Hitting the slopes in the all-new Audi Q5

Hitting the slopes in the all-new Audi Q5

THE prospect of an all-expenses-paid, mid-week road trip to a ski resort during a season of plentiful snow may seem, to most of us, as likely as political harmony in the US. But sometimes the benefit of car ownership can present in unexpected and welcome ways - particularly for those who can afford to buy into high-end brands, and especially if they’re buying the premium end of the line.

Car marques have been offering “driving experiences” to their VIP customers for years now, and some of those experiences can be elaborate. Apart from track days with experienced race-car drivers, the mix can include travel to far-flung lands featuring spectacular scenery through mountains, across sand and even on ice, though these trips are generally for paying customers, often in their own cars.

Sometimes, however, dealerships will foot the bill for a handful of valued clients to reward them for their purchase, further inspire them towards the next one and, of course, encourage them to share detailed accounts to anyone around them about “the latest and greatest” vehicle in the range.

Madam Wheels joined Audi for one such overnighter to road test the German automaker’s all-new Audi Q5. The out-and-back trip followed a circuitous route from Victoria’s Yarra Valley wine region though the King Valley to our digs at Mt Hotham, the State’s highest ski resort.

It was a good opportunity to check out why the Q5 in its former iteration had been a sales leader in its mid-sized sports utility vehicle (SUV) class. And it was a chance to get a sense of why people these days are increasingly eschewing cars for SUVs.

In Australia, sales of SUVs eclipsed passenger vehicles for the first time in 2017 according to Roy Morgan Research, a market research company. And women have driven the change, preferring the SUV’s higher driving position, better cargo capacity and its car-like drivability (which is why they’re sometimes referred to as “soft-roaders” because of their perceived suitability to sealed roads and city driving over going bush). The improved technology and safety features available in this growing car segment are often cited as key considerations in purchase decisions.

Our outing began with breakfast and driver briefing at winery and cultural site Coombe Yarra Valley. It was a fitting venue, really, given that Coombe was once home to former Australian Opera great Dame Nellie Melba. Not only was Dame Nellie one of the world’s most famous women in her day, she was also the first woman in Australia to hold a driver’s licence, according to Coombe’s business development and Melba Estate manager, Daniel Johnson.

“She had an assortment of vehicles including a Rolls-Royce and Renault and she drove them herself,” Johnson says. “She was very progressive.”

It was only fitting, then, that I take the wheel of our car for the first leg of the journey, relegating Mr Plus-One to the passenger seat. This car was reportedly lighter, faster and more fuel efficient than its last version. It was time to find out if it was what women want. The cabin was certainly comfortable and felt like a place of high quality. Particularly impressive was the new “virtual cockpit” with its configurable digital instrument display. Mr Plus-One was unhappy the Multi Media Interface (MMI) screen wouldn’t fold away on the dash. Fair enough. He's a details guy.

We fell into convoy in alternating turbo petrol and turbo diesel versions of the Q5, top-and-tailed by our Audi guides, both full-time race-car drivers. Not that we’d be breaking any land-speed records this trip - our lead driver made it clear he’d be setting his speed “at 100km/h plus GST”. Each following car then “locked on” using the clever adaptive cruise-control feature which sensed the car ahead, automatically accelerating or braking as it pulled away or slowed down. 

Other features were explained via two-way radios in each vehicle, and drivers were encouraged to test them as we drove in different conditions. The Dynamic Drive Select mode provided a firmer, more aggressive drive with decisive gear changes through the twists and turns, while Comfort and Efficiency backed down on the suspension and smoothed things out on long meanders. It was a terrific way to experience the car, though an off-road run would have been instructive. 

Mr Plus-One mused we might well get our chance at the off-road front as we arrived at Harrietville, at the base of Mt Hotham. The last 30km leg of our journey would involve often-treacherous conditions on the Great Alpine Rd - reportedly Australia’s highest stretch of bitumen - past the mountain’s crest at 1861m (6106ft) to Hotham Heights. Road closures due to cars over the edge weren’t uncommon.

It was the perfect forum for Audi’s chief driving instructor, Steve Pizatti, to vocalise something he’s been passionate about for the past 20 years or so - driver education (or the lack there of, in his view) in this country. Pizatti explained how we were about to encounter “the most dangerous road in Australia” and that no-one new to having a drivers’ licence in this country would be equipped to deal with it in bad weather.

With Hotham having weathered two weeks of bad weather and with more on the radar, Audi clearly wasn’t taking a chance with us. We were all swapped into a fleet of waiting Q7s and chauffeur-driven up the rise instead.

As if on queue, the clouds parted and the setting sun made a spectacular, long-awaited appearance. And it returned to produce an unforecast bluebird morning the next day, enabling everyone to hit the mid-week slopes vacant of traffic, take lessons or enjoy a dog-sledding adventure - all on Audi.

The return drive was via a different but no-less meandering route taking in Lake Nillahcootie and scooting nearby Mansfield before hitting the Hume Freeway to beat - with typical German efficiency - our scheduled 6pm return to Coombe Yarra Valley. We’d been gone just two days but, with the experience and information load, it felt more like a week - in a very good way.

Madam Wheels Verdict

Madam Wheels worthy? The Audi Q5 looks good, performs well and is stacked with useful safety features (though it’s still a bit short on boot space). 

Buy: If you want to avoid paying big bucks to get into a premium European SUV.

Avoid: If there are more than three people in your family and you like your sports - you’ll risk running out of space.

Likes: Adaptive cruise-control.

Dislikes: The stack of jokes from our guides about Toyota Camrys (though one or two of them were quite funny).

Bottom line: Audi’s entry-level Design Q5 starts at $A65,000 plus on-roads while the more-attractively optioned Sport version costs about $5000 more. The top-of-the-range SQ5 will set you back about $100,000.