There are two ways to approach a brand-new segment in the auto industry. First, an automaker can take a gamble and introduce a completely new vehicle, catering to the specific demands of the marketplace(s) in question. In the compact, premium CUV segment, we’ve seen Buick do this with the Encore, and Mercedes-Benz with the GLA-Class.
The other option is to introduce a vehicle already sold in another market. Considering the amount of time it takes to bring a new vehicle from paper to production, there is plenty to gain in the short-term with this approach. It’s not without its downsides, though, as we found after a week behind the wheel of the 2015 Audi Q3, a vehicle that was initially launched in 2011.
Cute though it may be – it was referred to at least once by a passerby during our testing as “totes adorbs” – Ingolstadt’s decision to introduce a vehicle that’s already been on sale for four years, and is effectively approaching the last half of its lifecycle, leaves the Q3 at a significant disadvantage relative to the newer competition.Despite crossing its first auto show stage four years ago, the Q3 remains a handsome little bugger. Audi’s designs, while conservative, tend to age very well, and the compact Q3 is no exception. It’s like a scaled-down Q5 in most respects, although certain design pieces, like its more aggressively raked rear window and shorter front and rear overhangs, belie the significantly smaller Q3’s figure.
Due to its age, the Q3 was, fortunately, designed before the current A3 hit the market. That means it avoids the unattractive, minimalist dash of the A3, opting for a more traditional Audi design, with a strip of brushed aluminum on the passenger’s side, a user-friendly center stack and a suitably large nav screen front and center. While the overall layout is attractive, the material quality is not what we’d expect of a newer Audi.
There’s nothing that feels exceedingly cheap – the plastics just feel old and too familiar. It’s difficult to describe, but as soon as you climb in the Q3, things like the switchgear for the HVAC controls immediately remind you that this is a vehicle that’s been on sale since 2011.
While our definition of interior quality has evolved over the years, our idea of a driver-friendly cabin has not. The Q3 scores highly in this regard, featuring the elevated seating position that makes CUVs so popular with the general public. The seats are power-adjustable 12 ways, and the tilt/telescopic steering wheel has a huge range of adjustments. Our tester was fitted with the standard seats, rather than the optional thrones found in the $550 Sport Pack, although they still proved comfortable and supportive during our stint behind the wheel. Despite the compact rear window, visibility is excellent to the rear. It’s no surprise, either, that sight lines are good forward and laterally. The diameter of the four-spoke, leather-wrapped steering wheel felt a bit on the large side, considering the size of the Q3 – somehow, we imagine such a tiny crossover with a more aggressive, smaller-diameter wheel.
While the Q3 shows its age in the cabin, nowhere is its 2011 heritage more evident than its powertrain. A 2.0-liter, turbocharged four-cylinder has been paired with a six-speed automatic transmission, and Audi engineers left the nearly 3,700-pound Q3 with just 200 horsepower and 207 pound-feet of torque. Simply put, it’s not enough.
The Q3’s rivals, most of which are powered by some form of 2.0-liter turbo, easily outpace our little, black jellybean. The BMW X1 xDrive28i, which has been on sale since way back in 2009 (in other markets, anyway), has 240 horsepower and 260 pound-feet of torque mated to ZF’s eight-speed automatic transmission. The Mercedes GLA250 and its 2.0-liter turbo and seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox only slightly best the Audi on horsepower, with 208 ponies, but Stuttgart makes up for this shortcoming with 258 lb-ft of torque. Even the Lexus NX 200t, using the brand’s first production turbocharged engine, manages to outdo the Q3, with 235 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque.
It doesn’t take a mathematician to figure out where the Q3 would end up in a drag race. The X1, which is roughly equal in weight, has a manufacturer-estimated sprint to 60 of just 6.3 seconds. Mercedes hasn’t published an official time, but in our original test, we estimated that 60 would arrive in about seven seconds, which matches the time for the NX 200t. Despite being lighter than everything but the featherweight, sub-3,500-pound Mercedes, the Q3’s manufacturer-estimated 8.2 seconds is just too slow.
