Luxury car makers absolutely love producing mid-sized SUVs based on passenger-car platforms, because aspirational upper-middle class family types are buying them in droves.
The newest entrant to the class is Audi’s second-generation Q5, which pairs clinical design with cutting-edge cabin tech and typically Teutonic execution.
Here we’re pitting it against the Mercedes-Benz GLC, essentially a high-riding C-Class alternative that brings a healthy dose of style and practicality alongside a badge to die for.
These are two of the most appealing and popular models in their class, alongside the Land Rover Discovery Sport, Range Rover Evoque, BMW X3 and the imminent MY18 Volvo XC60.
This particular comparison test is looking at both the Audi and Mercedes-Benz in their respective entry level diesel-engine grades. Given the former launched more recently, we demand it be better. But is it?
We have the Audi Q5 2.0 TDI quattro sport, and the Mercedes GLC 220d.
Pricing and specs
The entry price for the Mercedes-Benz GLC 220d is $67,500 before on-road costs, compared to $70,700 for the Audi Q5 2.0 TDI quattro sport.
To give you some context, this positions both smack-bang between a Mazda CX-5 Akera or Volkswagen Tiguan Highline diesel (both $49,990) and a larger Audi Q7 or Mercedes-Benz GLE SUV.
The days of luxury brands making you pay extra for every little feature are over. Both these low-grade models come standard with a driver attention monitor, blind-spot monitoring, autonomous emergency braking (AEB), adaptive LED headlights and a rear-view camera.
Both also get an electric tailgate, leather/faux leather seats, climate control, auto-dipping rear-view mirrors, ambient cabin lighting, 7.0-inch screens, satellite navigation and digital radio.
The Audi has bigger wheels (20s versus 19s) and also gets a proximity key, adaptive cruise control, three-zone climate control (rather than dual), in-car Wi-Fi hotspot, and Apple CarPlay/Android Auto. It also has the proprietary 12.3-inch Virtual Cockpit driver display. The Benz has a standard 360-degree camera, though.
Naturally, both our test cars also come with various options that you may think should be standard. Dealers need carrots… The Audi’s price-as-tested was $76,558, while the Mercedes’ was $72,869.
Above: Audi Q5
The Q5 scored optional Manhattan grey metallic paint ($1420); ambient cabin lighting with 30 colours and five colour profiles ($400), heated front seats ($600), and a load area rail system ($350).
It also had the $1900 Comfort package (heated/folding/auto-dimming/kerb-side dipping side mirrors; driver’s seat memory; an electric steering column; and rear seats that slide and recline); as well as the $950 Parking assistance package (a 360-degree camera and semi-autonomous park assist).
Above: Mercedes-Benz GLC
Meantime the Mercedes-Benz also had the $3069 Vision package that gives you a panoramic glass sunroof with two roller sun blinds and heat-insulating glass; plus a head-up display.
There was also the $2300 COMAND package that adds a 8.4-inch TFT colour display; HDD navigation with RDS-TMC; touchpad; a 10GB music register; Linguatronic voice activation and internet access; plus a Burmester surround-sound system with 13 speakers, nine-channel DSP amplifier and 590-watt output.
The Audi takes the edge, we’d say.
When the GLC arrived a few years ago it reset the benchmark for the class. But times change and nothing stands still.
Nevertheless, the Mercedes retains an interior that oozes luxury, and it’s not just the badge. It’s also the variety of dimming LED cabin lighting (called Polar, Solar and Neutral), the tasteful wood inserts, and the uncluttered centre fascia. The optional Burmester sound system also has one hell of a sexy set of speakers.
Our tester had the optional larger floating tablet screen with a touchpad on the rotary dial cover, plus an uprated conversational voice control system. Some people say the COMAND infotainment system is harder to navigate than BMW’s iDrive, but it’s all about familiarisation.
We loved the switchgear quality, the storage cubbies throughout, the seat bolstering and lumbar adjustment, the click-clack feel of the indicators, the simplicity of the cruise control/speed-limiter stalk, the 360-degree camera, twin-opening console and the steering wheel.
We disliked the lack of a proximity key – a system that lets you leave the key in your pocket at all times, as fitted to the Audi and many budget cars – the lack of radar cruise control, and the fact Mercedes keeps putting the gear-shifter on the steering column where you confuse it for the indicator stalk.
The Audi Q5’s cabin is on another level against anything else in the class at the moment, though. The actual quality is only on par with the Mercedes (and there are some hard plastics mounted below key touch-points), but the aluminium inlays add a crisp modern feel, and the tech is to die for.
The clean and modern cabin has a gorgeous steering wheel, Audi’s stunning 12.3-inch Virtual Cockpit driver display, a shallower but more versatile console, a responsive screen even for the climate control and a centre screen that’s smaller than the Benz’s optional one, but better.
The high resolution colour display has 3D maps, integrated voice control with natural language voice input, MMI free text search with intelligent destination suggestions, a touch control panel including handwriting recognition and touch to move and zoom around maps, eight programmable favourite buttons, live traffic updates and 10GB flash memory for media storage.
Buy a data plan and you get a Wi-Fi hotpot enabler and you can overlay google Maps on the centre screen and in the Virtual Cockpit. If the late Steve Jobs had ever designed a car cabin, the Audi’s would probably be it.
Still, the fact you have to pay extra for heated seats, interior ambient lighting and a 360-degree camera isn’t ideal.
