A version of this article was first published on or about September 18, 2017, on my Seeking Alpha Marketplace site, where subscribers get early access to many of my articles. You can view these articles here: https://seekingalpha.com/author/anton-wahlman/premium-articles
I need to start by jumping straight to the conclusion, because otherwise my description and comparison will seem a bit odd and too focused. The Audi Q5 is tied for my favorite midsize to slightly smaller-than-average SUV in the premium class, starting at $41,500.
It ties in this best-in-class award with the similarly $41,500 base price Volvo XC60, which carries a similar starting price. However, there is a twist to this saga, and that is that whereas the Audi Q5 comes only one way in the U.S. (disregarding the SQ5, which is the more powerful version starting at $54,300), the Volvo comes with a distinctly different powertrain, and that’s the plug-in hybrid. It starts at $53,895.
Therefore, I will compare the Audi Q5 separately with the “regular” gasoline-only Volvo XC60, and the plug-in hybrid version of the Volvo, called the “T8” -- for indeed, the conclusion is a bit different depending on this comparison.
While we’re talking about pricing, let’s for a moment glance at how high you can specify an Audi Q5 -- and for that matter the SQ5. By clicking seemingly all the boxes, I got the Q5 to $56,750 and the SQ5 to $68,575.
In terms of exterior design, the Q5 and XC60 are my two favorites. The Audi is more conservative, but both are well-balanced designs that will likely stand the test of time. The first-generation Q5 still looks fresh to this day, a decade later, even after the second-generation model became available this year. Almost no car ever achieves that.
The Audi has one particular thing about the exterior that I like more than almost anything else: When the car is parked, and you walk around it from a little distance -- say 20-30 feet -- you see that it’s got an off-road stance where it seems to have a high ground clearance and a terrain-worthy approach angle. The Volvo looks like it would be a lot more sensitive to drive off-road.
The interiors differ in almost everything except size. The Volvo is visually more stunning, and has a touchscreen interface that may be the best in the business. The Audi looks almost identical to the A4, which may be “boring” but nevertheless works extremely well.
You can go two ways in terms of the interface. Either it’s touchscreen, or it’s the remote-control device that Audi uses. Audi definitely has the best remote control interface in the business, ahead of companies such as BMW, Mercedes and Lexus.
For someone who hasn’t used the Audi interface before, it will be hard to learn for the first few days. It is not totally intuitive, and there are so many buttons, knobs and beyond. However, the reward is there if you get over that initial hump. Once you get used to it, it is the best of its kind.
In terms of the touchscreen, the Volvo similarly isn’t the easiest to use from scratch. Anything from FCA (FCAU), General Motors (GM), Ford (F), Kia or Hyundai will be easier to use in terms of getting up to speed. However, the Volvo has a larger screen and it looks premium.
On the whole, I think the Q5 and XC60 are be the best of their kinds, in terms of interface and infotainment systems. The Audi certainly is the best in its category, and the Volvo is at least tied for best touchscreen.
The built-in navigation is clearly better in the Audi. Volvo uses a mapping provider where things don’t look nearly as good. But fear not, because Audi and Volvo alike have both Android Auto (GOOGL) and Apple (AAPL). That’s what you’ll want to use for mapping anyway.
The Audi has a party trick up its sleeve -- but only if you pay the $2,600 extra for the “virtual cockpit” and a couple of associated goodies. That’s the ability to also show the map right in front of you, taking up a giant space whilst pushing the other data to the sides.
That’s interesting, but you can take it one step further: I would use it with the map turned on in front of the driver, and simultaneously having Android Auto (GOOGL) or Apple CarPlay (AAPL) provide the mapping for the center display. That way, you have two separate maps in front of you simultaneously -- and they can be from two different mapping providers. I think Audi is the only company that can do this.
Audi is also alone in offering another party trick -- but only in Las Vegas. If you pay for the enhanced data package -- a monthly fee after the initial trial period -- you get traffic light information, that informs you when the next light will turn red or green. That can be especially useful when you’re sitting at the red light and wondering if it will turn green in 10 seconds or 80. It reduces the stress level, if nothing else.
The seats in both are good, but not the very best. Volvo has the better base seat, but the to optional sport seat in the Audi is at least as good. The *old* Volvo XC60 (2017 model year and older) actually had the best seats, in my opinion. The seating positions in both are very good as the steering wheels telescope reasonably well.
