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 the Ford Edge and Toyota Venza, 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.