The back rows of both are sufficient to handle two adults easily enough – something arguably more impressive in the GLC because it was fitted with an optional headroom-robbing sunroof. The Benz also shades the Audi for legroom.
Neither car on test offers sufficient back-seat adjustment, though the Audi’s rear can be optioned with sliding and reclining rear benches. On the counter, the GLC’s switches to flip the back seats are a neater piece of engineering than the Audi’s handles.
Pictured: Mercedes-Benz (top) and Audi
Both cars offer rear air vents, reading lights, damped grab-handles and ISOFIX anchors on the outboard seats. Both also have hard front seat-backs.
The cargo space with all five seats in use is a claimed 550 litres for both cars, behind each model’s electric tailgate. Both have cargo blinds and levers in the cargo area to flip the middle seat row, though the Mercedes’ system is more elegant.
Hat tip to Audi for offering dividing/securing rails for $350. Neither car has a proper full-size spare wheel.
Pictured: Mercedes-Benz (top) and Audi
Small diesel engines make a lot of sense in these cars, though you can have both with a variety of petrol engines too. Diesels are more fuel efficient and better at hauling loads of stuff.
The Audi’s 2.0 TDI unit makes 140kW of power, 15kW more than the Mercedes. But both make 400Nm of torque, or pulling power – the GLC’s from earlier in the rev band but the Q5’s across a broader spectrum.
The big difference in this pair is noise: the Mercedes’ unit is more rattle-prone and coarser at idle from the outside than the Audi’s, which is noticeably more refined from outside and in. That said, both are relatively refined from inside, and while driving.
In terms of respective performance, there’s less in it. the Audi’s 7.9sec 0-100km/h time is four-tenths faster than the Mercedes’, and its official claim of 5.5L/100km fuel economy on the combined cycle is 0.1L/100km superior. We averaged mid 7s in both on our testing, by the way, with one driver and some gear on a mixed urban/country road route.
Around town, the Audi’s seven-speed double-clutch S tronic transmission demands a more measured driving style than the Mercedes’ 9G-tronic nine-speed auto if you want to avoid throttle/turbo lag and any hesitancy, though the tables turn on the open road where the Q5’s ‘box downshifts more readily and snaps through gears more efficiently.
The big benefit of the GLC’s nine-ratio transmission is how the super-tall top gear and the torque engine pair: we were sitting at 100km/h with the engine barely ticking over at 1300rpm. That’ll bolster those refinement levels…
Dynamically, both have various driving modes to fettle the throttle mapping, transmission shift points, steering resistance and ESC tune – though why in hell do you want a sporty diesel SUV? Adjustable dampers are optional on both, the GLC’s being full air suspension.
We prefer the Mercedes’ steering tune, because while both setups are very light and numb on-centre – ideal for city commuting and highway time – the Audi’s feels more disconnected and dead. It’s really quite uninspiring, even in sport mode. At least the Audi has a radar cruise system that stops to zero, which is cool, and adds a brownie point lost earlier.
Neither car is the last word in ride refinement either. An Australian-tuned Hyundai Tucson is more comfortable over cobbles than either of this German pair – though both offer acceptable wet-weather grip (the Audi wore Continental ContiSportContact tyres, the Mercedes Bridgestone Duelers, oddly).
Both feel quite stiff and tied-down, which helps body control, though the Audi rounds off sharp hits such as potholes better than the clumsy Mercedes – the latter of which also crashes over speed humps thanks to a combination of soft springs, under-done shocks and skinny-ish rubber.
Both cars on test had all-wheel drive systems that can send torque to either (or both) axles on demand when the on-board sensors detect a loss of traction elsewhere. The setups are called Audi quattro and Mercedes-Benz 4MATIC.
Come on, you aren’t taking these off-road, guys. They’ll do snow runs and gravel trails with surety though.
Both cars come with three-year warranties with no kilometre limits.
Both also have annual servicing intervals (the Audi’s must happen at 15,000km, the Mercedes’ at 25,000km). The GLC’s capped-price servicing rate suggests you’ll pay a total of $2280 for three years of servicing compared to $1870 for an Audi service package. But, talk to your dealer.
There’s not much in this, which is a testament to how well the Mercedes-Benz GLC is holding up a few years into its life cycle.
The Mercedes has timeless design outside and in, probably takes the edge in rear seat comfort, and its drivetrain feels a little smoother day-to-day.
Yet the Audi Q5 in low-grade diesel form is a high-tech powerhouse that feels 10 per cent more modern, and offers better value and refinement.
In both cases you’re paying a lot for badge credibility, but both do genuinely feel like upmarket toys and will appeal to the aspirational among us. Much of the decision will come down to which brand an individual likes best, and don’t feel bad about going in either direction.
But, for us, it’s the Audi.
|Model||Audi Q5||Mercedes-Benz GLC|
|Variant||2.0 TDI Sport||220d|
|Price before on-roads||$70,700||$67,500|
|Drive||Quattro AWD||4Matic AWD|
|Engine||2.0-litre turbo||2.1-litre turbo|
|Power||140kW @ 3800-4200rpm||125kW @ 3000-4200rpm|
|Torque||400Nm @ 1750-3000rpm||400Nm @ 1400-2800rpm|
|Transmission||Seven-speed DCT||Nine-speed auto|
|Cargo space||550 litres||550 litres|