First Drive: 2018 Audi SQ5

First Drive: 2018 Audi SQ5

B ack in the salad days of the crossover craze, trailblazers like the Lexus RX and Acura MDX sat atop the sales heap despite (or perhaps because of) their pedestrian functionality. But the vacuum for driving excitement eventually became so strong that when the spunky Audi Q5 crashed the party in 2008, its dynamic appeal earned it a niche notoriety — a rep that was further enhanced by the subsequent arrival of the even sportier SQ5.

The Q5 has gone on to become Audi’s best-selling model, moving some 1.6 million units and luring 194,000 new customers to the brand to date. Nowadays it operates within the largest slice of the premium crossover pie — the so-called B segment. Featuring the likes of the BMW X3, Mercedes-Benz GLC, and the Q5’s Porsche Macan step-sibling among others, you had better bring it if you want to compete. And it certainly doesn’t hurt to have a top dog offering like the 2018 Audi SQ5 in the arsenal.

Bigger, Lighter, (Slightly) Stronger

Ringing in at $55,275 to start, the 2018 SQ5 commands a $13,775 premium over its entry level stablemate, offering a zippier, better handling, and sexier alternative that’s visually distinguished by its rear spoiler and diffuser, aluminum mirrors, and more aggressive grille.

Putting an exclamation point on the SQ5’s raison d’être is the same 3.0-liter turbo V-6 you’ll find in the new S4 and S5, which replaces the outgoing supercharged V-6. The powerplant ditches 31 pounds of mass and produces the same 354 horsepower output, but enjoys a 23 lb-ft gain in torque for a total of 369 lb-ft. Notably, peak twist starts at a mere 1,370 rpm, sustaining a Great Plains-flat plateau all the way to 4,500 rpm. The V-6 is mated to an 8-speed ZF automatic, a pairing which helps the SQ5 reach 60 mph in a claimed 5.1 seconds, a tenth faster than the old model. Fuel economy is rated at 21 mpg combined, a 2 mpg improvement over its predecessor. Despite a half-inch longer wheelbase that enables more front headroom, rear legroom and cargo capacity, the SQ5 is 45 pounds lighter than its predecessor.

While the standard Q5 uses Quattro with Ultra, a fully variable torque distribution system that can disengage the rear axle for increased efficiency, the SQ5 incorporates a Quattro Sport rear differential with torque vectoring via an electrohydraulically actuated clutch. The setup defaults to a 40/60 front/rear split, with up to 70 percent front or 85 percent rear power distribution available depending on the situation. Up to 100 percent of torque can be directed to the right or left wheels as well. For the first time, the SQ5 is also available with Audi’s adaptive air suspension system that adjusts firmness and up to 4 inches of ride height variability with four modes: loading level, dynamic, comfort/auto, allroad, and lift/offroad. The hardware is contained by Audi’s new MLB Evo architecture, which incorporates high strength steel and a strategic use of aluminum.

(Subtle) Hot Streak

The updated Q5 lineup is armed with incrementally more dramatic styling, bolstered by a prominent shoulder crease that moves away from its predecessor’s slabby side panels, adding much-needed flair. Though the new design offers sharper edges and more organic curves which exude more character, one perplexing detail is the faux quad exhaust outlets on the SQ5’s rear fascia, which hide two actual exhaust pipes tucked behind and aimed downward. Good thing the plumbing offers some excellent auditory entertainment: toggle the dash-mounted Drive Mode switch to Dynamic and the exhaust livens up noticeably, creating a deeper idle and a richer song throughout the rev range.

With its generous low-end torque, smooth power delivery, and quick shifts (Audi claims they approach dual-clutch speed levels) the SQ5 proved easy to drive quickly on Vancouver Island’s winding roads. Get on it and it offers a gratifying soundtrack with off-throttle crackle and just enough volume to make its presence known. Audi says the SQ5 happens to produce more sound than the S4 and S5 due to the vagaries of packaging and exhaust routing, and we believe it. The interior also presents a more tempting proposition compared to the standard issue Q5. Delivering a greater sense of occasion are firm-ish leather sport seats with quilted stitching, an Alcantara swathed, flat-bottomed steering wheel, and a Sport display mode within the 12.3-inch LCD instrument cluster (aka, Virtual Cockpit) that positions the tach front and center. Carbon fiber inlays are also available.

Despite tipping the scales at 4,398 pounds, a 353-pound penalty over the standard Q5, the SQ5 comports itself with confidence at speed. Body control and responsiveness is particularly satisfying in Dynamic mode, which tightens the suspension, drops ride height, stiffens steering effort, and programs the sport differential for more aggressive cornering. There’s something anachronistic about the dash-mounted toggle buttons, especially within the context of the deep functionality of Audi’s well-developed MMI system and Virtual Cockpit. But the modes function as advertised. In Comfort, for example, it easily absorbs most medium-sized bumps and there’s an almost floaty feeling to the way the suspension addresses the pavement (though larger potholes do trouble the low-profile 21-inch wheel setup).

Jamming along Vancouver Island’s mid-to-high speed roads, it’s easy to forget the SQ5’s SUV proportions and curb weight. Thanks to the variability of its suspension damping, the torquiness of its engine, and its fast, smooth-shifting transmission, the SQ5 makes quick work of the road ahead. One of our few gripes centered on the Sport seats; though supportive, their firmness wouldn’t be our first choice for an all-day road trip.

Variations on a Theme

The 2018 Audi SQ5 picks up where its predecessor left off, evolving with incremental performance improvements while bundling a broader swath of standard features in a more attractive, if slightly more practical package. Even if it’s a subtle shift, the sensual styling direction is a welcome change, bringing the SQ5 closer to what it was originally intended to be: a driver-focused alternative to the workaday, function-oriented SUVs that sell by the boatload.

The new direction is compelling, one we wouldn’t mind seeing executed to an even more extreme degree — say, an all-out RS Q5 that more closely battles the spicier Porsche Macan Turbo. Could that happen, or is Audi forever destined to avoid stepping on the toes of its corporate cousin? Time will tell. But until then, the 2018 Audi SQ5 offers an attractive way to combine swift on-road travel with a touch of practicality.