Executive wheels: Audi’s clean diesel


Audi has always held a fascination for me. Back in my younger years, the aspiration cars around Denver were BMW and Mercedes. Audi was a way to get into a nice, upscale European model for a little less than those vehicles.

Then in the late 1980s, Audi was one of the first makes to really push diesel engines and, frankly, it was something of a disaster. In the early 1990s, suffering from a dip in sales and popularity, Audi changed its labeling on its cars and decided to pretty much go all-wheel-drive and make all of its models with its Quattro technology.

Since that time, Audi has made great leaps, rebuilt its reputation with what is generally considered great engineering and, in many cases, some really wonderful styling, like in the awesome supercar the Audi R8. Audi is now, for many people, in a solid peer group with Mercedes and BMW, and I can honestly say I haven’t driven a bad Audi in at least 25 years.

So I was excited to get the Q5, Audi’s smaller SUV (they call it a CUV – for Crossover Utility Vehicle). But my first impression wasn’t good. When I went outside to get in the Q5 for the first time, I thought it was its cousin, a Volkswagen Touareg (VW owns and makes the Audi brand). Oddly enough, similarly equipped with the Clean Diesel 3.0 liter turbocharged diesel engine with 240 hp, the VW is more expensive: This Audi Q5 TDI Quattro Tiptronic carries a base price of $46,500 while the Touareg that matches it carries a base of $51,610.  The Touareg is slightly larger – 113.9” wheelbase compared to 110.5” for the Q5 – but they are amazingly similar.

Other than the look – I want my Audi to look like an Audi – I really liked the Q5. It is a great size, easy to maneuver and park, fun to drive and very comfortable. And, of course, it has the legendary Audi quattro all-wheel-drive, a key safety and convenience automobile feature for Colorado.

But the big thing everyone asked me about during my test-drive week was the diesel engine. Owing largely to the Audi diesel problems in the 1980s, most people remain skeptical about diesel, and the American market has seen little development of the technology until very recently. The Europeans, of course, have embraced diesel.

People here, however, have the old notion that diesel is smelly and noisy – and nothing could be further from the truth. That cranky diesel engine sound of the past is long gone; this Audi is as quiet as any car on the market. And while there is exhaust, as there is in any fuel-burning vehicle, there is no tell-tale diesel odor. This is, like it said on the side of my test-drive vehicle, Clean Diesel. 

Now, while diesel fuel these days costs about 10 cents per gallon more than gasoline, this new generation of engines gets much better mileage. The 30-liter gas engine that is available for the Q5 features 272 hp and is rated at 18 mpg city/26 highway. This TDI model has 240 hp and is rated 24/31. I haven’t driven the gas model, but I can’t imagine that this diesel engine wouldn’t meet most people’s idea for performance: quick and smooth, and handles around-town and highway conditions, even in the mountains, with power to spare.

The Q5 has a very large sunroof that includes a fabric-mesh screen that blocks direct sunlight – a very useable open roof. Very handsome, as well, done in an off-white/tan color that matches the roof fabric and the switches. The car is a five-passenger vehicle with marvelous front seats with plenty of room, however the rear seats could have a little more legroom. It operates very quietly – little road noise – and includes all the bells and whistles of a modern luxury vehicle.

As I mentioned, the base price is $46,500, and on my test-drive model they added on $500 for the Glacier White metallic paint (nice, but worth $500? No.), and another $500 for the Sport Interior Package with front sport seats, four-way power lumbar support in the front seats, and a three-spoke steering wheel with shift paddles.

They added $3,550 for the electronics – navigation with voice command, CD/DVD player with HD radio, color driver information display, a parking system plus with rear-view camera and blind spot monitoring, and Audi Connect with Google Earth that provides weather, news, local search and a Wi-Fi hotspot for up to eight passenger devices.

On the down side, the rear cargo area is a tad small, and it takes some maneuvering to get two golf bags in there. Also, on the sound system the volume control is a single knob all by itself on the console that takes a bit getting used to; the knobs for the climate control look like radio controls, and I kept reaching for them.

It’s an Audi, and a very nice vehicle, but to be honest, for a bottom line of $51,945 it’s a bit on the high side. It compares well and competes well with the similar BMW x3 and Mercedes GLK 350, but you can get as much vehicle for a lot less with several Japanese and Korean brands.

The Q5 is definitely worth a look, and I would imagine that many people would find it just right, but if I’m going $50,000-plus for a SUV of this size, I prefer the GLK 350. And if I was someone not so concerned with the prestige of the badge but want a vehicle like this in the $30,000-range, I’d check out the Hyundai and Kia models.