Audi Q5

A tall off-road vehicle that can convince you it's a sleek, sporting saloon ... Audi deserves an award

Hmm ... SUVs. As a newspaper we are not keen on cars so overspecified for the tasks they are usually asked to carry out, nor on the way buyers assume they need one when they clearly don't. There are exceptions but Audi's giant Q7 isn't one of them. Its sheer, arrogant grossness makes me quite cross, actually.

Now there's an Audi Q5. It looks like a smaller Q7 but it's still hefty, having a wider, tougher version of the Audi A4's platform. Those who crave an SUV to help them feel secure and powerful will find all the psychological support they need. Audi says that just two per cent of SUV owners have ever driven across rough country. It also says there's an "immense growth of interest in adventure tours". Some of that growth presumably involves driving across rough country, which might raise that percentage of SUV off-road use. I hope so, because then such a car is justified.

Even so, car makers still have to expend much effort in making the car feel like something its architecture naturally hampers it from being. If a tall SUV feels like a sleek, sporting saloon car to drive, while giving you a fine vantage point into the bargain, then its engineers should be congratulated on defying physics. Step up to the podium, Q5 engineers.

To drive, this is the best mid-size SUV the world has yet known. It's not perfect but it rivals a Porsche 911 in being a triumph of development over design (the oldest 911 cliché of all). It has proper steering with a consistent, linear response and no vagueness, it stays level in corners without feeling stiff-legged and jittery (the usual "sporty" SUV problem), and it copes smoothly with bumps.

The Q5 is more evidence that Audi's engineers have recently discovered the secret of driver-pleasing vehicle dynamics having missed the point for years. Specifically, the Q5 has unusually sophisticated suspension design, and it can be had (as in the cars I drove) with Audi Drive Select. This lets you choose Comfort, Auto and Dynamic settings which affect suspension firmness, steering weight and accelerator eagerness, and, if you dig further into the car set-up part of the Audi Multi-Media Interface (a sort of iDrive), you can change those settings individually for each parameter.

This all means the Q5 has adaptive suspension dampers, which are the key to its ability both to handle keenly and ride smoothly. It works best most of the time with everything set to Auto, which lets the suspension do its stuff properly.

More automation comes with the transmission. The Quattro four-wheel-drive sends more energy to the rear wheels unless it's needed up front, which helps the Q5's surprising agility. And if you choose either the 2.0-litre petrol turbo engine (211bhp) or the 3.0-litre TDI V6 (240bhp and a massive 369lb ft of torque), you get a seven-speed double-clutch transmission able to work with great smoothness as either an automatic or a sequential, paddle-shifted manual. The third engine, likely to be the most popular, is the 170bhp 2.0 TDI, initially manual-only.

The 3.0 is much the liveliest, obviously, and still scrapes in under 200g/km CO2. So does the petrol turbo; this is the lightest engine and makes for the lightest-footed Q5. But the 2.0 TDI is plenty fast enough and quiet enough, and personally I'd rather have a proper manual anyway because it engages you more with the driving process. All have Hill Descent Control to help them edge safely down an off-road precipice, and all have an electric parking brake which is a mixed blessing when it comes to tight manoeuvring on a hill with a manual Q5.

And I must not forget two final niceties. The stability system automatically alters its settings when a roof-rack is fitted, to compensate for the higher centre of gravity. And the Q5, priced from £27,650, has an (optional) thermal cupholder. That said, my test 3.0 TDI SE had more than £12,000 worth of options, taking it to an astonishing £47,930. That's slightly ridiculous for a mid-size SUV.

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