First Drive: 2018 Audi Q5

LOS CABOS, Mexico – The tip of the Baja peninsula may seem an odd place to host the global introduction of the second generation of the Audi Q5. But the new 2018 Q5 is built not all that far from this virtually deserted if grandly named state of Baja California Sur. On a map, it’s just a few inches over the surf, in San José Chiapa. Audi’s sparkling new plant, built especially for the Q5, employs just 105 workers who can produce an impressive 35 Q5 bodies per hour.

Sport? Utility? Car? Wee truck? You decide.

Here in Baja the roads are bereft of stressed Torontonians. They’re empty of almost anything except a few jetlagged auto writers from Slovakia, Poland, Germany, Australia, some still visibly shell-shocked Americans and six Canadians – all sharing smoothly wicked curves on lovely climbs up jagged brown cordillera.

The Q5 has been an undisputed success since its intro in 2008. So this next generation has some big, well-heeled shoes to fill. Which it does well, offering much choice – the first one being more of a debate.

Sport? Utility? Car? Wee truck? You decide. Those 35 new Q5 bodies per hour are based on the A4 platform. In most driving circumstances it feels, to me, like a car you love to drive. Yet it’s larger in most places than the first generation of Q5, including the wheelbase, which allows more room, especially for those unfortunate enough not to have a front seat.

Yet the new Q5 is also lighter. Audi’s designers have increased the size and packed more high-tech and high-touch experiences into a vehicle that – depending on the trim you choose – can be nearly 90 kg lighter than last year’s.

According to Andreas Tschritter, of Audi Technical Project Management (or at least according to his translator – ich spreche kein Deutsch) that platform focuses on connectivity and driver-assist systems, providing “the next step in autonomy”.

We didn’t get much chance to test these, as the Baja peninsula is pretty close to the edge of everything. The grid is spotty here. Consequently, connectivity was iffy.

Indeed, we were strictly divided into colour-coded groups and assigned leaders to follow on the day’s drive route, prevented from testing the cars off by ourselves. Our Canadian host had warned us earlier, “There is very poor GPS ... an off-road section is planned into the route.”

Satellite radio disappeared in canyons. GPS didn’t include roads we drove. Cell phones sometimes got no bars, temporarily leaving European journalists aghast, bobbing for the latest soccer scores like oxygen.

Meanwhile the self-driving tech which, Tschritter says works “at speeds up to 65 km/h in traffic”, wasn’t challenged much either because there was none and we were rarely under 65 km/h. Not a complaint, merely an observation. Being in a group didn’t prove a problem; our leader was raised on the Autobahn.

Anyway, speaking loosely of oxygen and being on and off the road, the gentler slope of the new Q5’s windshield improves both the look and the drag coefficient. It looks as much like a tall station wagon as a compact SUV.

The off-road route was more of a dirt road than true exploration but my tester was at the back of a six-car conga line plowing through and accumulating cubic litres of dust. At times I was effectively blind, trusting the Force and the intelligent new Ultra Quattro system and to keep me from ramming any somnolent roadside long-horned cattle. According to Audi, the Ultra Quattro reads and anticipates conditions even better than before, applying power to the wheel(s) that need it most even more precisely than the previous system. There’s an app that shows how little of any given trip you spent in front-wheel drive versus all-wheel (implying consequent fuel savings). Good learning moments!

True sport off-roading aside and speaking of learning moments, I can’t believe any North Toronto real estate agent mom would ever intentionally push the Q5’s driving dynamics further than this thrilling half hour in the dust. The Q5 handled remarkably – it felt almost like I was in a comfortable sedan during a sandstorm.

Again, visually, the Q5 looks more like a car than ever. That sloping front, plus the character line drawing the front wheels to the back produce a unifying effect, effectively blurring the past line between car and truck. Like labradoodle, catfish and bloodthirsty, the crossover is now its own unique thing. I hereby acquiesce.

Speaking also of choice, we spent quality time in the 2.0 TFSI, 2.0 TDI and 3.0 TDI sport but those latter two – at least for the foreseeable future – will not be available in Canada. But don’t worry. The former is still a great choice, if you’re in the market. It’s powered by a turbocharged direct injection four-cylinder engine that achieves 252 hp between 5,000 and 6,000 rpm and 272.9 lb-ft of torque between 1,600 and 4,500. Efficient and quiet, yet exciting and responsive, the TFSI’s engine is among its finest attributes.

Another suite of choices the new Q5 offers is the drive modes. Its new adaptive air suspension means “a bigger spread between Sport and Comfort” modes, says Tschritter. This is true. It lifts and lowers the Q5 noticeably depending on road conditions. In Dynamic mode, the Q5 is tight, responsive and really enjoyable to paddle between seven gears. (The steering widely adapts as well, converting a pleasure cruise into a bit of cruise missile.)

However, Audi filled that spread between modes with so much choice they almost disguised it, graduating through seven stages of tuning: Lift/Offroad, Allroad, Efficiency, Comfort, Auto, Dynamic, and Individual. Was all that choice necessary? Will the commuting real estate mom care? Considering that vanilla is still the most popular flavour of ice cream, I doubt it – but the choice is there nonetheless. 

Much of this selection may be moot, though, because the Canadian Q5s aren’t getting the air suspension – at least not yet. Our springs will be made of steel. (It’s always a refreshing dose of reality to be reminded what an afterthought Canada is in the world.)

We’ve talked about the tech, but this is a family vehicle. How are the comforts and space? The ride is quiet and calming. The cockpit spreads cleanly before you — like a well-planned mescal bar. Everything needed within grasp – meanwhile the head-up display means far less time with your eyes off the road.

The increased dimensions translate into more cargo space – 1,500L with the back seats and ski door all down. But you’ll rarely if ever use that much, so a rail system with load-securing kit effectively shrinks the trunk to secure your goods snugly. That way your hard-shell suitcase doesn’t dent and scrape the walls beneath the mechanical backseat releases, when you’re whipping about dirt roads with sudden drops populated by cattle.

A new infotainment system offers so much information, you could do an entire seminar. It’s not intimidating to explore though. The 8.3-inch touchscreen’s resolution is so rich it’s almost 3D. Colours on it are rich as a Gauguin painting. The mellow sharpness added to the calm effect of the whole spread. However, it’s the Bose sound system that earned the moniker 3D. Careful baffling of the road and engine allow for an almost silent or vividly noisy ride. The uniquely British swearing on the Robbie Williams soundtrack Audi supplied was flawlessly rendered during dusty bounces and sharp turns.

Complaints? Well, apart from the whole this-isn’t-what-will-be-available-in-Canada thing, there aren’t many. The almost 90 kg of trimmed girth is noticeable in the doors. There’s not that satisfying “thunk” and seal; a simple tap isn’t enough to swing it shut. All day throughout the event, you could hear “shut the back door” in a Babel Tower of tongues from drivers to their photographers and co-drivers. #firstworldproblems that.

Besides, what eventually is made available to us in Canada at least leaves that lighter door open for another comparison article in the very near future. Theses 2018 Q5s did supremely well in a dusty Mexican desert devoid of traffic. It’ll be worthwhile seeing how their impending hoser sister performs in sleety, frigid Mississauga or Montreal gridlock.

More like a car than ever 11/30/2016 6:28:00 AM