Clear-eyed, level-gazing efficiency. That's what you expect when you buy an Audi and it's what you need when you're staring down the barrel of a snow-laden gale in the howling black of the night. The latest version of Audi's mid-sized 4x4, the Q5, looks and feels like it's hewn from solid origins and it promises an efficient dismissal of anything the world throws at you. With winter battering at the door and spattering at the window as I write, I wish I still had one parked outside right now.
I've been driving the SE version with the mass-selling two-litre TDI turbodiesel engine that pushes 141bhp and 236lb/ft of torque into the road through a six-speed manual gearbox and the quattro all-wheel-drive system which generally splits the torque 40/60 between the axles with the bias towards the rear.
What that means is that when you're on the road and accelerating, the drive is mostly pushed to the back wheels where the weight has shifted to, but when things get steep and slippery, all four wheels are raking traction on your behalf. It also has an automatically locking central differential for when that power needs split evenly front to rear. It sounds right, and on the road it feels like the perfect balance. More of that in a minute.
Audi claims a 0-62mph time of 11.4 seconds, a top speed of 118mph and average fuel consumption of 45.6mpg for this car. Considering it weighs 1.75 tonnes – almost as much as a Mercedes-Benz E-class estate – it all sounds reasonable.
Take a walk around the car and you'll see all the hallmark Audi traits of understated, clean lines with only the apparently huge corporate front grille, LED running lights and a small roof spoiler nodding towards extraneous style statements.
For a 4x4 it's refreshingly rounded with a bullet nose, round and almost unflared wheelarches, a steeply raked front windscreen and a tidy tail. The few fold-lines on the flanks are straight and level, the roofline is parallel with them and the narrow, scowling headlights are cleanly styled.
Get down on your hunkers and you'll see that even if the ground-clearance isn't massive, everything's tucked up away under its belly so there's nothing there to snag on the landscape if you deign to take your £30,000 car into the dirt.
What it's like in the muck and rubble, I can't tell you. I haven't yet had the opportunity to get low-down and dirty with the Q5, but my guess is that if you can keep your axles clear of the stones you're straddling, and the ridge between the mud ruts, you'll probably be fine. If it were me, I'd have mud and snow tyres standing by for fitting at the start of every winter, just to give me that extra advantage should the going get properly tough, especially considering all that weight.
Climbing into the black leather seats, gripping the steering wheel and lining up the first of the six gears, everything about you feels just right. Drop the electric parking brake and pull off and you'll soon find all the controls are in the right place, they're easy to use, the cockpit is uncluttered and even the satnav and sound systems are instinctive pieces of kit to use.
Out on the roads the engine is very quiet and road noise is minimal, even on winter tyres. The steering is perfectly weighted at every speed and the gear shift is slick, solid and secure, the stick clicking confidently through every gate.
The suspension is particularly worthy of note. Okay, it does give a small amount of body roll in quick corners; nothing alarming or uncomfortable you understand; but it responds so well to a quick bird-avoiding wiggle on the wheel. There's a slight delay on the rear wheels following the front but the line is smooth and there's no sign of secondary weaving as the car recomposes itself. Marvellous.
Visibility all-round is good on the road, and when you're reversing into parking slots, which isn't something you can say about many 4x4s today.
The accommodation indoors is clean and comfortable wherever you're sitting. The boot isn't cavernous but it's big enough, flat-bottomed and squared-off nicely. There's not much of a lip to lift your shopping over either. The rear seats slide back and forth a little to add flexibility to the cargo hold and they can fold flat too at the stab of a simple button.
I'll say now, the Q5 is one of my favourite Audis. It's not overladen with technology, it has the feeling of integrity and quality, it has space and flexibility without being overbearingly massive, it's a fine road car and I hope to discover some day soon that it's an able enough dirt-monkey.
It's an expensive car when put alongside similar-sized and similar-performing compact SUVs but you get a badge that carries kudos and speaks of long-term reliability and residual value. The one thing that would make it unbeatable would be if Audi showed confidence enough in its product to follow some other manufacturers and extended its warranty beyond the rather prosaic three-year, 60,000-mile package. Give it five or seven years and 100,000 miles instead and we should all be queuing up to buy one.
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