The Los Cabos greater area reminds me more of the UAE than I could have predicted. This stretch of Mexican coast line looks a bit like Fujairah in spots, and there are stretches of open desert on view from the highway, as well as crumbling mountain passes with little or no vegetation. The weather conspires to support the association as well — the sun is shining and, at least on the first day, the fleeting humidity wraps me up in its damp blanket. But what really cements the comparison is the rapid rate of growth: I haven’t been here in almost 20 years and the changes are staggering. Where the coastline once rambled along the highway in an expanse of open space, now a phalanx of luxury resorts break up the skyline. Where the once sleepy village of Cabo de San José offered a single grocer; spotless malls anchored by hypermarkets now dot the map. And sure, you can build a lot in 20 years, but this is one of the few places where they’ve taken it to the extreme. Change can be jarring, especially if it’s poorly implemented — perhaps the boffins at Audi had that in mind when they designed the new Q5.
So let’s begin with the greatest departure then — the new quattro iteration, which is standard with the 252hp 2.0 TFSI engine, is equipped with what Audi calls “ultra technology”. Unlike previous quattro generations, ultra disengages the rear-axle drive whenever it’s not needed, and if necessary it can pro-actively re-engage it. Sounds potentially clunky and interventionist? It’s not. At all. The only way you’ll notice quattro ultra working, as far as I could detect, is when you look at your petrol bills — the system boosts fuel efficiency (EPA rating is still pending though).
We spent the day driving the car in all kinds of conditions — on road, off road, through crowds of tourists, through crowds of cows. At the end of the day Rolf Kronstorfer, powertrain development engineer for Audi, was able to pull up my data for the trip. You would think that, rather obviously, the car would have defaulted to AWD during the off-road section, and then mainly stayed in FWD on the highway and city streets. Well, you’d be wrong. Throughout the rutted and dusty trail, Kronstorfer’s data reveals an alternating pattern of blue and red lines marking our journey. Red represents when the car is in AWD, blue represents when it’s in FWD. Granted, this was not the most technical stretch of off-roading in the world, but what’s striking is how seamlessly the car transitions between the two modes — the driver experience is completely uninterrupted but power delivery is changing all the time. And judging by data presented from my, and other drivers’, circuits of Baja California’s southern tip, the Q5 makes the executive decision to switch during highway conditions as well.
How this works depends on a number of factors, the quattro system uses a variety of driver inputs and sensor data to interpolate road conditions and driver intent. And while your throttle and steering input are keying the transitions, the two computer-controlled clutches do the heavy lifting, controlling torque to the rear wheels. As such, the system controller interpolates data not just for loss of traction, but also spirited acceleration and tight turns, using these cues to send power to the rear wheels. All of which takes place in just a few milliseconds, which is a key component of the systems utter transparency.
Less transparent, although also not a huge departure, are the various changes to the Q5’s exterior. This crossover, which looks a tad more like a saloon in this iteration, is Audi’s bestselling product and, as you would expect, they’ve endeavoured to perfect the formula but without undue tinkering. Remember New Coke? This isn’t that. The new Q5 peers out at you from squinting LED headlights, its conspicuous six-blade grille looking something like an exquisitely designed billboard for the highly aesthetic marque. Its lines are firmly couched in the Audi design language, pushing the look ever-so-slightly forward, which is what you do when you have a hit on your hands. The car is offensive to no one, generally pleasing to look at in every way, but not likely to spark much passion in the petrol pumping hearts of hard-core car lovers. That’s OK, too, somebody has to make nice cars for sane people and this is exactly that. For the insane, well, there’s always the R8 and, er, perhaps an RSQ5 one day.
And while maybe not a likely choice for a day at the track, the new Q5 benefits from added structural stiffness, which helps reduce vibrations over challenging road surfaces and sleeping policeman. To underscore the point, I started my journey in the sole US spec Q5, the only car available that didn’t include Audi’s air-spring suspension. In this iteration, the Q5 is more prone to body roll, and less forgiving of Mexico’s rutted streets and gravel roads. Switch to the air-spring version and things are more controlled, less bouncy. The advent of air-spring supplies the car with adjustable ride height, which gives the Q5 a more forgiving ride quality under a variety of conditions, while providing better clearance off-road. Like quattro plus, you can simply let the system do its thing — we rolled up to the trail portion of the drive, left the car in all-road mode, and it adjusted the ride height automatically as we left the tarmac.
The car’s electrically assisted rack-and-pinion power steering works well enough, and at the risk of sounding like a cliché, don’t look for much road feel here. The car also has a mild tendency to understeer at extremes, which isn’t unexpected in a larger, often FWD vehicle that carries its weight in the front. Good news, though, the brake feel is excellent and very responsive, making the Q5 easy to control if something unexpected pops up at high speed.
If you are inclined to faffing about with the Drive Select system, Audi has kindly offered user control over the chassis and powertrain, throttle response, damper firmness, transmission shift behaviour, and steering effort. Nested submenus offer metadata on things like pitch, roll, and steering angles etc. It’s a actually a lot of tweakery, which is cool, but the car’s basic set-up is the kind of starting point that most Q5 buyers would, presumably, prefer.
Inside, the Q5 is everything you’d expect from Audi, with its well thought out, comfortable and luxurious interior. I’m fairly tall, but when I did take a turn in the back seat I was quite comfy, although I wouldn’t want to sit in the middle if I could help it (I could). Also worth noting; the rear seats have a modicum of travel front to back, so you can adjust as required. The new car has a longer wheelbase by about 12.5mm, for additional legroom, and the split-folding backrests offer a variety of set-up options. There’s more room in the cargo area compared to the outgoing version, and a neat new option allows you to open the liftgate by dragging your foot under the rear bumper — an excellent feature for parents like myself who are constantly carrying loads of gear out to the car — it’s nice to be able to open up the back hands-free.
A pair of USB sockets, inductive phone-charging pad, and 12-volt outlet cover your device needs, while front and rear cross-traffic alert systems will brake for you if you have the bad judgement to pay too much attention to said devices behind the wheel. I put the adaptive cruise control system to the test on the last leg of our journey, and found it simple and intuitive enough to use. According to Audi, the latest ACC system, with its driver assist ability represents the company’s next step towards piloted driving, and covers a variety of driving types with three packages — Tour, City and Parking. Traffic jam assist can even handle some of the steering work in slow-moving traffic, while Audi active lane assist helps you keep your lane, which by the way, you really ought to be able to handle on your own. That said, I’m still happy to see these technological aids looking out for the rest of us. To wit, distance warning helps alert the driver when the distance to a vehicle drops below a safe threshold. Nice to have on those low-visibility mornings out on Shaikh Zayed.
The Audi Q5 has done a great job feeding the global hunger for mid-size crossovers and, while the latest iteration clearly moves the ball forward, it hasn’t taken any startling leaps that might throw its hordes of prospective buyers off the path. What you have is a very user-friendly, comfortable, well-appointed vehicle, and one that hits a certain aesthetic criteria that’s obviously precious to many. If that excites you… well, maybe you need to find a hobby. But the Q5 is a laudable daily driver and I’d happily pilot one myself given the opportunity — I just might also need something more savoury in the garage for taking out my aggressions. Then again, I could just take up the drums.