Verdict: No driving enthusiast would pick a 2021 Audi SQ5 over a comparable sports sedan, but it’s a nice step up from the plain-Jane Audi Q5.
Versus the competition: Most luxury automakers offer a sportier version of their basic compact crossover, and all of them feature the same formula: sportier looks, more power, more tech, more expensive.
The concept of a sporty crossover SUV eludes me, given its few advantages over a comparably sized sporty sedan for those who want something truly entertaining to drive: An SUV is taller, heavier and doesn’t handle as well, given its higher center of gravity. About the only thing a performance SUV can do better than a sports sedan is carry more junk in its trunk.
Audi’s sportier version of the excellent Q5 crossover SUV is a perfect example of this: The 2021 Audi SQ5 looks good on paper, with a powerful turbocharged V-6, an electronically adjustable sport suspension, racier looks, performance seats, standard all-wheel drive and more. In a sedan, this is a slam-dunk winning combination. But in a taller, heavier family crossover, does it even work?
Audi’s S performance models (versus its S Line appearance packages) boast mechanical and cosmetic changes meant to improve the way they drive and look, and those changes on the SQ5 definitely give it a more aggressive appearance. For 2021, the entire Q5 lineup received mild styling updates, and the SQ5 has benefited from these, too, with a cleaner, tighter look.
The SQ5 I drove was a new-for-2021 color called District Green — a muted, almost dusky hue that looked terrific combined with the optional Black Optic Package’s blacked-out chrome trim. The standard rims on the SQ5 are 20-inch units, but that package gives the SUV 21-inch, two-tone wheels with summer tires. (My tester featured winter tires, given I drove it in Michigan in December.) I can’t argue with the way it looks; the S treatment turns the attractive-yet-anonymous Audi Q5 into something with presence. It looks racier than the mainstream model, which I suppose is a big part of why some people want to purchase a sporty crossover SUV in the first place.
Not So Racy Performance
An upgrade over the standard Q5’s four-cylinder, the engine in the SQ5 is a turbocharged 3.0-liter V-6 making 349 horsepower and 369 pounds-feet of torque — significantly better than the Q5’s 261 hp and 273 pounds-feet of torque. The resulting acceleration is as brisk as you might expect: Audi says the SQ5 delivers a 0-to-60-mph time of 4.7 seconds, and I’ve got no reason to doubt that number, as the SUV feels quick. Once the turbo is spooled up — which happens quickly and with no perceptible lag — the SQ5 proves to have plenty of grunt. It’s not quite as hairy-chested as higher-performance competitors, like the Mercedes-AMG GLC63 and its biturbo V-8, but it almost matches the output from the lesser GLC43’s twin-turbo V-6.
What lets the SQ5 down is its eight-speed Tiptronic transmission, which feels poorly tuned to the engine; it’s always hunting for the right gear and never quite seems to find it. Throttle response is also hampered as the powertrain decides what to do about the request your right foot is making — it always feels half a tick behind your motions, even when using its sportiest settings. The SQ5 responds well enough if driven tepidly, but ask it to do anything remotely sporty and it’ll ask you to rethink your request. Quick transitions and sudden calls for acceleration are met with a half-second of confusion from the powertrain, putting a serious damper on the SQ5’s sporting pretensions.
The SQ5’s ride and handling and its steering feel don’t invite aggressive driving, either. Steering feel is highly boosted and fairly numb — normally acceptable in a crossover SUV, but at odds with one purporting to be a sporty model. Its ride and handling balance, however, is good thanks to a standard adaptive suspension and optional air springs. They work together to deliver a compliant, comfortable ride despite the SQ5’s low-profile tires and 21-inch rims.
It’s softer than you’d expect from a sporty SUV, but given the throttle response and transmission behavior don’t make for an enticing sports-driving experience, dialing back your aggressive tactics and just enjoying the luxurious ride is a better idea anyway. The brakes are strong and progressive, hauling you down from speed with ease, but they’re surprisingly noisy at low speeds, emitting a gronk noise more often than I’ve experienced in other new vehicles lately.
The only saving grace is that the SQ5’s main competitor, the Mercedes-Benz GLC300/AMG GLC43, feels almost exactly the same to drive. It’s also plagued by infuriatingly hesitant powertrain behavior, fairly numb steering and a softer ride than expected. Whether this is some odd quirk of expensive German luxury crossovers at large or something endemic to their programming, we can’t say. But it’s behavior we haven’t noted in vehicles like the Alfa Romeo Stelvio, which is quick, nimble and an absolute riot to drive in its top Quadrifoglio performance trim level.
