The Audi SQ5: Pretty, powerful. But worth the price?

I needed a good stretch of road, relatively free of traffic, and found one at midnight on Interstate 66 west heading toward Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. It was a late weekday night in late winter, when most normal people were sleeping or otherwise ensconced in the safety of their homes. But I had only a few days left in the 2014 Audi SQ5 Quattro, the Prestige edition of that compact luxury crossover utility vehicle. I wanted to give it a run unimpeded by the congestion that frequently turns I-66 into a virtual parking lot during business hours.

The SQ5, available in Premium and Prestige trims, is the sporty, high-end edition of the already nice regular Audi Q5 crossover utility. The SQ5-Prestige sits at the top of that high-end line. In terms of numbers, it looks like this: The Q5 starts at $37,300, the SQ5-Premium starts at $51,900 and the SQ5-Prestige opens its doors at $59,400.

Of course, you can spend more. You can always spend more on option-laden European luxury automobiles. The perennial question: Is it worth it?

My inherently cheap self gives a guarded yes to the SQ5-Prestige on that question — “guarded” because it reflects an individual’s willingness to be pampered, to flex more automotive muscle and, mostly, to pay for everything that comes with the SQ5-Prestige, which has its own list of options. Many of us would give a resounding no to a base price increase of up to $22,000. But for those of us who can and want to say yes to that kind of money, it is arguably worth it in this case.

First, Audi historically has offered one of the best automobile interiors in the business. The Q5′s cabin is good. The SQ5-Prestige’s cabin is substantially better, spoiling its occupants with supple leather seat coverings; tasteful brushed aluminum and wood accents; a premium 14-speaker Bang & Olufsen sound system; and a leather-covered, flat-bottom steering wheel that fits nicely in hand.

But I did not leave my house at midnight just to sit in a well-appointed, motorized living room. I wanted to drive — to feel the difference, if there was a difference to be felt, between the three-liter, 272-horesepower gasoline V-6 with 296 pound-feet of torque in the regular Audi Q5 and the supercharged (forced air) three-liter V-6 in the SQ5-Prestige (354 horsepower, 347 pound-feet of torque).

Quick notes: Oh, yes! There is a difference! Eighty-two more horsepower and 51 more pound-feet of torque make a difference you can feel. But you can feel it only on a relatively clear road that permits spirited motoring. Also, the same engine is available at lower cost in a supercharged version (the 3.OT) of the less-plush Q5.

Suspension improvements in the SQ5 Premium and Prestige are discernible. Those models handle more precisely than the sibling Q5. They are more maneuverable and handle with more confidence in tight traffic. In light traffic, such as on midnight I-66 and adjacent roads, both are a confident joy to drive. Run 100 miles nonstop in either one, and you’ll understand why people who have the money are willing to spend it on the super-tufted, high-performance SQ5 models.

Conventional wisdom says those people, who are willing to spend more to get essentially what is available for $22,000 less, don’t care about such things as the price of gasoline. Conventional wisdom is wrong. All vehicle manufacturers — high-end, low-end and middle — are under consumer and government pressure, here and abroad, to improve fuel economy and reduce tailpipe emissions. Even Lamborghini and Ferrari are pouring money and talent into the development of cleaner, more fuel-efficient engines.

So, it is not surprising to me that Audi has pulled off a neat trick with the SQ5 — substantially boosting horsepower without a concomitant increase in fuel consumption. The SQ5 Premium and Prestige get an almost respectable 16 miles per gallon in the city and 23 miles per gallon on the highway, albeit using required premium gasoline.

Bottom line: If most of your driving is daily commuting, say, suburb to city in a high-congestion area during normal business hours, it makes more sense to spend less money and buy a regular Audi Q5, or something similar. You’ll get similar creature comforts without the angst of knowing that you paid much more for a vehicle that could go faster and handle better but can’t do any of those things because it is jammed in traffic with everyone else.

Ride, acceleration, handling: The Audi SQ5 gets excellent marks in all three, assuming that you can find a road to drive it the way it was engineered to be driven or that you don’t mind driving at midnight.

Head-turning quotient: It is stately and attractive on the outside, beautiful and comfortable within.

Body style/layout: The Audi SQ5, Premium and Prestige versions, are the high-end cousins of the Audi Q5 crossover, on which both are based. They are front-engine, all-wheel-drive compact luxury utility vehicles with four side doors and a rear hatch.

Engine/transmission: Audi SQ5 models come with a turbocharged 3-liter, 24-valve gasoline V-6 with variable valve timing (354 horsepower, 347 pound-feet of torque). The engine is linked to an eight-speed automatic transmission that also can be operated manually via paddle shifters mounted on the steering wheel.

Capacities: Seating is for five. Cargo capacity is 29.1 cubic feet with rear seats raised. The fuel tank holds 19.8 gallons of gasoline. Premium grade is required.

Mileage: I averaged 23 mpg in highway driving.

Safety: Standard equipment includes front- and rear-ventilated disc brakes; four-wheel antilock brake protection; emergency braking assistance; electronic brake-force distribution; automatic brake drying; electronic stability and traction control; dusk sensing and automatically leveling headlamps; cornering lights; Audi roadside assistance program.

Pricing: The 2014 Audi SQ5 starts at $51,900 with a dealer’s invoice price of $48,268. Add $7,500 to the consumer’s price for Prestige package (onboard navigation with real-time traffic reports, rearview backup camera, Bang & Olufsen sound system, manually operated rear window shades and other items) and a $895 factory-to-dealer transportation charge. Consumer’s price as tested is $61,215. Dealer’s price as tested is $56,996.