Audi Q5 Hybrid: This gas-electric SUV really delivers

Wheels contributor Jil McIntosh test-drives Audi's first hybrid and likes it.

MALLORCA, SPAIN ? I think I may have sparked an international incident.

An Audi engineer asked me what I thought of the Q5 Hybrid, the company’s upcoming gasoline-electric compact SUV. I told him the driving experience was pretty much the same as with the conventional version.

That’s definitely the wrong thing to say to someone who has toiled for years on a system. But I quickly explained that it’s a good thing, especially in a premium-brand vehicle. Buyers may want the fuel savings and the hybrid badge status, but they also want the driving dynamics. That is, after all, why they’re buying an Audi.

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It’s Audi’s first full-production hybrid ? the company built three generations of experimental hybrids from 1989 to 1996 ? and it isn’t expected to land in Canada until next summer, so most of the details specific to our market are sketchy. (Audi Canada’s rep guesstimates that it’ll be badged as a 2013, rather than a 2012, for starters.)

As with other premium hybrids, volume will be low and price will be high. Annual Canadian sales are expected to be about 450 units. It will also come in one fully-loaded trim line at around $55,000.

That’s about $10,000 more than the 2011 premium-trim, four-cylinder Q5 upon which it’s based. Even at whatever ridiculous price that gas will be selling for next summer, that’s a lot of money to make up.

So this is far more about status than sustainability and it has to be about the way it drives ? and this car really delivers.

It uses the turbocharged, direct-injection 2.0 L four-cylinder from the 2011 Q5, mated to an eight-speed automatic transmission. An electric motor is sandwiched between engine and gearbox, fed by a 72-cell lithium-ion battery pack mounted under the cargo floor. The engine produces 211 horsepower and 258 lb.-ft. of torque, but when you mash the throttle, the battery can add a brief boost of up to 245 horses and 354 lb.-ft. of torque. Quattro all-wheel-drive is standard.

The hybrid drivetrain was developed in-house. It can start and run solely on its battery at 60 km/h for up to 3 kilometres and if you’re already cruising, it can switch over to electricity at speeds of up to 100 km/h.

Come to a stop and the gas engine shuts off, although all the electronics continue to function, including the electrically-operated a/c. An animated display in the dash shows what type of power is being used.

The switch from gas to electric happens automatically, although you can hit a button for electric-only operation providing all the driving conditions are right.

The gas engine is the only choice worldwide, even though a diesel hybrid would undoubtedly be more popular overseas. The diesel-phobic U.S. market will probably account for the majority of sales, and with such low volumes, it only makes sense to produce a single drivetrain.

According to Audi, the Q5 Hybrid is the step between petroleum-only vehicles and its all-electric E-Tron, which makes the leap from concept to production next year.

Canadian fuel figures aren’t available yet, but in European testing, Audi claims 6.6 L/100 km (here, the conventional Q5 is rated 7.7 on the highway). The importance of the American market can’t be overstated, since Europeans can already buy the Q5 with two diesel engines that get the same or better mileage than the hybrid and for much less money.

Still, the company felt the pressure of the competition. In Canada, you can buy hybrid versions of the BMW X6, Porsche Cayenne and Lexus RX, while U.S. customers can also buy a VW Touareg or lease a Mercedes-Benz M-Class hybrid.

All of those are larger, though, and Audi says it has the only full hybrid in the premium compact SUV segment.

It also claims it’s the sportiest, and I can’t argue with that. The Q5 is one of my favourites and the Hybrid is just more of the same.

It’s intelligently sized, it wraps around corners almost like a sports car, and it feels light and agile even with the hybrid system’s extra 130 kilos.

Only a few changes differentiate the Hybrid from the regular Q5: a power meter in place of the tachometer, unique wheels and grille, and chrome-trimmed tailpipes. The battery doesn’t chew up the cargo space, and the rear seats still fold, recline and slide back and forth.

In short, it looks like a regular Q5, has the same interior as a regular Q5, and it’s just as nice to drive as a regular Q5. The engineers may not think so, but that’s quite a compliment.

Travel for freelance writer Jil McIntosh was provided by the automaker.

2013 Audi

Q5 Hybrid

PRICE: $55,000 (est.)

ENGINE: Turbocharged 2.0 L four-cylinder with hybrid system

POWER: 211 horsepower/258 torque (gas engine); 245 hp/354 torque (maximum combined)

COMPETITION: BMW ActiveHybrid X6, Lexus RX450h, Porsche Cayenne S Hybrid

WHAT’S BEST: Sporty driving characteristics, high-speed battery-only operation

WHAT’S WORST: Hefty price premium over the gasoline version

WHAT’S INTERESTING: The dual-mode battery cooling system has its own air-conditioning system

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