque later as you unwind your steering angle and equalise the relative rotational speed of the wheels.

The powertrain appeals, but I’d have it in the regular SQ5 body, because a better-looking, less useful SUV isn’t something that has ever made sense to me

This certainly isn’t the most crisp or responsive sort of modern performance car powertrain, then, but it isn’t dim-witted or clunky-feeling either. There is a level of mechanical honesty and connected character about it that is quite likeable in a big, four-wheel-drive executive car, and that you can take pleasure in acclimatising to.

In terms of outright performance, the SQ5 Sportback can hold its own – especially when hauling through higher gears at lower crank speeds. There’s an obviously digitally enriched, though not objectionable, engine sound as accompaniment to what your right foot is demanding, which is enough to make what would probably be a fairly unenticing diesel V6 listenable. And there’s plenty of outright speed when you need it.

Standing-start acceleration may be off the pace of petrol-powered road test rivals from Mercedes-AMG and Alfa Romeo, but in getting from 30-70mph in fourth gear in 5.0sec, the SQ5 Sportback was actually quicker than the Porsche Cayenne Turbo GT we tested a few weeks ago.

The powertrain is at its best when you leave it to its own devices in D, when gear selection logic lets the engine knuckle down through the lower reaches of the rev band and flex its muscles. It’s less impressive when you use S mode instead, when it tends to hold onto gears for longer than really suits a big-torque diesel, perhaps because that is what makes the car quickest in outright terms. Paddle-shift manual mode allows you to manage gear selection yourself, of course, and to do so with decent responsiveness.

Audi’s preference for Pirelli Scorpion Verde SUV-specific tyres rather than dedicated performance rubber made the SQ5 Sportback’s braking performance at the proving ground less commanding than it might have been, and also allowed the car to squirm during emergency stops, undermining stability slightly. Brake pedal progression was good, however. And if you opt for 21in wheels rather than the standard 20s, a more conventional performance road tyre is what you will get.

RIDE & HANDLING

18 Audi SQ5 Sportback RT 2022 handling

Audi is now well practised at turning out S-badged luxury performance models that its heartland customers will like. They have an unmistakably filtered, precise, secure and eerily consistent vibe and flavour, which the Audi SQ5 Sportback reproduces faithfully. And that means, while this isn’t the most engaging, communicative, animated or entertaining driver’s car of its kind, it is a very predictable, stable and effective one that’s easy to drive to its limits, albeit slightly limited in its dynamic repertoire as you approach them.

You can adjust the car’s driving experience across several modes, with Eco and Comfort at the tame end of the spectrum and Dynamic at the other, or you can configure an Individual mode of your own, dialling up and down the suspension, engine, gearbox and stability control systems specifically.

Whatever you do, though, you will find the steering somewhere between light and medium-light of weight and measured of pace, with little contact patch feel, but with dependably linear gearing off-centre.

Audi’s standard SQ5 Quattro driveline always finds plenty of traction, and feels like it’s acting through a pretty even inter-axle torque split, allowing you to accelerate away from corners from the apex onwards but not really to rotate the car using your right foot. Audi’s tyre choice doesn’t make for the most adhesive front axle, and on twisting roads taken with pace, it will be the front wheels whose hold on the road you will be managing. This isn’t a particularly pointy, agile-feeling SUV, then, but it’s still one that you can hustle along quite agreeably, whose readiness to carry speed isn’t curtailed by obliging you to work to get the chassis turned, and that always gives you total confidence.

The car’s damping in Dynamic mode is slightly grabby and brittle under greater lateral loads and when there are bigger vertical inputs going through the suspension. Soften it slightly and, while a little more roll and heave is permitted, the axles can better deal with tougher surfaces, and they allow the car’s body control to adopt a more settled flow across country roads. As such, and like its powertrain, the SQ5 Sportback is at its best when not being driven at the edge of its performance capabilities, but at more like an eight-tenths stride.

Comfort and isolation

Neither the SQ5 Sportback’s driver’s seat nor its driving position is beyond criticism, as we have already mentioned – and its ride isn’t either. There’s a slightly nagging, insistent firmness to the car’s close body control that reminds you of fast Audis of old. The adaptive dampers might allow you to temper those tendencies in Comfort driving mode, but never to tune them out completely.

The air suspension of Vorsprung models is likely to make for a different ride characteristic entirely, of course, but the comfort levels of the basic model, however high the take-up of the upper one might be, ought to be better. It isn’t good enough, in our eyes, to argue that the SQ5’s standard chassis tune can be allowed to be the sportier and less compromising option of the two when the other one only comes for such a premium.

