By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist
Slowly — finally — diesel engines are becoming available in the kinds of vehicles that really could use ’em : crossover SUVs.
These vehicles are bought because they’re roomy, versatile and useful. But their design layout also inclines them toward being large and heavy and less than aerodynamically efficient.
Which, in turns, tends to make them pretty thirsty.
Diesel engines address this deficit.
Some current gen. diesels are also great performers. This ’14 Audi Q5, for instance. It can haul itself to 60 in the mid-sixes.
And it still delivers more than 30 MPG on the highway.
Which is like having six-pack abs . . . even though you drink a six-pack every day.
WHAT IT IS
The Q5 is a compact crossover SUV. It seats five in two rows and like its premium class rivals — the Mercedes-Benz GLK and the BMW X3 — offers diesel power and (with the diesel engine) standard all-wheel-drive.
Unlike its two chief rivals, however, the Audi’s diesel is a six-cylinder diesel.
Both the X3 and GLK diesels are four-cylinder diesels.
Base price is $46,500 — vs. $42,825 for the X3 diesel and $39,905 for the Benz GLK diesel.
The Q5 is a carryover (from 2013) but it’s now available with Audi’s extremely impressive 3.0 liter TDI diesel V-6 engine. Interestingly — happily — this engine, which is also found in the Q5’s big brother, the three-row/full-size Q7, produces more power (well, more torque) in the smaller/lighter Q5.
Class-leading acceleration, while delivering fuel economy numbers almost as good as its four-cylinder (and not nearly as quick) competition.
Rich feeling, handsome-looking cabin.
Roomier than rivals — especially in the second row (and behind the second row).
Hearty towing capability (4,400 lbs.)
WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD
Big price difference between it and the Benz GLK and X3 erases much of the Audi’s efficiency advantage.
Overdone MMI interface.
Diesel fuel fill sometimes doesn’t match diesel nozzles at the fill-up joint, making for slow (and messy) fill-ups.
UNDER THE HOOD
The Q5 diesel is a turbo-diesel like its rivals, but it’s 3 liters and six cylinders vs. 2.0 and 2.1 liters and four cylinders for the X3 and GLK, respectively.
Its power is behemothian: 240 hp and 428 ft.-lbs. of torque — the latter figure being 22 ft.-lbs. higher than the rated output of the same basic engine in the larger/heavier Q7. More directly relevant, the Q5 TDI’s hp and torque numbers wash over the puny-in-comparison outputs of both its rivals:
The X3’s 2.0 turbo-diesel musters a meager 180 hp and 280 ft.-lbs. of torque. That’s 60 fewer horses — and 148 ft.-lbs. less torque. Think of Arnold in his prime . . . vs. Pee Wee Herman in his.
Torque-wise, the Benz GLK comes a lot closer. Its little 2.1 turbo-diesel whelps out 369 ft.-lbs. Which is solid. But its hp is merely 200 — 40 fewer than you get in the Q5 TDI.
Zero to 60 in 6.5 seconds for the Q — vs. a languid 8.2 for the Benz and about 8 seconds flat for the X3.
Surprisingly, the Q5’s EPA stats are damned close to its much-less-potent/not-nearly-as-speedy rivals:
How about 24 city, 31 highway — vs. 24 city, 33 highway for the Benz GLK?
The BMW might do better — official EPA numbers weren’t available when this review was written in late May — but the same engine in the 3 series (from which the X3 is spawned) rates 32 city, 45 highway.
That latter number is better than the Audi’s — but keep in mind: It was obtained in the 3 series sedan — a lighter (and smaller) car, not a crossover SUV. In the heavier, less aerodynamically efficient X3, the 2.0 turbo-diesel will probably return closer to 36 or so highway. That’s good — and yes, it’s still better than the Q5’s highway number. But given that the 3 sedan’s city number is virtual dead heat with the Q5’s, in the larger/heavier X3 it could very well be lower than the Q’s. In which case, the average numbers will be . . . yep, damned close.
Regardless, nothing that’s diesel-engined in this class can touch the Q5’s performance — and not much that’s gas-engined in this class can touch the Q5’s at-the-pump performance while also delivering comparable on-the-road performance.