Looking around the cabin, the Audi comes standard with some shiny wood decor, that you don’t know whether it’s actually wood or not. It looks cheap and unsophisticated. That’s also the only complaint I have with the Audi interior. The Volvo is is a “modern museum” masterpiece that is hard to beat, including superb matte woods that are just about unmatched in the automotive industry anywhere near this price range, but overall it’s essentially a draw here. These two are the best interiors in their class based on a combination of looks and ergonomics.
A driving comparison between the Q5 and the gasoline-only XC60 reveals some differences. Despite the Volvo having as much or more power on paper, it does not feel as powerful or as responsive. Perhaps the 0-60 MPH times are close to each other, but I can only tell you that it doesn’t feel that way.
The overall engine character is also superior in the Audi, as it feels smoother and simply has a better sound. This also floats into steering and handling. The Volvo has excellent steering and handling, almost as good as it gets for this class -- but the Audi is simply even better. The Audi just seems that much sharper, while not losing anything in terms of comfort.
This is the place where the comparison of the Q5 against the Volvo XC60 switches from the gasoline-only Volvo to the XC60 plug-in hybrid, the T8. While it starts at $53,895, you might be eligible for a $5,000 Federal tax credit. So now you’re at $48,895. Then you might also be eligible for a state incentive. If that happens to be $1,500, that means you’re now down to $47,395.
Now the difference between the base Q5 and the nominally much more expensive Volvo XC60 T8 isn’t so big anymore. With the Volvo T8, you’re getting a lot more power -- 400 horsepower and 472 lb ft torque. You’re also getting much better fuel economy. More than that, you also get a car that runs much, much smoother thanks to the electric motors.
Suddenly, the Volvo no longer has a powertrain disadvantage -- however mild -- against the base Audi Q5, but instead an advantage. You will have to ask yourself if the $5,895 difference is compensated for somehow as a result not only of the superior powertrain, but also any other difference in equipment.
You might just conclude that the Volvo XC60 T8 is the better way to go, at that point. I think it is.
The Audi Q5 isn’t available as a plug-in hybrid -- not yet anyway, and such a version doesn’t seem to be on the horizon anyway.
To summarize: If you’re comparing the Audi Q5 with the gasoline-only Volvo XC60, it’s essentially a draw. The Audi will have a slightly better powertrain and some other driving dynamics, but the bigger difference will be whether you prefer a touchscreen or Audi’s remote control. That’s a matter of taste and individual preference. You will need to spend at least a couple of days in each car to get used to them and decide with any confidence. I might give the edge to the base Audi Q5, but this is about as close a call as they get. It’s so much a matter of taste more than an objective standard.
If you are willing to spend a little bit more money, the Volvo XC60 T8 gives you a lot more powertrain sophistication than the Audi Q5. I think that is worth it, but not everyone will agree that spending that extra few thousand dollars is a wise choice.
Either way, these two cars -- Audi Q5 and Volvo XC60 -- now define best in class.
That begs the final question: The biggest competitive threat to both of these cars may not be each other, or their class peers such as Mercedes GLC, BMW X3 or Jaguar F-Pace, but a less expensive SUV-crossover of a similar size, or perhaps the tiniest hair smaller.
Consider that these cars start at $41,500. Fully loaded, they will be over $55,000 and for the premium engines even quite a bit more.
Here is what you might consider instead: Mazda CX-5, Kia Sportage, Ford (F) Escape or Chevrolet (GM) Equinox, perhaps GMC Terrain or Volkswagen Tiguan. They all perform the same task as Audi Q5 and Volvo XC60, but their fully loaded prices tend to be between $35,000 and $40,000 -- below the starting prices of the Volvo and Audi.
You will compromise on some features, engine power and interior luxury to varying degrees. However, my point is that you may not have to compromise as much as you think. Maybe 10%-30% horsepower or the wood grains aren’t worth anywhere from a couple thousand to $20,000. For some people they are, for others not as much.
This is not the space for an exact comparison, but the buyer should check them all out to decide for themselves whether spending $35,000 to $40,000 for a fully loaded lesser brand really isn’t enough. That said, for those who don’t agree with that, I find the Volvo XC60 and Audi Q5 to be the best you can buy in the more premium medium-to-slightly-less-than-medium SUV-crossover segment today.
First eight month sales, U.S., 2017:
Audi Q5: 34,630 (up 10.9%)
Volvo XC60: 13,740 (up 7.6%)
Disclosure: I am/we are short TSLA.
Additional disclosure: At the time of submitting this article for publication, the author was long FCAU and GOOGL, and short TSLA. However, positions can change at any time. The author regularly attends press conferences, new vehicle launches and equivalent, hosted by most major automakers. Audi and Volvo hosted production introduction events.