A more compact solution - Audi Q5
Well, you do have to admire the attitude… Whilst my colleagues in the media remain determined to talk us all into 'the forthcoming recession' just because a raft of estate agents have had to give their MINIs back and get proper jobs, Audi is having none of it.
At the recent Paris motor show, Audi obersturm gruppenfuhrer Rupert Stadler was asked how the company is preparing for the financial crisis. His response was: 'We've had a board meeting, discussed it thoroughly, and decided not to participate.'
Predictably, then, any suggestions that the introduction of the Q5 in the current climate is tantamount to re-arranging the deck-chairs on the Titanic have been swatted aside with the gently bullish rejoinder that Audi has never been interested in overheating any of the rapidly burgeoning number of market segments it occupies, and that they'll undoubtedly sell every one they make.
Having driven it, I suspect they're right. Largely because Audi's new soft-roader is so relentlessly convincing. For starters, to those of us who find the company's my-God-it's-moving-towards-us Q7 so preposterously gargantuan that it'll never really look the part until Audi fit a gun turret on the roof, theQ5 represents a welcome return to sizing sanity.
Boasting beefed up A4 architecture under the skin, theQ5 doesn't look instantly off-road friendly in the manner of a Land Rover Freelander orVolvoXC60, but then again, it doesn't make horses bolt like a BMWX3 either. Oversized front grille aside (and, no, I'm never going to stop complaining about that), this is classic, safe,Audi styling simply left a tad longer on the party balloon pump.
On board, space afforded the 5-seat layout is considerably abetted by the cunning relocation of the drive differentials in front of the clutch, buying an extra 152mm of wheelbase. Astern, sensibly engineered lever systems make rear seat origami a doddle, and Audi has no plans to insert a Bangalore torpedo up the exhaust of its own Q7 through the introduction of a seven seat variant.
The driving position's first class, and only marred by a constriction of the footwell aggressive enough to push your resting clutch foot rather too far to the right; the only downside to that differential relocation. Happily, this TFSI quattro SE S tronic model's fitted with Audi's superb 7-speed, dual-clutch DSG gearbox (which we must now call 'S tronic'), but I wonder, in manual guise, just how much room there would be for three pedals and two feet….
The tidy, A4 sourced dashboard is elegantly oriented towards the driver, and loaded with good stuff, including Audi's latest, all powerful Multi- Media Interface (MMI) which seems to be furtively taking on levels of responsibility on a par with those of HAL, the discreetly ruthless ship's computer from 2001: A Space Odessey. An extremely trick sat' nav' not only gives you topography in something akin to 3- D, but also affords views of major cities' landmark buildings in remarkable detail. Zoom in on Paris, for instance, and you can actually see blokes scrambling about on the Eiffel Tower's steelwork armed with paint brushes. OK, I lied about that, but it's still a nice conceit.
The only potential fly in the ointment is the electronic handbrake. I've had trouble with these before in an off-road context, but since the only off-roading afforded by the car's Spanish launch venue was a quick thrape along a donkey track previously swept for donkeys, the jury must remain out for the time being.
Oh, yes, that and the fancy cup holder; an option which cools drinks to 5 degrees centigrade and heats them to 55. Important, then, to push the right button having stashed the Mars bar, unless you're happy to tuck in subsequently via a forest of marsh mallows on sticks.
In performance and handling terms, think tall A4 quattro. And that's a compliment .Though nothing like as quiet and frugal as what will undoubtedly be the best-selling 2.0TDI variant, this 2.0 litre turbo charged petrol unit bungs out a respectable 208bhp and shares the turbo diesels 258lb ft of torque, being quoted as offering it from just 1500rpm; even lower down the rev band than the diesel.
In a respectably brisk 7.2 seconds, it sprints to 62mph over two seconds faster than the diesel variant, but it doesn't half make a fuss about it, bellowing its intent with all the decorum of a freshly branded heifer. And this unseemly din is particularly at odds with the slick machinations of that master of the oleaginous slush change, the DGS gearbox.
Though UK specification cars are equipped with conventional suspension as standard, the one I drove sported something called Audi Drive Select, another take on the VW group's adaptive suspension system. This one offers Comfort, Auto and Dynamic settings which adjust suspension firmness, steering weight and throttle mapping, with the facility to adjust steering and suspension independently of each other via the Q5's Multi-Media Interface. As usual, the whole boiling is best left alone to do nanny you around perfectly effectively in Automode.
Thus armed, the Q5 goes straight to the front of the field in the handling stakes. Audi clearly benchmarked the X3's make-it-handle-like-a hatchback- at-all-costs dynamics and, having all but matched them whilst besting the ill-conceived BMW in every other respect, it's now safe to assume that every single person you see driving an X3 does so simply because of the badge on the bonnet.
Fun? In a mid-sized soft-roader? No one was more surprised than me. In the quest for the predictably early onset of understeer and pigin- shite rolling proclivities I hunted down a dusty back road. And… nothing. Ganging up with those adaptive dampers and quattro drive, the long wheelbase and wide track deliver just enough body roll to keep you informed, and such a total absence of understeer that I suspect the next step would be for the Q5 to simply fling itself, wholesale, into the shrubbery.
The steering feels pretty meaty at everything but car park speeds. But that's appropriate to the Q5 and, once you start to hoon a little, is surprisingly accurate and informative by Audi's traditional, Hemlock-numb standards, accessing a level of agility that the little porker's couture completely fails to even hint at.
Vocal albeit, the engine's eager enough to warrant slotting the gear lever into manual mode, and then feeling instantly frustrated. The lever operates, as is so often the case with manual override, the wrong way round, requiring a forward push for up changes and rearward tug for changes down. This is, as they say in Germany, not correct. Just ask any racing driver, or, indeed, Spike, the bulldog in Tom and Jerry cartoons, who inevitably pushes up mountainous divots in a futile effort to stave off an impending collision.
None of this would matter if this sublime gearbox were linked, as it so often is on an Audi, to steering wheel mounted paddles. But here, for some reason, they don't appear to be standard fit….
Which brings me to my one major gripe:The list price of this TFSI quattro SE S tronic model is an ostensibly reasonable and competitive £30,600. But the car I drove sells for, erm, £41,400. And that doesn't even include the essential £250 extra for paddles. Looking around, it's hard to see where that £10,800 has gone, and it does leave me gently perplexed about what would be missing on the standard, option-free car. Paint? Steering wheel?
Amongst a fitted options list too long to bore you with here, £1,995 for MMI technology which lets you watch men paint the Eiffel Tower and £1,000 for Audi Drive Select must be taken on the chin. As must £1,200 for spanking, 20” alloys.
But tumble down through the extras further and you soon reach territory I'd hoped had long since been abandoned by Germany's Big Three: A cheeky £450 for something called 'Mobile phone prep low', £100 for a steering wheel with buttons on it, £170 for 'Rear bench seat plus', and even £160 for an 'Interior light package'. Rear bench seat plus what? And what's the standard interior lighting; a Maglite in the glove box? Am I alone in expecting an SE spec' car to offer far more of this stuff as standard equipment these days?
Achieving instant default choice status despite this being the company's first foray into the mid-sized soft-roader marketplace, the Q5 is a classic Audi; understated but horribly good. It seems the meek are indeed about to inherit the earth. But they'll need fat wallets.