Audi pairs the diesel V-6 with an eight-speed automatic (same deal in the Benz and BMW) as well as Quattro all-wheel-drive. The transmission features both Sport and normal Drive modes, as well as a driver-selectable manual mode. Like more and more new vehicles, the Q5 comes standard with an automatic engine turn off (and back on again) function that shuts down the engine when the vehicle is stationary — at a red light, for instance — then automatically kicks it back on when the driver takes his foot off the brake (as when the light goes green). This system — which is there to increase fuel economy by limiting wasteful idling — can be turned off or left on, as you prefer.
ON THE ROAD
The Q5’s obvious merit relative to its rivals is its no-compromises performance. It moves — but it doesn’t suck.
The Benz doesn’t suck — but it doesn’t move.
Quickly, that is.
The BMW sucks even less. But it likewise moves without much alacrity.
Their eight-seconds-to-60 times, keep in mind, are under ideal conditions: Just the driver on board, a straight and level road. With three or four people on board — or attempting a pass on a grade . . . well, let me put it this way. The Q5 will be quicker loaded with three or four people — and trying to ascend a grade — than a GLK or X3 will be on the straight and level, empty except for the driver. The Q’s extra margin of thrust means it’s quick when empty — and not slow when it’s full.
The others are.
Don’t ever forget the Q TDI’s Herculean torque. No worries — it won’t let you forget. That 428 ft.-lbs? It’s more torque than the current Dodge Ram 1500’s Hemi 5.7 liter V-8 gins up (410 ft.-lbs.) and it comes on right now — under 2,000 RPM and holds it throughout the RPM range. What this means is a light depression of the accelerator results in immediate and forceful acceleration. The Q literally lunges forward like bull trying to get at a cow on the other side of the fence.
The Benz is torquey, too — but not to the extent that the Q is. And it hasn’t got the horsepower to hang once the RPMs climb.
The BMW, meanwhile, is deficient on both counts.
All three of these vehicles handle well, being basically cars made to ride a little higher (and sit a bit taller). In fact, they probably handle better than most of the cars I grew up with in the ’80s. It helps that they’re equipped with what would have been considered race car rolling stock back in the ’80s. The Q, for instance, comes standard with 18-inch wheels (the TDI gets 19s) and you can upgrade to 20s (S-Line package).
Of the three, the Q feels lightest on its feet — not surprisingly because it is the lightest of the three: 4,079 lbs (a veritable featherweight for a crossover SUV) as contrasted with the beefy X3 (4,230 lbs.) and GLK (4,246 lbs.). The Benz, it should be noted, is also the one of the three that’s closest on the spectrum of car-to-SUV to the SUV side of the bar. The BMW, despite its beef, feels — reacts to inputs — with more athleticism than either the Benz or the Audi. But it is let down by its lack of complementary power. The Q can power through — and out of — a corner. The X3 can’t. You mash the gas pedal and not much happens.
Because there’s just not much there.
AT THE CURB
On the lower end — even the bread and butter end — crossovers look depressingly homogenous. As though the stylists used the same basic template for the side panels, then added “branding” cues such as a waterfall vs. horizontal slats grille to manifest their “brand language” (the car company PR people sometimes talk like this).
In the Q5’s class — the entry-premium class — it’s not difficult to tell who’s who. The Audi looks like, well, an Audi — and not just because of the big auto union olympic circles logo in the grille, either. It’s an impressive — but not obstreperous looking — rig. Classy — but not overly flashy. That’s the Audi aura.
And ironically, it looks the hunkiest — despite being the lightest. This may be due to its width being greatest (74.7 inches vs.74.3 for the GLK and 74.1 for the X3) a probably higher belt line (it looks like it), and much wider track, both front (63.7 inches) and rear (63.5 inches) as contrasted with the narrower-through-the-hips Benz (60.7 inches of track front and 60.8 inches in the rear).
This — plus a generous wheelbase (110.5 inches) and close to mid-sized overall length (182.6 inches) also adds up to the most spacious interior of the three: 41 inches of front seat leg room, 37.4 inches of second row leg room and 29.1 cubic feet of cargo space behind the second row.
