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Innovative Audi: 2009 Q5 3.2 quattro Tiptronic

2009_audi_q5

All but alone in the wreckage left by the automotive depression, the population of small crossover SUVs bearing upscale brands has been exploding.

In the past several months, Mercedes, Audi, and Volvo have all added new small SUVs to their lineups. They are chasing the Lexus RX350, the segment’s longtime leader, which has just been redesigned to fend off the new competition. Small crossovers represent a profitable niche; Lexus sold 7,500 RXs last month.

I’ve driven all three of these vehicles in the past several months, as well as the non-premium Toyota RAV4, and while they all have their strong points and special flavor, my favorite is the Audi Q. It combines sportiness, luxury, and all-round driveability in a good-looking package that I expect will age with grace.

The Audi’s biggest drawbacks, in my view, are its small cargo area, and its price — $48,275 for my test car with three special equipment packages. While that’s not out of line with the competition, it is certainly substantial for a vehicle built on the bones of the compact A4, only with a higher stance and a hatchback.

On the other hand, I definitely enjoyed the typically classy Audi interior, the three-dimensional map display on the navigation plus package ($3,000 option) as well as the panoramic sunroof that exposed the entire passenger compartment to daylight ($4,300 option for the premium plus package). Audi ambiance has been raised to a new level.

As for the additional $2,950 to pay for Audi drive select, that feature may be one of today’s novelties that turns into tomorrow’s necessities. Drive select allows the driver to choose settings for the car’s important functions.

I’ve never been a big fan of adjustable suspensions that deliver minimal changes, but drive select combines suspension control with steering, transmission, and steering –- and you can feel the differences at every setting.

In comfort mode, you get Audi’s equivalent of Buick ride performance. Switch to dynamic, and you are behind the wheel of an S4. The throttle kicks down and the shift points come more quickly. You can pretend you are driving a performance model without shelling out the extra bucks and get extra pleasure from navigating twisty roads.

Innovations like this one that improve the performance of crossovers could boost their appeal to the enthusiasts who usually shun them.

And it helps explain why Audi sales are holding up better than competitors’ as it gains market share in an otherwise dismal auto market.