Driving a fastback SUV is a clear signal to the rest of the world that design is a higher priority than practicality and space. Vehicles like the BMW X4 and Mercedes-Benz GLC Coupe are rolling proofs of “form over function,” and they sell in droves to the style-conscious and well-heeled. Audi is the latest to join the fray, debuting a Sportback variant of its popular Q5 lineup this year.
From behind the wheel of a 2021 Audi SQ5 Sportback, the coupe-like roofline does exact a few practical sacrifices compared to the regular SUV. However, Audi doesn’t demand quite as much compromise from its coupe-styled sport-ute as its competitors, with more cargo space, legroom, and shoulder room for all occupants. The SQ5 also boasts the same sharp, modern styling we’ve come to expect of products wearing the four-ringed badge, with a well-appointed interior and powerful engine coming along for the ride. But compared to the Mercedes-AMG GLC 43 Coupe and BMW X4 M40i, you do lose a fair amount of driver involvement – again typical of Audi.
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From the beltline down, the SQ5 Sportback shares much with the regular Q5 family, with sharpened front and rear lighting compared to the old SUV. Animated, matrix-LED headlights are available, but our SQ5 Premium Plus wasn’t so equipped. It did however wear highly visible sequential rear turn signals that seemed to beckon other drivers to give some room. One of our favorite design features is the sharp crease that runs the length of the shoulder line, incorporating the panel gap between the clamshell hood and the fender to clean up the bodysides a bit.
Of course, the roofline really sets the Sportback apart from its more conventional Q5 and SQ5 siblings. Passenger space is more generous than it appears thanks to a relatively high roofline that’s only 0.1-inch lower than the regular SQ5, but narrowed window openings and a dramatic rear hatch angle still impart the necessary impression of coupe-like styling. The rear deck also sports a crisp horizontal line that invokes a ducktail spoiler ever so slightly. The SQ5 does suffer from proportions that look a bit too front-drive for a premium vehicle, but the swoopy rear-quarter view helps distract onlookers from the long front overhang.
Don’t let them look too close at that angle though, or they’ll notice the SQ5’s egregiously fake quad exhaust outlets with black plastic blocker plates. That’s a real disappointment on an ostensibly performance-oriented SUV – the GLC 43, for example, sports genuine quad exhausts with round pipes, and it looks much better for it. Were the Audi’s units real, we’d be complimenting them all day long. Alas, they’re not.
Inside, the SQ5 Sportback makes use of largely the same interior styling as the rest of the Q5 family, which was refreshed slightly for 2021 with some added gloss-black accents. However, as with the RS5 Sportback we recently drove, the SQ5’s freestanding infotainment screen is starting to look a bit dated, especially when compared to the new A3 sedan’s wild, hex-heavy dashboard styling. Still, Audi renders the SUV’s cabin in nice materials, with hard plastics only appearing down low and out of sight. The soft-touch dashboard does look oddly grained, but almost everything the driver and front passenger encounter is kind on the eyes and elbows.
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The Audi SQ5 Sportback has an unexpectedly roomy cabin. The sloping roof taxes headroom only slightly, with 38.0 inches up front and 37.5 inches in the rear representing losses of 0.1-inch and 0.2-inch, respectively. That’s admittedly less than the BMW X4 and Mercedes-AMG GLC 43, but the Audi makes up with far more rear legroom (and incrementally more front and rear shoulder room) than either of its closest competitors. It rounds out those wins with substantially more luggage volume – its 24.7 cubic feet are up on the BMW by 6.2 cubes and the AMG by 7.1 cubes. Fold the seat and there’s 51.9 cubes available.
The SQ5 has a comfortable ride, thanks in part to our tester’s standard 20-inch wheels and all-season tires instead of optional 21-inchers and more aggressive summer rubber. Also helping matters is a standard adaptive suspension and optional four-corner air springs, which smooth out imperfections masterfully when set to Comfort mode. Noise intrusions are also well-hushed, with some tire roar at speed but few distractions otherwise. The front and rear seats are well shaped for comfort, and your 6-foot author fit through the slightly narrow rear doors and got comfy enough in back for a long highway jaunt.
Unfortunately, the SQ5 exhibited a few annoying issues during our time with it. Foremost, its idle stop/start system was nearly impossible to grow accustomed to. It would shut down at about 2 miles per hour, resulting in some inelegant forward dive from the brakes unless the driver feathered them perfectly. But then the engine would restart with a shudder within a moment unless the driver pushed harder on the brake pedal, rendering the idle-stop moot. The whole system is a few pickles short of a pickle party and it needs some refinement.
There were also some worrying squeaks coming from the front seat frames, which popped up midway through our weeklong test after a feisty drive through the canyons. And the seats themselves aren’t bolstered enough for quick driving, requiring the driver to brace against the console, door panel, steering wheel, and dead pedal. Any Audi vehicle wearing the red-striped S badge deserves better than this.
The SQ5 Premium Plus we drove comes standard with a 12.3-inch Audi Virtual Cockpit instrument cluster that defaults to a sporty bar graph tachometer but can also display a variety of useful driving information like water and oil temperature, oil pressure, average and instant fuel economy, and more. Unfortunately, our tester didn’t include embedded navigation, so the full-screen map display wasn’t available.
