Audi Q5 SUV drives like a dreambut has baffling controls

Audi's Q5 compact SUV jumped from non-existent at the start of this year to become the brand's second-best seller in the U.S., behind the A4 sedan on which it is mechanically based.

That illustrates two key points: Audi was smart enough to spot a hole in its lineup and fill it fast, and even in a recession there have been buyers for premium-price crossover SUVs.

The Q5 starts at about $38,000. Audi figures you'll consider the Q5 if your shopping list includes the likes of BMW X3, Lexus RX 350, Volvo XC60.

Based on time spent in a $48,275 test vehicle, what you get in the Q5 is a sweet-driving vehicle with commendable space for its size, comfort to be coveted and controls that are unnecessarily complicated.

As Ford shows in the top versions of the 2010 Taurus, you can have a lot of functions and have them simply controlled.

The Q5 comes only with a 3.2-liter V-6, "quattro" all-wheel drive and a six-speed automatic — though Audi says it's mulling a diesel option and definitely plans a hybrid version as soon as the first quarter of 2011.

Audi is almost boringly consistent in personality. You can recognize what folks in the auto business love to call the company's "DNA" in everything from the small A3 and TT to the big A8 sedan and R8 sports car: Tight gaps between body panels; rich but simple interior trim; firm and comfortable seats; potent engines; crisp-shifting transmissions; right-now brake response; artful lighting; eye-ravishing styling.

And the absurd MMI control system — whether the full-Cleveland version in the pricey models or MMI Lite in Q5 and other lower-price Audis. Under no circumstances should you need to search through a menu to tune the radio, nor pick among four out-of-sight-while-driving buttons to diddle with the station presets or the sound mix — or control any other routine functions.

MMI can be sufficient reason to take an Audi off your list, just as BMW's iDrive is an argument against buying that brand and Mercedes-Benz's Comand setup is a pretty good reason to buy a Lexus instead.

For Q5 or any Audi to make sense, you have to appreciate that Audi's passion is attention to details that may not matter to most people but can be the whole point of auto ownership for a hard-core group.

Some Q5 examples:

•Driver select, an option that provides 27 selectable settings for handling, steering and engine response. You can, for instance, blend the cushiest ride (cushy being a relative term in the Audi universe) with ordinary steering and ferocious engine responsiveness, if that illogical array trips your trigger.

•A voice-activated navigation option that understands your real-life pleading "I need coffee" instead of requiring you to make a wooden-voiced request to "find restaurant."

•A giant sunroof that stretches over the front and back seats, but without the typical wide bar across the middle blocking part of your view.

•Stability control that changes settings when you load cargo on the roof rack, compensating for the fact that extra weight on top makes a vehicle more likely to tip over.

•Stainless steel trim instead of plastic on the door sills and the cargo area.

•Standard three-zone climate control, instead of one- or two-zone, because, well, people sit on both sides as well as in front and back.

•Notched trim that lets you slip your big feet past the door pillar as you swivel into or out of the back seat.

None of those do you need. A car or truck works fine without them. But having had them brought to your attention, it's easy to feel that a vehicle without such amenities is beneath you; perhaps a vehicle made by people who don't really care enough.

Snobbish, yes, but addictive. Especially combined with the sublime pleasure it is to wheel around briskly in most any Audi — even this SUV.

In the Q5, the V-6 yowls in pleasure when you push your right food hard. The six-speed automatic slices off shifts like a bread knife through a loaf, and offers a manual-shift mode among the easiest and most-satisfying on the market.

The standard "quattro" all-wheel drive normally sends most power to the back for a rear-drive feel favored by sporting types — radical for a company based on front-drive vehicles.

And even when the suspension's in its cushiest setting, the Q5 zips around corners with grace and dispatch.

Audi is married to Sirius for its satellite radio service, and Sirius is a failure, at least along the Eastern Seaboard and the Southeast states, where it drops the signal long enough to miss not simply a beat or two, but several songs entirely.

XM, which uses a different satellite system, is superior there. XM and Sirius have merged companies but not hardware.

No gaffes surfaced in the Q5 tester, but it needs to be acknowledged that Audi seems to have a reputation as troublesome.

Data's inconclusive: As a brand, Audi scored below average in initial quality (new vehicles) but above the industry average in dependability (3-year-old vehicles) in 2009 surveys by consultant J.D. Power and Associates.

Consumer Reports magazine gives a "recommended" to Audi's 2009 A8 and A6 sedans. The Q5 and redesigned A4 sedan on which it's based are too new to have a track record, so CR offers no opinion on reliability.

Some recent Audis are on CR's list of "used cars to avoid," including the '08 A3 and A6 sedans, the '07 Q7 SUV, and various '99 to '06 models.

Q5, as a luxury vehicle should, gives you leather, beautiful wood and aluminum trim, power everything, nice stereo. No lack of luxe. But Audi's concept of higher living clearly is something more.

Audi Q5 SUV

•What? Compact, four-door, crossover SUV derived from the A4 sedan.

•When? On sale since February.

•Where? Made at Audi's home base, Ingolstadt, Germany (but the engine comes from Hungary).

•Why? Hot segment; needed an entrant.

•How much? $38,025, including $825 shipping. Easy to run up another $10,000 in options.

•How potent? 3.2-liter V-6 rated 270 horsepower at 6,500 rpm, 243 pounds-feet of torque at 3,000 rpm, driving through a six-speed automatic transmission with manual-shift mode and "quattro" all-wheel-drive system that normally sends 60% of power to the rear wheels for the desirably sporty rear-drive feel. (Depending on traction conditions, can send up to 85% rear, up to 65% front.)

•How fancy? Generous array of standard features; titillating options, including "drive select" that allows you to program engine response, handling/comfort balance, steering feel. Details:

•How big? Slightly longer, wider than BMW X3. Q5 is 182.2 inches long, 74 in. wide, 65.1 in. tall on a 110.5-in. wheelbase. Weighs 4,178 lbs. Cargo space: 29.1 cubic feet behind second row, 57.3 cu. ft. when the second row is folded. Turning circle diameter, 38.1 ft.

•How thirsty? Rated 18 miles per gallon in town, 23 on the highway, 20 (5 gallons per 100 miles) in combined driving. Trip computer in test car showed 16.1 mpg in spirited suburban driving. Burns premium. Holds 19.8 gallons.

•Overall: Elegant, comfortable, but controls are too complicated.