As contrasted with: 39.9 inches of front seat leg room, 36.8 inches of back seat leg room and 27.6 cubic feet of cargo space behind the second row for the BMW.
The Benz gives you a bit more front seat leg room, but the second row is (and this is typically Benz) the tightest of the three: just 35.1 inches (about 2/12 inches less than in the Audi). The GLK’s other notable deficit is its worst-in-class (or at least, worst of these three) 23.3 cubic feet behind the second row. None of this should be surprising given the GLKL is very much a compact crossover. At just 178.3 inches long overall, it is 4.3 inches stubbier than the nearly mid-sized Audi. Or, to make another comparison, the Q5 is only about 5 inches behind the most definitely mid-sized Lexus RX350 in overall length — and the Audi has a significantly longer wheelbase (110.5 inches vs. 107.9) than the “mid-sized” Lexus.
The Q’s rear seats also slide forte and aft — which you’ll discover to be a rare feature in this segment.
The Q5 TDI is not a cheap date. At $46,500 to start, it is priced $6,595 higher than the GLK BLueTec and $3,675 higher than the X3 diesel. The cost gap gnaws away some at the economic arguments in favor of the Audi — but it does have power/performance in its favor. It’s also literally more car for the money, as noted above.
If size matters to you, that will be a mitigating factor.
As is true generally of diesel-powered vehicles sold in the U.S., the Q5 TDI comes dressed in premium duds — with everything you’d get standard in the gas-burning, supercharged V-6 Premium Plus Q5 except headlight washers and a few exterior trim bits (which you can always add, if you like). That means: 19 inch wheels instead of the base 2.0 Q5’s eighteens, xenon HID headlights, LED running lights, heated seats and a panorama sunroof with full-length retractable sunshade.
You also get standard satellite radio — with a 10 speaker premium audio rig. It must be mentioned that satellite radio is extra-cost in the GLK and X3.
Interesting options include an available heated/cooled cupholder — and the GPS system features a cool but also slightly creepy Google Earth View map that shows not merely the road you’re on but the actual road you’re on. And the houses off to your left or right. And the cars parked there. The level of detail is amazing — and it’s not a computer generated representation or icon. You are literally viewing everything within your radius — up to several miles — as it actually is. Continuously updated. If this level of technology is available to us on the consumer market, imagine the level of technology that’s available to them. The creeps in the NSA and other such hives of the nascent American staatspolizei.
The Multi-Media Interface (MMI) requires multiple inputs from you to find what you want — and to turn it on or off. You scroll through menus using a center mounted dial, then depress that dial to select. But there are also secondary input buttons on all four quadrants surrounding the main dial — plus a smaller knob for radio volume off to its right. It’s not Hulk Smash awful, but it does take some getting used to as well as time and attention to use it once you know how to use it. Same goes for HVAC controls, which are also multi-function. To increase or decrease the fan speed, for instance, you must first click on the little “fan” button. Then you can rotate the knob and dial it up — or down. Otherwise, you’ll be dialing the temperature up — or down. Again, it’s not Hulk Smash awful. But I prefer separate (and one-function) buttons.
You may too.
One other thing: The Q5 TDI will periodically need to be topped off with urea — that’s what the extra filler neck adjacent to the fuel fill is for. The interval will vary depending on the miles you rack up — and how you rack up those miles. But in general, figure once every couple of months.
And figure about $20 or so to do it — if you do it yourself. It will cost significantly more if you have the Audi store do it for you.
It’s not a huge big deal, but it’s part of the diesel ownership experience. Pretty much all diesel vehicles sold in the U.S. (except for some VWs) require urea — called AdBlue or BlueTec depending on which brand of car it is — in order to be “50 state” emissions compliant.
Finally — and this is not Audi’s fault — some diesel stations still have nozzles that don’t fit the Q5’s filler neck. Be careful — and take note. I had to deal with one such nozzle that had a flared end far too large to mate with the Audi’s filler neck. I had to dribble the fuel in — or else it would have dribbled (or sprayed) all over me.
THE BOTTOM LINE
It’s speedy — but it’s not greedy.
Yeah, it does cost more than its rivals, but this is definitely a case of getting more for your money.