(This story has been updated in the fourth paragraph. BMW does not make V6 engines but inline six cylinder engines. Thanks to sharp-eyed readers who pointed out our error.)
Audi's Q5 sport utility vehicle is one of the hottest-selling models on the U.S. market. Sales soared 70.5 percent, to 23,518, in 2010 and show little sign of cooling off, rising another 50.9 percent, to 1,050, in January of this year.
There's a reason shoppers are flocking to the new Q5: It's a quick, sweet-handling, tightly built compact luxury SUV with an attractive, thoughtfully designed interior. If you go with the base model, the 2.0T, which is new for 2011, it's also fuel efficient and reasonably priced. Indeed, until very recently, the Q5 was the classiest compact luxury SUV around. And, oh yeah, it's also turbocharged.
A real dogfight, however, is about to develop between the Q5 and BMW's (BMWA:GR) newly redesigned X3, which hit dealers' showrooms in January. The BMW has a more powerful engine than the comparable Q5, so it's quicker. It's also relatively cheap for a BMW. The entry level 2011 BMW XDrive28i starts at $37,625—which is $2,100 less than a comparable 2010 BMW X3 and only $1,650 more than the base model Audi Q5 2.0T, which starts at $36,075.
My guess is that both the X3 and Q5 will be hot-sellers this year. Early indications for the BMW are very positive: X3 sales soared 273.3 percent in January, to 1,075, even though the new X3 was available for only half the month. I predict that many customers who want six-cylinder power will opt for the BMW X3 over the V6-powered Audi Q5 3.2, which came out last year (and accounted for 68 percent of U.S. Q5 sales in 2010, according to an Audi spokesman). Sales of the new entry-level 2011 Q5 2.0T, however, will soar.
One reason is that the Q5 2.0T's remarkable turbocharged four-cylinder engine delivers 211 horsepower—and a whopping 258-lb. ft. of torque. By comparison, while the V6 engine in the Q5 3.2 is rated at 270 horsepower, it generates only 243 lb. ft. of torque. The inline six-cylinder engine in the BMW X3 xDrive28i generates 240 hp, but only 221 lb.-ft. of torque.
As a result, the base model Q5 is nearly as quick as the more expensive V6-powered rivals: Audi says the 2.0T accelerates from zero to 60 in 7.1 seconds, compared with 6.7 seconds for the Q5 3.2 and X3 xDrive28i. That's plenty of pep for most SUV owners. (If raw speed is a priority, you can always pay extra for the BMW X3 xDrive35i. It's powered by a 300-horsepower turbocharged engine, sprints from zero to 60 in just 5.5 seconds, and starts at just under $42,000.)
Like the X3, both versions of the Q5 come standard with all-wheel drive, as well as Audi's marvelous Tiptronic automatic transmission, which allows the driver to shift manually. The base model Q5, however, comes with a state-of-the-art, ultra-efficient eight-speed Tiptronic comparable to the eight-speed transmissions in the new X3, while the Q5 3.2 has an older, six-speed Tiptronic.
The combination of the four-cylinder engine and efficient transmission help raise fuel efficiency in the Q5 2.0T to a class-leading 20 miles-per-gallon in the city and 27 on the highway, for an average of 22. That not only bests the V6-powered Q5 3.2 (18/23/20), but also the BMW X3 xDrive28i (19/25/21), and the all-wheel-drive versions of the Acura (HMC) RDX (17/22/19), Mercedes (DAI:G) GLK350 (16/21/18), Volvo XC60 (18/24/20), and Infiniti (NSANY) EX35 (17/24/19).
Safety is another of the Q5's selling points. The model earned the top "Good" rating in all categories of crash tests from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Standard equipment includes stability and traction control, front-seat side and head protecting side-curtain airbags. A blind-spot warning system and rear side airbags ($350) are optional.
Behind the Wheel
Slipping behind the wheel of the Q5 2.0T is a pure joy. The suspension is stiff and sporty without ever being overly harsh. The eight-speed Tiptronic transmission is lightning fast and very smooth. Acceleration is more than adequate, both from a standing start and at highway speed. There's a bit of turbo lag when you punch the gas, but not enough to be truly annoying.
The interior is tightly built, ergonomically satisfying, and very attractive. Standard leather-trimmed seats and steering wheel and walnut inlays give the cabin an upscale feel, and there are no chintzy materials anywhere to mar the overall effect. I found the front seats very comfortable. Foot, knee, and head space in back are adequate for average-size adults.
Audi has done a good job of balancing screen commands and old-fashioned knobs and buttons to make the Q5's controls easy to use. Typical is the way you change the settings on the heated seats: You push a hard button on the central console, and a dial appears on the video monitor. By manipulating the dial on the console, you can set the heat from 1 to 10 via a virtual dial on the video screen.
For some functions, there are steering-wheel-mounted controls, too. Not all of them are intuitive to use: The trip computer, for instance, is operated via switches on the windshield wiper control arm, which were hard to find. I was able to figure everything out in a few days, however, without having to resort to the owner's manual.
The Q5's cabin is packed with handy but unobtrusive convenience features. These include a cooler box in the glove compartment, a bin under the rear deck for storing dirty or wet items, and a driver's armrest that slides backward and forward to accommodate drivers of different heights. The cover over the cargo area folds up and stows behind the rear seat.
Cargo capacity is excellent. There's 29.1 cu. ft. of space behind the rear seats. The rear seats fold down in a 60/40 pattern, expanding space to as much as 57.3 cu. ft. Maximum towing capacity is 4,400 lbs. Roof rails, to which you can attach a luggage rack, are standard. The total extra weight you can carry, including the roof rack itself, is 220 lbs.
My main gripe: Some upgrades, including steering-wheel-mounted paddle shifters, a backup camera, and intelligent cruise control are available only on the 3.2 Prestige, the most expensive version of the Q5. You can't get them with the small engine.
Buy it or Bag It?
Audi is gambling that the great North American horsepower race is over and that consumer sentiment will shift toward smaller, more fuel-efficient engines that nonetheless offer compelling performance. That's the approach the company took with its new A8 luxury sedan, and it's the approach that's shaping up with the Q5. Many Americans will be skeptical that a four-cylinder engine can offer adequate power in a luxury SUV. I found, however, that the Q5 2.0T performed more than adequately in every situation.
The Q5 sells for an average of $42,411, compared with $46,188 for the BMW X3, according to the Power Information Network (PIN). The base models, however, are fairly close in price.
For those on a tight budget, the best bargain among competing compact luxury SUVs is probably the Acura RDX, which sells for an average of $34,357, according to PIN. Other models that are less expensive, on average, than the Audi, include the Infiniti EX35 ($37,960), the Volvo XC60 ($39,102), and the Mercedes GLK350 ($40,684).
The Audi Q5's toughest competition, however, is the BMW X3. The X3 has eclipsed the Q5 3.2 in many respects, but the new Q5 2.0T offers a compelling alternative.
Click here to see more of the 2011 Audi Q5 2.0T.