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Latest round of updates aim to keep Audi’s go-faster SUV feeling fresh

What is it?

They might not seem the most natural fit, but for the past few years, Audi has been making the combination of 'performance' and 'diesel' work for much of its S-badged line-up. And while the SQ7 and SQ8 have since swapped back to petrol power, the ever-popular SQ5 continues to drink from the black pump.

The SUV received a host of visual and tech-focused upgrades late last year to coincide with the arrival of the coupé-inspired SQ5 Sportback variant, including a more aggressive bodykit, new OLED rear lights that illuminate differently based on the active driving mode, and, inside the cabin, Audi’s latest-generation infotainment system.

More important is the mechanical overhaul, which is aimed at improving both the performance and efficiency of its V6 powertrain. Forged steel pistons have replaced the outgoing car’s aluminium ones, the intercooler air intake has been shortened and fuel injectors have been made more precise to help build boost pressure faster. The 48V mild-hybrid system’s electric compressor has also been improved to provide more torque fill while the turbocharger spools up.

Overall power is slightly down from the old car's at 336bhp, putting it at a slight disadvantage to rivals like the BMW X3 M40d, but the mammoth 516lb ft of torque is now accessible across much more of the rev range - and peak power arrives earlier, too.

As before, power is sent via an eight-speed torque-converter automatic transmission to both axles, split 40:60 front to rear, with up to 70% of drive transferable to the front or 85% to the rear, based on available traction (or lack of it). 

The SQ5 sits 30mm lower than the standard Q5, although our test car did without the optional air suspension found on the pricier Vorsprung trim, riding instead on standard springs with adaptive dampers.

What's it like?

The powertrain improvements haven’t entirely eradicated turbo lag, and despite the huge torque output, it can’t match the instant shove of an EV, but the SQ5 still has impressive thrust. At just over two tonnes, this is no lightweight, but it’ll still see off 0-62mph in a shade over five seconds.

The gearbox also feels more responsive here than the standard Q5's seven-speed transmission, shifting quickly under its own terms, even on part-throttle and while in the less dynamic driving modes. Although the power band has been expanded, there’s still not much incentive to venture towards the upper end of the rev range, or make use of the steering wheel paddle shifters.

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Less convincing is the augmented exhaust note, which is both piped into the cabin and outwardly at the rear of the car. It sounds fairly convincing inside, but can’t mask the less harmonious noise coming from under the bonnet. The engine may have the smoothness of six cylinders, yet it's still very much a diesel. There's more fakery when you get close to the four chrome-tipped exhaust pipes, which might look the part but hide the real tailpipes behind the rear bumper.

 

The quattro all-wheel drive system ensures there’s ample traction in all conditions, and the car controls its body movements well through corners. It’s reassuringly predictable in its reaction to your inputs, at the expense of real driver engagement. The variable ratio steering, which feels unnaturally light for low-speed manoeuvres, weights up nicely at more extreme angles but provides little in the way of feedback. 

This car is at its best as a long-distance cruiser, able to get up to speed with minimal effort and little drama. The smoothly integrated mild-hybrid system allows for engine-off coasting in Efficiency mode, and although an average fuel economy in the low 30s isn’t much to write home about, it’s still good for a country-spanning 600 miles on a cruise.

It’s surprisingly comfortable for a performance-focused machine riding on 20in alloy wheels, too. The SQ5 has a remarkably composed ride, coping well with rougher B-roads and delivering largely smooth sailing on newer Tarmac. Dynamic mode does add an extra degree of firmness, but not so much that you’ll want to swap into Comfort the moment you leave the motorway. 

Inside the cabin, front occupants will appreciate the cosy sports seats, which give an expansive view of the road ahead. Rear passengers will benefit from the SQ5’s extra head room over the swoopier Sportback variant, and the boot has a greater luggage capacity - although the difference between the two isn’t as big as you might think.

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Should I buy one?

As the wider industry embraces electrification, diesel power might be looking increasingly unglamorous, but it’s hard to deny that it still very much suits the Q5’s mile-munching demeanour.

This is a comfortable and capable point-to-point cruiser, which will happily tow two tonnes when asked. It may not be a particularly thrilling steer, even if the artificial soundtrack tries to convince you otherwise, but it’s certainly an effective one.

As to whether I’d pick one of these over its more style-led sibling? With a pre-emptive apology to any rear passengers, I’d have the SQ5 Sportback’s greater road presence every time.

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Comments
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harf 3 August 2021

Truly adaptive suspension surely requires no user input to switch from comfort to dynamic, adapting to how the car is being driven.

Autocar seem to use the term adaptive for suspension systems that require the user to manually change between comfort and dynamic (or sport of whatever). I'd call this variable suspension, not adaptive.

 They are therefore very different, or is that just me?

Tristan Hunt-Walker 2 August 2021

I've never been a fan of the concept of a diesel sports car. 

567 2 August 2021

Dull boring car which I haven't seen on the road in years.