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UP THE ANTE: Audi unleashes a rowdier ‘S’ version of its popular luxury Q5 SUV

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Sales of Audi’s Q5 compact crossover are in high gear. And with good reason.

With handsome good looks, roomy and premium interior and sprightly performance, the Q5 has become Audi’s best-selling model.

As with all European luxury marques, it’s all too easy to break the bank with options, and the Q5 is no different. The bidding for a base model, if “base” is the right word for such a nicely appointed entry-level vehicle, begins at $37,300. Our top-of-the-line SQ5 test model, though, carried an eye-popping bottom line of $64,195.

So here’s the $64,000 question: What makes the SQ5 $27,000 better than a standard Q5?

There’s no easy answer. While the base model features a thrifty-but-spunky turbo four-cylinder with 220 horsepower, the SQ5 dramatically ups the ante with a 354-horsepower, supercharged V-6. That’s a performance gain you most definitely feel, both on the road and in your wallet as you pay for a gallon of premium unleaded for every 23 miles you travel on the highway.

Then there’s the performance-tuned suspension that turns an already confident-handling wagon into a back-road brawler, its quattro all-wheel drive tenaciously gripping the tarmac through every turn. Yet on the highway, the S still delivers a relaxed, compliant ride.

Even the interior, already one of the classiest in this burgeoning segment, undergoes a major metamorphosis with top-grade cow skins featuring contrasting stitching; a chunky, flat-bottom sport steering wheel; grey-faced instruments; and intriguing (optional) wood trim with eye-catching stripes of aluminum inlay.

Outside, there are snazzy wheel designs (ours had optional, aggressive 21-inchers); S-model upgraded brakes; quad exhaust pipes; and a S-specific roof spoiler, among other things.

Audi SQ5 (3.0 TFSI USA-Modell)Included in our tester’s Prestige package were a killer Bang & Olufsen sound system, easy-to-decifer nav and rear-view-camera.

Comfort in each of the Q5′s models (2.0T, 3.0T, TDI, Hybrid and SQ5) is superb, with coddling buckets up front and fore-and-aft adjustable seating for rear travelers.

So is the SQ5 worth the extra lucre? Does it really matter if the S can do 155 mph while the 2.0T can only hit 130 mph?

You can’t go wrong with any of the lesser models. But as with so many vehicles in this rarified stratum, if you can afford it, chances are you won’t regret it.

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