sq5-audiAudi SQ5 Source: Supplied

A CAR for every purse and purpose was a credo coined by early General Motors boss Alfred Sloan. His thinking helped propel GM to the top of the global automotive industry, and to keep it there for most of the previous century.

But Sloan’s approach did more than change GM; it shaped the industry and there’s mileage in it yet. Amend it slightly to “every well-lined purse and purpose” and it’s the de facto motto of the luxury leaders.

Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz used to make the same car in three different sizes, but a decade or so ago they realised there was potential in SUVs.

That was just the start.

Since then they have discovered hatchbacks, liftbacks, hard-top convertibles and four-door coupes. The segment has exploded with variety in the hunt for the next niche. The range of vehicles produced by the luxury trio now rivals the mainstream giants.

The latest twist in this tale involves a boom in performance models. Each of the Germans has nurtured a specialist division with roots in motorsport to hot up one or two cars. They have become separate brands: Quattro at Audi, M at BMW and AMG at Mercedes.

Their ambits are expanding rapidly with multiple tiers of tuning, from cosmetic add-ons at one end to extreme track machines at the other.

Less-than-ideal candidates – SUVs and hatchbacks – are being recruited to the cause. Audi is a good example here. Until recently, its RS-badged cars appeared only one at a time – the RS4 and RS6 were never sold concurrently. That’s been thrown out the window. By mid next year, the RS line-up will comprise eight cars, including an RS Q3, a fiesty version of its smallest SUV.

However, that isn’t its first fettled high-rider. That honour goes to the larger Q5, which Audi has given the milder S level treatment and has just arrived in Australia.

The SQ5 is not only Audi’s first high-performance SUV, it’s also the first diesel S model. Audi has a special fondness for diesel engines and in an unorthodox move adopted them for its Le Mans campaign in the mid-noughties. It worked; from 2006 Audis chalked up six wins at the annual endurance event.

That know-how is being applied to its range.

“We’re directly transferring our diesel engine racing technology over to our customer cars,” says Audi’s new Australian chief, Andrew Doyle.

If diesel engines were an unusual choice for Le Mans, they remain a puzzling part of Audi’s performance push.

Performance diesels work well in Europe because diesel cars outsell petrols.

But in Audi’s two largest and most crucial markets that isn’t true at all. They have no chance in China, where Audi has luxury market leadership but is being hotly pursued by Mercedes and especially BMW.

Nor can they cut it in the US, where Audi is desperately trying to reel in its two rivals.

There’s another reason why it’s odd. Audi’s performance flagship, the R8 supercar, comes with a 404kW 5.2-litre V10 petrol engine in its most extreme form. The hero car has no diesel and zero likelihood of one.

Despite all that, the SQ5 has an excellent chance here. To begin with, it’s building off a solid base.

The Q5 became Audi’s best-seller last year after overtaking the A4 mid-size sedan to capture almost one in five Audi buyers. More than that, in 2012 Q5 narrowly outsold the BMW X5 to be our best-selling luxury SUV for the second consecutive year.

Q5 buyers favour diesel engines more than two to one while an impressive 40 per cent choose six-cylinders over four.

Audi expects a whopping 30 per cent of Q5 buyers to go for the SQ5, or about 70 a month. It arrives four years into the model cycle and shortly after a Q5 facelift to sit $12k above the regular Q5 3.0-litre diesel.

Compared with that car, the 3.0-litre in the SQ5 gets a higher pressure two-stage turbocharger and a range of engine refinements, including redesigned cylinder heads and new injectors, to boost outputs substantially.

It develops 50kW more power for 230kW and 70Nm more torque, for 650Nm at 1450rpm just above idle.

This unit was recently fitted into the A6/A7 large sedans, making the A6 Biturbo the fastest accelerating diesel sedan you can buy.

The SQ5 becomes the fastest diesel SUV, shading the larger and more powerful BMW X5 M50d by 0.3 seconds to 100km/h to stop the clock at 5.1. And the fast X5 is almost $60k more expensive.

The SQ5 outshines the regular Q5 3.0 by a much larger margin of almost 1 1/2 seconds while raising top speed by 25km/h to 250km/h. This despite the fact the SQ5 is 60kg heavier.

There’s a modest penalty at the bowser, as SQ5 consumes just 0.4 litres per 100km more. It’s efficient enough to qualify for the higher luxury tax threshold.

It drives all four wheels through a traditional torque converter transmission, rather than the double-clutch automatic in the standard 3.0 diesel, and comes with lowered, firmer suspension and larger front brakes. Wheels are 20-inches instead of 18s and cosmetics include a body kit, quad oval exhaust pipes and, inside, a flat-bottom steering wheel and Nappa leather.

A launch edition, for a hefty $14,730, brings 21-inch wheels, Bang & Olufsen sound, luggage rails and more.

In the A6/A7 Biturbos, driven a few months ago, outright performance impressed but I was left unmoved by the engine. If you cane it, there’s nothing wrong with the noises it makes. But most of the time, its soundtrack barely registers.

The SQ5 has a special sound actuator that even employs the windscreen as a speaker. There’s a similar problem, though; its melodic enough when you hear it, but strangely unmemorable. There isn’t enough music to get your driving reflexes tapping.

There are other negatives in common with the sedans, including a harsh ride, over-assisted brakes and steering that is precise but doesn’t come alive. With 21-inch wheels fitted to the test cars, the interior ambience was graunchy from tyre noise.

There are compensations. It is quick, and steering-wheel paddles allow manual gear changes for more involvement.

Gratifyingly, the dynamics are engaging, with body movements well enough controlled for enthusiastic cornering. It’s tellingly disciplined over crests and there’s an absence of unwanted lurching.

It is an SUV, though, and a two-tonne one at that. You cannot be unaware that you’re juggling a heavy object.

However, if you’re shopping for an SUV-with-attitude at this size, the SQ5 is on a short list regardless of fuel type. The BMW X3 is well worth a look but nowhere near as quick.

It won’t stay that way for long. BMW will soon offer a similar sized coupe-SUV called the X4, a smaller version of its X6. It was shown at Shanghai this year.

Porsche has yet to unveil its contender, the Macan, although it arrives in about 12 months.

In the meantime, if your purpose is an SUV with pace, then you’ll have to open your purse for the SQ5.

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Need to know

AUDI SQ5

VEHICLE Large luxury performance SUV

ENGINE 3.0-litre turbocharged V6 diesel

OUTPUTS 230kW at 3900rpm and 650Nm at 1450rpm

TRANSMISSIONS Eight-speed automatic, all-wheel drive

FUEL 6.8l/100km combined

PRICE From $89,400 plus on-road costs

ON SALE Now

SOURCE AND THANKS: theaustralian.com.au