Ride isolation is better. Our road test decibel meter recorded a 63dBA noise level at a 50mph cruise, which is considerably quieter than key rivals. And outright high-speed stability is typically good, the measured steering and handling responses making motorway driving really assured. But for the odd fidget from the ride, they ensure that the car can feel relaxing when you want it to.

Track notes

 

Track notesThe SQ5 Sportback didn’t struggle to keep its mass in check around Millbrook’s tighter bends, or to conjure or carry big speeds on even its steepest gradients. It’s stable, fairly fast and willing to be hustled around flatter bends, finding great traction and decent power-on chassis balance.

The adaptive suspension doesn’t deal too well with extremes of vertical load when set at its stiffest, however, and isn’t easily capable of handling inputs on the loaded side of its axles when cornering hard. Here, damping can feel brittle and tetchy, as if the car is floundering a little against its mass. But dial those dampers down a notch, give the struts a bit more freedom to move and the chassis starts to feel more natural and easy to read.

The chassis balance lacks a bit of lateral grip at the front axle, but the car’s electronics counteract both steady-state and drive-related understeer well if left active.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

01 Audi SQ5 Sportback RT 2022 Hero

The Audi SQ5 Sportback is quite reasonably priced by modern performance SUV standards, provided you are happy to avoid the pricier Vorsprung trim level. It is cheaper at list price than its nearest rival from the BMW X4 range, and considerably more so than certain derivatives in the Porsche Macan, Alfa Romeo Stelvio and Range Rover Velar catalogues. CAP suggests residual values for it should be competitive enough, too, and should not suffer much as a result of any diesel engine stigma.

As a fleet option, of course, it will be nowhere compared with plug-in hybrid or electric rivals for anyone liable to pay company car tax. But real-world fuel economy might well do a little to make up for that.

Spec advice? Think hard before chucking money at a Vorsprung model. It may have air suspension, but it also has a panoramic glass roof that robs head room. Stick with a standard car and add the Comfort and Sound Pack (£1395), the Tour Pack (£1250) and a five-year extended warranty (£1415).

Our testing suggests that your daily return will depend a lot on how you drive the car – and, with plenty of spirited driving part of our testing, we returned only 29mpg on average. But the car achieved 49mpg on our 70mph touring economy test, when set to deliver optimal efficiency: which is the kind of result you might compare favourably with many PHEV SUV options when regular charging isn’t so easily achieved.

VERDICT

19 Audi SQ5 Sportback RT 2022 static

The Audi SQ5 Sportback is easy to overlook if you want every last shred of dynamism, performance and excitement from your next fast family car. But buyers of Audi S cars have often demonstrated a dose more pragmatism about their preferences over the years, and they should like a lot about this model.

It may not be a classic perfolrmance type for Audi, but it has Ingolstadt’s time-honoured performance car DNA written large throughout its character. Decent practicality and design differentiation; brisk, accessible performance and surprising touring fuel efficiency; creditable refinement, and both luxury and quality interior feel; and handling precision tempered with ever-present stability and ease of operation.

I can see this car being bought by people who just want the top-level derivative, and who wouldn’t class themselves as performance car consumers. It has that breadth of appeal, though I’d personally prefer a bit more tactile engagement.

The combination of diesel engine with old-school drivetrain makes it heavy compared with some rivals, however. Handling balance and vertical body control can both be found wanting, there’s a filtered numbness about the controls, and ride comfort should be better, too. But if a fast diesel SUV still makes sense to you, this one ought to be a contender. It makes a quietly compelling and unexpectedly reassuring new S car for our changing times.

Matt Saunders

Matt Saunders Autocar
Title: Road test editor

As Autocar’s chief car tester and reviewer, it’s Matt’s job to ensure the quality, objectivity, relevance and rigour of the entirety of Autocar’s reviews output, as well contributing a great many detailed road tests, group tests and drive reviews himself.

Matt has been an Autocar staffer since the autumn of 2003, and has been lucky enough to work alongside some of the magazine’s best-known writers and contributors over that time. He served as staff writer, features editor, assistant editor and digital editor, before joining the road test desk in 2011.

Since then he’s driven, measured, lap-timed, figured, and reported on cars as varied as the Bugatti Veyron, Rolls-Royce PhantomTesla RoadsterAriel Hipercar, Tata Nano, McLaren SennaRenault Twizy and Toyota Mirai. Among his wider personal highlights of the job have been covering Sebastien Loeb’s record-breaking run at Pikes Peak in 2013; doing 190mph on derestricted German autobahn in a Brabus Rocket; and driving McLaren’s legendary ‘XP5’ F1 prototype. His own car is a trusty Mazda CX-5.