Audi Q5 Is the Enthusiasts' Diesel SUV

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Let's say you want a diesel SUV but you want it to be on the sporty side, and you don't want to pay much over $50,000. If so, let me suggest that your best option in the U.S. market is the Audi Q5 diesel. I drove it for 160 miles over a weekend and came away impressed.

If you have not considered a diesel since that fateful panicked moment in 1979, let me give you at least three reasons you should do so right now in 2014:

1. No reliability problems. A number of really crummy diesels were rushed to market in the early 1980s by General Motors (GM) in particular, that sullied diesel's reputation for a generation. This sad situation is now deep in the rearview mirror and can safely be forgotten.

2. Diesel drives better than gasoline. Thanks to the superior torque, regular city/suburban stop-and-go driving will require fewer downshifts and therefore be less jerky. It's a premium experience, almost like an electric car.

3. If you haven't noticed, relative diesel prices are down. At least where I looked recently, diesel was selling on par with regular gasoline. Only a couple of years ago, it used to be sold at a premium to premium gasoline.

The Audi Q5 occupies a sweet spot in the SUV marketplace: It is just the right size for many people, fitting five very large people and a decent size of luggage. No third row and no real "off-road" capability beyond the slightly higher ground clearance and four-wheel drive -- but ideal for the larger part of the market.

In fact, it is this that strikes you the most about the Audi Q5: It is not just well-executed but it is also very well-defined to begin with. Not too big, not too small and all the major ingress/egress points are user-friendly. There are no major friction points.

The Audi Q5 diesel comes mostly very well-equipped, unlike so many other German premium cars. Standard equipment includes power-adjustable leather seats, power tailgate and panoramic sunroof. Given all of that, it's surprising to see that a rearview camera is optional, as part of a $3,550 package that also includes various multimedia sound upgrades -- clearly a must-have.

With that, that base car is $46,500, plus the $3,550 multimedia package and $895 mandatory destination charge, for a total of $50,945. Considering the outstanding body and radically strong diesel engine with 428 lb.ft worth of torque, this price is in the zone of what the competition from Mercedes and BMW would lead you to expect.

On that fuel economy, the Audi Q5 diesel is EPA-rated at 24 miles per gallon city and 31 highway, for a 27-mpg blended. As it happens, I got exactly 27 mpg over 160 miles and little over two days of driving.

There are diesels in the US car market today that offer all the way up to 46 mpg on the highway, but those are four-cylinder diesels with less power. They are also offered in two-wheel drive configurations and in car bodies instead of tall SUV bodies. All in all, the Audi Q5 diesel's 24/31/27 mpg rating is competitive given the various factors that impact MPG: weight, aero and power.

The one tool in the toolbox that is not utilized on this Audi Q5 diesel is the lack of start-stop technology. That's when the engine shuts off once you come to a stop, such as at a red light. It then resumes instantly once you let go of the brake pedal.

The lack of start-stop is the single biggest giveaway that you're not driving an electric car. One really wonders why the engine needs to be on when you're standing still. It seems like such a waste.

In contrast, the Mercedes E 250 diesel has start-stop technology as standard. Once the car has warmed up after the first five or so minutes, it just works. I imagine this technology will soon spread to almost all regular gasoline and diesel cars in the market. It just seems like such an obvious way to save on fuel, with essentially zero penalty or cost.

The engine-transmission combination is very smooth and powerful, with this 428 lb.ft worth of monster torque. It's about as close to a battery-electric vehicle (BEV) as an internal-combustion-engine (ICE) will ever get. The only thing that can be a bit "too much" is that the car simply has so much power that it becomes too jerky when you accelerate too much. There is just too much power!

That's why in general I recommend less powerful four-cylinder diesels over these insanely powerful six cylinder diesels. You can get the smaller SUVs with four cylinders from BMW and Mercedes. You can also get a diesel station wagon from Volkswagen (VLKAY) -- currently the Jetta, but it becomes the all-new Golf wagon in early 2015. Those cars give you superior fuel economy while still having more than sufficient power.

The handling characteristics of the Audi Q5 diesel are first-class. It's simply the best-handling SUV I have ever driven. From the steering to the suspension, it feels like you are driving a vault on stilts. I have not yet driven the 2015 Porsche Macan, but I imagine it will be the only thing that could match or improve upon the Q5.

A month or so earlier, I had driven the all-new 2015 gasoline Audi A3, and this Q5 diesel felt more substantial in every way, in terms of body, engine and handling. It is a much heavier, roomier, and premium-feeling vehicle. I liked the A3, but I like the Q5 more.

What about the instrumentation? I find it to be slightly better than most BMWs and Mercedes. Why? Better maps and better controls for integrating media. The placement of buttons and other measures of intuition are also a hair better than most BMWs and Mercedeses.

On the downside, I was unable to find a way to pull up a display for measuring miles per gallon. I later found out that there is a way, but I kept trying for two days and couldn't find it.

The other downside is a lack of real-time wheel-by-wheel tire pressure monitoring. This can help you optimize for fuel economy and should be as standard on every car as rear-view camera. Yes, there is a "general" tire pressure warning, providing an indication once one or more wheels is/are off materially. But that's not good enough.

On the multimedia side, the car does not have a standard regular 3.5-mm analog input for playing your podcasts, music, etc., from a smartphone or tablet. This means that I had to use the Bluetooth connection, which worked fine...except for the fact that it muted the sound every time I put the car in reverse. Very annoying. Every car should have a regular 3.5-mm analog input somewhere along the center console, so that you can plug in your Android tablet or smartphone without having to deal with Bluetooth or some other digital cable.

All in all, I give the Audi Q5 a very high rating. My only objection aside from the lack of 3.5-mm analog AUX jack and lack of real-time wheel-for-wheel tire pressure monitoring, is the question of whether you really need all of this power and/or taller body.

If you are not absolutely sure that you need all of this horsepower and torque, you may consider a four-cylinder SUVs from BMW and Mercedes, as they yield superior fuel economy. In addition, if you want just about as much interior space in a lower body, next year's VW Golf Wagon will offer you much of this interior space in an even more space-efficient package. The VW Golf wagon should be available in the U.S. market one year from now, and cost close to $30,000 fully loaded.

In the meantime, the Audi Q5 diesel is still a top choice for the discerning performance SUV buyer.

At the time of submitting this article, the author was long GOOGL.

This article represents the opinion of a contributor and not necessarily that of TheStreet or its editorial staff.

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