Enjoy the Buttons While You Can
The SQ5 shines a little brighter on the inside, where a cabin built on Audi’s reputation for excellent quality materials, precision assembly and state-of-the-art technology makes it easier to forgive the dynamic fumbles. Unlike a lot of new Audi and Volkswagen products (VW is Audi’s parent company), the SQ5’s isn’t a new-style “glass cockpit” where you have to control everything with a touchscreen. That day is almost certainly coming for the Q5 and SQ5, but until then we’ll enjoy one of the last Audi cabins to still have excellent buttons and switches. Everything works and articulates with a precision you won’t find in a vehicle equipped with nothing but touchscreens, and to my mind it elevates the luxury feel of the SQ5 to match its price.
There’s also considerable comfort to be found in the SQ5. The front sport seats are spacious but not overly bolstered, so you’ll actually want to spend time in them. There’s plenty of leg- and headroom up front, but the backseat is a little tight in the legroom department. The second row does slide fore and aft in order to maximize cargo room or passenger legroom, but in order to drop the rear seatbacks you have to slide the front seats forward a bit and keep them there the whole time the second row is down. It’s a less than optimal arrangement if you’re a taller driver who needs to haul something, but the cargo area is plentiful even with the seats up, so this should be a minor inconvenience.
There are some updates to the SQ5’s gauges and multimedia system, including rearrangement of the optional Virtual Cockpit digital gauge cluster. The standard viewing mode for the SQ5 is now what’s known as Sport mode in the Q5, while a new, exclusive S Performance mode brings the speedometer and tachometer front and center and allows for customization of the surrounding gauge readouts. It also allows for shifting views between the gauges and an onboard navigation map — something Audi was among the first to do and still does extremely well.
While the new gauge layouts’ available customization is welcome, the gauges themselves are not overwhelming in terms of the data dump they provide to drivers. The central multimedia screen does, however, now feature wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, in case you’d rather not use Audi’s native systems, and one thing you’re sure to enjoy using is the optional 19-speaker Bang & Olufsen premium audio system, which sounds just as good as you’d expect it to.
The starting price for a new 2021 Audi SQ5 is $53,995 (including destination fee). It’s a hefty bump over the $44,395 starting price of a base ’21 Audi Q5, but not unreasonable given its rather thorough list of changes. Like most German luxury cars, however, a lot of desirable features will cost you extra — which is why my test vehicle had more than $17,000 in options, making for a grand total cost of $71,790. Along with the $1,000 Black Optic Package described above and another $1,000 for a full Nappa leather interior, these packages added significantly to the bottom line but also made for a significantly nicer vehicle:
Prestige Package ($9,600)
- Bang & Olufsen audio system
- LED matrix headlights and organic light-emitting diode taillights
- Panoramic moonroof
- Adaptive cruise control
- LED interior lighting
- 360-degree camera system
- Virtual Cockpit gauges
Sport Package ($3,000)
- Electronic sport suspension
- Sport rear differential
- Red brake calipers
As for competitors, there are more than a few manufacturers in this price range aiming to sell sporty crossover SUVs to the well heeled. Most are slightly more expensive and more powerful than the SQ5, but when you start adding in all the options, the bottom line begins to even out. The BMW X3 M40i is the best Bimmer to match up against the SQ5, with a 382-hp six-cylinder engine and $57,595 starting price. The Mercedes-AMG GLC43 is also a good match, with a $60,950 base price and a 385-hp V-6 engine. There isn’t a version of the Alfa Romeo Stelvio well-suited to match this mildly hotted version of the Q5; your choices there are a four-cylinder Stelvio Ti (cheaper and less powerful than the SQ5) or an ultra-hot Stelvio Quadrifoglio (far more expensive and powerful than the SQ5). But Jaguar’s mid-level F-Pace P340 S stacks up well, featuring an inline-six that pumps out 335 hp at a starting price of $60,545.
Aside from a slightly tight backseat — not uncommon in this class — the Audi SQ5 makes up for its confused and underwhelming sportiness with a plush, sophisticated interior that looks and feels great. It easily outclasses the Alfa Stelvio in both material quality and technological sophistication, and it feels to be on the same level of luxuriousness and sophistication as the Mercedes-Benz GLC or BMW X3. People shopping for a sports sedan aren’t likely to consider the SQ5, but those shopping for a compact luxury crossover might easily make the jump from the normal, everyday Q5 to one that’s just a little more amped up, a little more powerful, a little more aggressive looking and a little more expensive.
Related Video: 2018 Audi Q5 Review: First Impressions
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