However, the 10.1-inch center touchscreen now runs MIB 3 infotainment software, which works very well, with intuitive menus and quick touch responses. Wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are standard, though our phones occasionally refused to pair with the system unless we turned the vehicle off and on again. Once connected, the smartphone integration worked perfectly, easing the sting of no navigation.
A turbocharged 3.0-liter V6 comes standard on the Audi SQ5 Sportback, putting out a healthy 349 horsepower and 369 pound-feet – though those numbers are down on the X3 M40i’s 382 hp and 368 lb-ft, as well as the GLC 43’s 385 hp and 384 lb-ft. Still, blasting the SQ5 away from a stoplight is an enjoyable experience, thanks in part to a surprisingly burbly sports exhaust system that lets a pleasant growl into the cabin and delivers pops and crackles when coasting. An eight-speed automatic transmission delivers power to all four wheels, with smooth and quick shifts when left to its own devices.
In Comfort or Auto modes, the drivetrain suffers from lackadaisical throttle response, but ratchet the drive mode to Dynamic and it all comes alive rather nicely. The transmission holds gears and downshifts under braking, and the throttle is sharp, yet sensitive enough to dial in just the right amount of power. The sprint to 60 mph happens in an Audi-claimed 4.7 seconds, though we wonder if that isn’t a bit optimistic. Meanwhile, an optional sport rear differential helps reduce understeer when accelerating through corners, enhancing the adequate grip from the all-season tires.
However, we would have liked some histrionics if they yielded a more involving driving experience. Our foremost complaint is the steering, which is far too light and vague. There’s little feel up front, so it’s difficult to confidently swing the nose through corners, and some body roll is present. The SQ5 Sportback absorbs mid-corner bumps well and offers nicely neutral handling balance, but it’s not lively enough to endear the driver to the road. Both the BMW X4 and Mercedes-AMG GLC 43 Coupe are faster and more involving, so it’s best to consider the SQ5 a genteel, well-mannered highway hauler with good power and a great exhaust note.
Every SQ5 gets automatic emergency braking, lane departure warning, and blind spot monitoring with rear cross traffic detection. The SQ5 Premium Plus comes standard with active lane assist, adaptive cruise control with full-speed functionality, and a surround-view camera system with 3D guidance, so the safety resume is rather impressive. Unfortunately, like an untalented legacy student at an Ivy League school, that resume doesn’t yield real-world results.
The active lane assistance has a difficult time discerning road markings in city driving, resulting in the steering wheel being jerked from the driver’s hands more often than is comfortable. The system has the same problem on concrete slab highways, making what should be a long, stress-free cruise unnecessarily jittery. Your author usually appreciates modern driver-assist and safety features, but this SQ5 needs to put some effort into its lane centering tech.
Luckily, the adaptive cruise control is reasonably clever, leaving appropriate gaps in traffic for smooth driving. Only when other drivers cut us off – a common occurrence in Los Angeles – would it jab the brakes, and even then the reaction felt appropriate and intuitive.
The Audi SQ5 gets mid-pack fuel economy relative to its competitors, at an EPA-rated 18 miles per gallon city, 24 highway, and 20 combined. The BMW X4 M40i is more efficient at 21 city, 27 highway, and 23 combined, while the GLC 43 is marginally thirstier at 17 city, 24 highway, and 20 combined. All three demand premium fuel.
After about 400 miles of driving, we saw an indicated 17.6 mpg from the onboard computer’s long-term memory, though much of that was in hot, stop-and-go traffic. A highway run using the short-term memory function saw us hit an easy 23.6 mpg, and adding some city driving brought that number to 21.6 – we’d say the EPA estimate is probably right on the money for this vehicle.
Starting at $56,100 plus $1,095 destination, the SQ5 Sportback is more than $10,000 cheaper than the Mercedes-AMG GLC 43 and down more than $4,000 over the BMW X4 M40i. In Premium Plus trim, our tester started at $59,500 and rose to a reasonable $66,045 with some options, including a $3,000 S Sport package (four-corner air suspension, sport rear differential, and red brake calipers) and $1,000 Nappa leather seats. The Bang and Olufsen sound system is an additional $950, while carbon fiber interior trim is $500.
Were it our cash, we’d be tempted to ditch the carbon trim and fancy sound system in favor of the $1,150 dynamic steering in hopes of capturing some feel and weight, and we’d possibly spend $1,000 on 21-inch wheels with summer tires. Lose the Nappa leather, add perforated seats with ventilation ($600), and toss in $350 worth of side airbags, and you’re left with a $67,290 SQ5 Sportback, still a decent deal compared to an optionless $65,490 GLC 43.
Still, both the BMW and Mercedes will be more involving while offering a modicum of comfort and space for two passengers (four in a pinch). Then again, neither offers the SQ5’s impressive cargo space, making it a good choice for those who need the room but want some fastback styling as well. The 2021 Audi SQ5 Sportback is comfortable and smooth around town – provided you deactivate the lane assist and engine stop/start – with a healthy dose of power and exhaust grumble when it’s time to dispatch the rolling roadblock up ahead. If only it had the soul we’d expect of that red “S” badge, though.
SQ5 Sportback Competitor Reviews:
Gallery: 2021 Audi SQ5 Sportback Review
2021 Audi SQ5 Sportback Premium Plus