2012 Audi Q5 2.0T Road Test

What It Is
A compact crossover for Volkswagen people who want a better badge.
Best Thing
It feels like a quality piece of engineering throughout.
Worst Thing
Upscale look and interior materials can't mask its lousy steering and compromised handling.
Snap Judgment
Objectively very nice, but as forgettable as the last week's dinner.

Most of the auto industry's segments are pretty well-sorted. When it comes to luxury sedans, for example, there's a small, medium, and a large for almost every automaker. Most do everything at least pretty well, able to carry people in comfort, turn with athleticism, and dazzle with modern technology. They have to be because the competition never sits still, forcing all automakers to make their cars automotive decathletes.

But when it comes to SUVs and crossovers, there are small, medium, large, and plenty of in-betweeners straddling various sizes and price points. And their demeanors vary vastly, too, as the archetype for the luxury crossover is still not fully formed. Remember, it was less than 15 years ago when the first luxury crossovers began hitting dealerships, following at the end of the SUV craze when drivers wanted more efficient high-riders.

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The Audi Q5 joined the fray in 2009, a decade after the Lexus RX 300 began genesis of luxury soft-roaders. In it, Audi implemented its best know-how -- interior materials design and feel and that good ol' German solidity -- and raised the ride height, complementing the larger Audi Q7. But as a latecomer, it also brought lofty expectations with it. Could it handle like a sporty car? Ride like a sedan? Climb across rough terrain? And could it do all those while still coddling passengers like a proper luxury car should?

We took a 2012 Audi Q5 2.0T, the most popular model, for a week to see for ourselves.

What We Drove

The 2012 Audi Q5 comes with more options packages than separate model levels, similar to how Honda bundles its DX, LX, and EX packages to simplify ordering. If you're used to how German automakers typically sell everything as a standalone extra, this may pleasantly surprise you. Our Q5 was optioned with a standard 211-horsepower, turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine and all-wheel drive. While it starts at $36,475, including $875 for destination and handling, ours also had the $4,300 midlevel Premium Plus package that includes xenon headlights with LED running lamps; auto-dimming, power-folding mirrors; heated front seats with memory settings; stainless steel door sills; a massive panoramic sunroof; Bluetooth hands-free calling; and a power liftgate. Its only other options were its $475 Moonlight Blue metallic paint job and $550 advanced key, bringing the grand total to $41,800.

With the exception of ordering from an unusually small list of a la carte options, the only way to get a better-equipped model would be to opt up for a 270-horsepower, 3.2-liter V-6-equipped model, which comes in plusher Premium Plus or Prestige guises. However, they start at $43,875 and $50,975, respectively.

Coming with driver and passenger front and side airbags, curtain airbags for both rows, stability and traction control, and LATCH points in the back for child seats, the Audi Q5 comes up a safe bet for small families. In fact, it earned the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety's 2012 "Top Safety Pick" distinction, and earned a four-star rating out of five from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in rollover testing. It was not tested in either front- or side-collision accidents.

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The Commute

Despite looking radically different, the Audi Q5 shares its basic underpinnings with the Audi A5 coupe (and the Audi A4 sedan, and Volkswagen Tiguan crossover, for that matter). Having previously driven an Audi A5 with the same engine but disappointing six-speed manual transmission, we suggested that the eight-speed automatic would be a better match for the heavy-vehicle/small-engine combination. We were right.

The even heavier 2012 Audi Q5 works through its eight-speed automatic transmission to extract every one of its 211 horsepower with little hesitation. Its operation borders on seamless, with transitions to the next gear oftentimes being indiscernible unless you're really paying attention to engine noises. Together, the engine and transmission produce plenty enough power in everyday driving, with its engine emitting a deeper growl than the typical economy-car four-cylinder groans you hear. It wasn't too out of place for a vehicle of its class, and we were able to meet Audi's 27 mpg EPA estimated highway fuel economy on several occasions. What was out of character though was its wind noise at highway speeds; there are vehicles costing half as much that offer more solitude at speed.

The rest of the vehicle was pretty par for the course as luxury crossovers go, from its stiffer German suspension -- which ran more comfortably over bumpier roads than highways -- to the durable, high-quality interior materials and construction. All the German automakers have begun offering various multifunction infotainment systems, from BMW's iDrive to Mercedes-Benz's COMAND. Audi brings over its MMI system used in other vehicles, albeit ours lacked a navigation system or a backup camera, which both only come as part of a $3,000 upgrade bundle.

