Audi's smaller SUV is big enough

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Luxury sport utility owners wanting to downsize and reduce their gasoline bills will find the new Audi Q5 appealing.

Built on a modified platform of the Audi A4 compact sedan, the crossover Q5 SUV is the smaller, lighter weight sibling of the Audi Q7 SUV. It's $6,300 less in starting retail price than the Q7, has a smaller but still powerful V-6 under the hood and earned top, five-out-of-five-stars safety scores in government frontal and side crash tests.

The Q5's government fuel economy rating of 18 miles per gallon in city driving and 23 mpg on the highway means it has the best mileage rating of any nonhybrid, gasoline, luxury SUV sold in the United States by a European car company.

Best of all, the Q5 is a trendy vehicle that boasts Audi's handsome styling inside and out, confident road manners and a luxury image.

Starting manufacturer's suggested retail price, including destination charge, for the five-seat Q5 is $38,025. This includes a 270-horsepower, 3.2-liter V-6, six-speed Tiptronic automatic transmission and Audi's quattro all-wheel drive as standard equipment.

Smaller SUVs are a busy segment among European carmakers, with the Mercedes-Benz GLK debuting as a 2010 model and the Audi Q5 arriving in the States just this past spring.

The test car had good proportions outside, excellent fit and finish and a distinctive black-colored grille that set it apart from other SUVs that wear shiny, silver-colored grilles. The tester also came with optional 19-inch tires and wheels that fit well with the body.

Though the Q5 positions its passengers well above the pavement for good views out, it doesn't look like some bulked-up vehicle set atop a raised platform. Rather, it has a holistic appeal in a package that's more than 3 inches narrower and 18 inches shorter than a Q7.

No one would likely guess it can tow 4,400 pounds, but it can.

There's only one engine so far: Audi's 3.2-liter, double-overhead-cam V-6 with direct injection of the gasoline into the cylinders. Working with a six-speed Tiptronic transmission, the engine provides smooth, satisfying response in city traffic and on the highway.

Indeed, with a weight of 3,850 pounds, the Q5 feels gutsy, yet well-controlled, in acceleration. Torque peaks at 243 foot-pounds at 3,000 rpm.

There's no need for a driver to manually turn on the all-wheel drive. It is Audi's well-known quattro system, and is on at all times.

In normal driving, 60 percent of the power goes to the rear wheels to provide a rear-wheel drive feel, but when road conditions get slick, up to 65 percent of the power can go to the front wheels.

The all-wheel drive here, given that it's electronically controlled and doesn't have a lot of heavy mechanicals, doesn't impinge much on fuel economy. I managed just under the government's 20 mpg rating for combined city/highway travel in the test vehicle, and that was without really trying to maximize fuel mileage.

The tester had Audi's optional driver select package, which includes dynamic steering and adaptive suspension.

The latter worked to keep the body controlled in aggressive driving, while the former kept steering precise and changed the steering effort needed to move the wheel at different speeds.

There was a bit of road noise from the tires, but it wasn't obtrusive.

I enjoyed the well-appointed interior that includes standard 12-way power front seats and three-zone climate control.

The black leather on the seats in the tester, the no-nonsense gauges and most controls evoked a serious environment not unlike that of a leather-appointed executive study. A friend who rode with me said he felt the car was bulletproof because of the quality-sounding thud as the doors closed, the quiet interior and the sense of solidity of the vehicle.

The optional and huge panorama roof added a light and airy feel, and the optional Bang & Olufsen audio system swelled the interior with crystal clear tunes.

Audi offers many features for the Q5, including a side blind spot alert system that flashes small lights on the outside mirrors to tell a driver when another car is alongside, in the blind spots.

There also are a power tailgate, navigation system and stainless steel plates at the entrance to the cargo area and at the door sills -- all optional.

The only problem is the price can rise quickly. There's an $11,000 option package for this vehicle, and while it encompasses a lot of equipment, it's a high price for an option package nonetheless.

The Q5 has the newest generation of Audi's Multi Media Interface with its round dial in the center console to adjust nav system, audio, ventilation and other settings. It's more intuitive than BMW's i-Drive system, but it still takes some practice.

SPECS

THE VEHICLE: 2009 Audi Q5 3.2 quattro, an all-wheel-drive, five-passenger, compact, crossover utility vehicle

BASE PRICE: $37,200

DESTINATION FEE: $825

PRICE AS TESTED: $52,475

ENGINE: 3.2-liter, double-overhead -cam V-6 with direct injection, producing 270 horsepower

TRANSMISSION: Tiptronic six-speed automatic

EPA MILEAGE: 18 mpg city, 23 mpg highway

TOP SPEED: 130 mph

LENGTH: 182.2 inches

WHEELBASE: 110.5 inches

CURB WEIGHT: 3,850 pounds

BUILT IN: Germany

OPTIONS: Prestige package (panorama sunroof, Xenon head lamps, power tailgate, heated front seats, driver-side memory seat settings, Bang $11,000; driver select package (includes adaptive suspension and dynamic steering), $2,950; side blind spot alert, $500


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