Small SUVs present a good compromise of practical cabin space, carlike drivability, and good fuel economy. Or, at least, they should. But some small SUVs we've tested failed on that third trait. The Acura RDX and the Land Rover LR2 turned in worse economy than we expected, but the 2009 Audi Q5 should serve as an example to those other car companies of how to do it right.
Motivated by a relatively small engine, the Q5 delivers impressive performance along with reasonable fuel economy. And with Audi's new Drive Select system, the Q5 transforms from a cruiser to a canyon carver at the touch of a button. This is the first Audi we've seen with the new Multimedia Interface (MMI) controller, which also brings in a new hard-drive-based navigation system. With the added storage space, it incorporates some very detailed 3D maps.
As the Q5 is a completely new model for Audi, it doesn't suffer from legacy issues, getting the new cabin tech package from the start. The previous generation MMI, which we last saw in the Audi S8, uses a knob surrounded by a quartet of buttons. The new MMI merely adds a small finger-movable joystick on top of the knob, the only advantage being that you can use the joystick to move a cursor around on a map. Not a huge improvement, but it sure makes map navigation a lot easier.
The new navigation system puts the Q5 light years ahead of other Audi models. On first getting into the car and checking the maps, we were pleased to see traffic flow and incident information overlaid on nearby freeways. Putting the map into 3D mode, the whole of downtown San Francisco came to life with video-game-quality rendering. There was the pyramid-shaped Transamerica building, and there the carnelian-covered Bank of America tower rising above a landscape of lesser buildings.
These virtual cityscapes look impressive and can be useful when you're lost in real-world concrete canyons, providing an aerial view so you can find your way out. Along with 3D buildings, the Q5's maps also show topographical information, which proved very useful as we flogged the car around the Santa Cruz Mountains.
Although the addition of the joystick makes map input easy, manually entering addresses is still somewhat tedious, as you have to select each number and letter with the knob. Using this knob reminded us of old rotary telephones, and the reason why every new phone has a keypad. But there is voice command, too, and it works very well. Using it to enter a destination, we said the name of a city, and it presented a list of what it thought we said. Our chosen city was at the top of the list. Next, it understood the name of the street we asked for, and voila, our destination was programmed. Taking a step toward natural language, the navigation system will list nearby restaurants if you say "I'm hungry," or ATMs if you say "I need money."
Select driving mode
Before setting out in the Audi Q5, we had a choice to make: Would we want a comfortable or dynamic driving experience? This Q5 came equipped with the optional Drive Select feature, which we first saw in the Audi A4. Drive Select adjusts the suspension, gearbox, and steering for different types of driving, letting you choose Comfort, Auto, Dynamic, or Individual. The Auto setting changes the components between Comfort and Dynamic settings on an as-needed basis. For example, if you start driving aggressively, it will move the gearbox and suspension to Dynamic. For the Individual setting, you can use the MMI to set the steering, suspension, and gearbox individually for comfort or dynamic driving.
On the comfort setting, the Audi Q5 didn't exactly waft like a Rolls-Royce, instead feeling like a fairly typical car. The Q5's very responsive 3.2-liter V-6, using direct injection, delivers 270 horsepower and 243 pound-feet of torque. That's enough power to move the Q5 quickly, making for fast takeoffs from a traffic light or adroit passing maneuvers. Although an automatic, the six-speed gearbox wasn't hesitant about downshifting, always willing to find a lower gear when we wanted power. At a claimed 6.7 seconds to 60 mph, the Q5 is no supercar, but the transmission is so effective in meeting the driver's desires that it feels fast.
Cruising on the freeway, the Q5 makes a few more qualities apparent. The steering is responsive, good for quick lane changes. The cabin is also quite comfortable, with good sound insulation from the outside world. A panoramic sunroof, another option on this car, provides a beautiful sky view for rear seat passengers. But, most important, the car also has Audi's Side Assist feature, a blind-spot detection system that turns on a bank of yellow lights in the side view mirror casing when a car is in one of the Q5's blind spots. This system gives extra assurance for safe lane changes, but it doesn't work below about 30 mph.