Audi uses MMI to clean up the clutter of buttons that oftentimes plague a car's center instrument panel. However, while MMI uses a knob mounted in front of the driver's armrest in Audi sedans, in the Q5 it's been moved to the dashboard, a much less useful location. Four buttons surround it, blending in with the console's black plastic, looking more like a knob surround than four unique buttons. The MMI screen at the top of the panel tells you what each button does -- for example, send and end phone calls when you're using its Bluetooth function -- but it's hard to read as they're not well-contrasted from other colors on the screen, and the whole process can become distracting while driving. On top of all that, there are still a whole heap of buttons clustered on the dash, which can become confusing when you want to do something as simple as turn on the seat heaters.

With some time to familiarize oneself to it, MMI becomes easier, but it will never be an easy reach. The good news is that Audi has reconfigured MMI in the 2013 Audi Q5 with the knob on the dash, where it should be.

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The Grocery Run

While considered a compact crossover, the 2012 Audi Q5 stacks up favorably to its competition on paper, offering better interior space than much of its German and Japanese competition. Despite that, we still found that we had to move its seats forward all the way to have a hope of securing a child seat. It's not easy because of the Q5's cramped rear quarters, but Audi offers up very simple LATCH hooks that are hidden underneath small plastic clips.

For those who don't have a need to haul around young kids, the Q5 works just fine for shorter-legged rear passengers, or those with considerate friends sitting up front. Although space is at a premium for rear passengers, those up front shouldn't have any sort of problem finding comfort in Audi's firm and supportive power seats. There's also plenty of cargo space; 29.1 cubic feet of space with the seats up, or 57.3 cubic feet with the seats folded down. Unfortunately, the rear 60-40 bench doesn't fold flat, which could put a hamper on hauling that new flat-screen TV home.

The Weekend Fun

Let's start with the good: Even with a firm suspension, the 2012 Audi Q5 rides well over most stretches of road. It's a good compromise between the 2012 Acura RDX's bone-jarring feel and the Lexus RX 350's sensation of hovering over the road. Perhaps there's no better way to describe it just being German. That makes it a decent long-distance highway cruiser and far more competent at speed than you'd think a two-ton crossover with a tiny four-cylinder engine should be.

Like all Audis -- and most Volkswagens anymore -- its steering wheel is covered in fine leather, and it really helps complement the luxury experience. But, like most other Audis we've driven, the steering feels heavy, sometimes burdensome, and lacks any sort of sporty connectedness that would generally be associated with that heft. At low-speed turns, it plods along before the wheel moves back on-center, only moving tightly at highway speeds. And in emergency handling, its stability control and capable chassis keep it going right where you want it to be, but with a ton of body lean and disconnected feeling, it doesn't instill much confidence when the road gets twisty.

Where most crossovers have picked sides -- the BMW X3 is decidedly sporty while the Lexus RX is more or less a high-riding ES 350 -- the Audi Q5 tries to be everything to everyone. It's not nearly as comfortable a cruiser as the Lexus RX, and similarly, it doesn't make for a particularly good sports sedan alternative like the BMW X3. But it fails to strike a satisfying Goldilocks' "just right" middle ground, either; it comes off as a bit generic and uninspired for the nearly $42,000 asking price.

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On paper, there's very little wrong with the 2012 Audi Q5. It's dimensionally bigger than most of its rivals. And it offers up plenty quick acceleration, despite its lack of power, because of the eight-speed automatic's efficiency in harnessing the turbocharged engine's power. It rides well, it looks sharp, it's full of technology -- and could be full of more with just a few options boxes checked -- and its interior is still one of the best in the business when it comes to refinement and style.

When it comes to premium crossovers, we expect them to offer that something extra that you're just not going to get in a Hyundai Tucson. We're not sure the 2012 Audi Q5 has that. It's a perfectly competent, comfortable crossover that we could wholeheartedly recommend to our neighbors, but it's just not very passionate.

For 2013, Audi is promising an extensive overhaul of the Q5, endowing it with the ergonomic upgrades it deserves, as well as styling updates and a power boost for both its four-cylinder and V-6 options. We say that's a start -- a really good start. But more than any engineering capacities and spec-sheet upgrades that will very formulaically make the Q5 better in a very Type-A way the Germans are known for, we're hoping this little luxury crossover dons a cape and grows an attitude in its next iteration.

Spec Box

Price-as-tested: $41,800
Fuel Economy
EPA City: 20 mpg
EPA Highway: 27 mpg
EPA Combined: 22 mpg
Estimated Combined Range: 435 miles
Intellichoice Cost of Ownership: Average

Notebook Quotes

"Once again, the Q5 is plagued with the normal Audi problems. No nav, seriously? No back-up cam either. What the heck is going on with the center stack too, way too many buttons that are hard to use when stopped let alone moving." -Trevor Dorchies, Associate Editor
"It's like the Audi-ness of the vehicle was left on the assembly floor. There's nothing special about it, at least, nothing special arose during my admittedly brief time. Sure, it's fine. But a lot of other cars are just as fine, and don't cost Audi prices." -Keith Buglewicz, News Director


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