Since life doesn’t take place stoplight to stoplight, though, there’s more to the Q3 than it’s lackluster numbers would indicate. Like the rival 2.0-liters, the Q3’s torque is spread lavishly throughout the rev range, with peak twist available between 1,700 and 5,000 rpm. We found the real-world application of the 2.0T’s grunt to be more impressive than its 8.2-second sprint time would indicate.
We could almost forgive the Q3’s weak power output if it were extremely thrifty, but with EPA-estimated fuel economy of 20 miles per gallon in the city and 28 mpg on the highway, the powertrain falls even further behind the competition. The most powerful vehicle in the segment (aside from the unnecessary GLA45 AMG), the X1, nets 22 city and 32 highway. The NX ties the Q3’s highway figure but offers an extra two mpg in the city, while the GLA250 returns 25 city and 35 highway. Our experience with the Q3 was slightly better than the 23-mpg EPA estimate average, with the computer displaying around 25 mpg following our testing.
The frustrating thing about this powertrain is that it could have been a lot better. Audi sells the Q3 in Europe with an S-Tronic dual-clutch transmission, which we’re betting improves performance in both a straight line and at the pump. Our logic says North America’s low-$30,000 price point demanded the less pricey automatic transmission.
Audi was never going to match the shift speed and responsiveness of either the ZF 8AT or the GLA’s DCT, so instead, it’s like the engineers focused on smoothness and refinement. It’s easy to ignore the actions of this gearbox, unless you suddenly stab the throttle and it’s left hunting. In most circumstances, it’s a largely anonymous piece of tech, delivering smooth upshifts and dropping gears with a minimum of fuss.
Slotting the gear lever to the left and into manual mode doesn’t increase the speed of shifts by much. It’s certainly not enough of an improvement for us to ignore the backwards shift pattern on the gear lever (push for upshifts and pull for downshifts). If you want to make use of the manual mode on the six-speed auto, you’d do well to spend the extra $550 and get the paddle-equipped Sport Package.
A fully independent suspension (MacPherson struts in front and a four-link setup in back) underpins the Q3 regardless of trim level or number of driven wheels, while our tester rides on optional 19-inch alloys, which Audi weirdly describes as an “off-road” design. Those wheels leave drivers riding on skinny-sidewall, 40-series rubber and add $800 to the Q3’s bottom line.
Even with the large wheels and low-profile tires, the Q3 strikes a great balance between the comfortable, poised ride expected from a luxury brand and the darty sportiness that’s expected of such a small vehicle. You’ll feel just about every bump and imperfection, owing to the wheel/tire combo, but the suspension is tuned well enough that only the biggest potholes register as truly uncomfortable. The ride is quiet too, with a minimal amount of both road and wind noise. Through the turns, the Q3 is balanced. As the steering angle increases, the body rolls progressively but never feels out of sorts. Going hard on the gas or throttle doesn’t elicit too much squat or dive. Feedback through the seat of the pants, though, is largely limited.
We wish we could be so complimentary of the steering. It’s unclear if this is another case of the Q3’s 2011 roots showing through, but the electric power-assisted tiller isn’t up to snuff with other EPAS units on the market. It’s very light and overboosted from on-center, while weight doesn’t really build as the steering angle is increased. EPAS setups still feel far from natural – a spin in a hydraulic or even electrohydraulic unit is revelatory – but with the Q3, it’s really like going back in time. It just isn’t very nice.
Prices for the Q3 start at $32,500 for a front-wheel-drive model. Adding Quattro – a must – increases the price of the base Premium Plus to $34,600. The options list is rather limited: a $1,900 navigation system, a $550 Sport Package (paddle shifters, Drive Select, and “sport” seats), a $1,400 Driver Assistance Package (blind-spot monitoring, rear-view camera) and a $400 powered tailgate round things out. Audi also offers the aforementioned 19-inch wheels, while a black headliner is available at no charge. Our Premium Plus tester had everything but the Sport Package and Driver Assistance Package. Adding in a $925 destination charge brought our as-tested price to $38,625.
The Q3’s biggest issue is its lack of power. If that were the car’s only problem, we might still recommend it, because this really is a handsome, reasonably priced and comfortable entry to the class. But lifeless steering and the lowest fuel economy figures in the segment are too much to ignore, no matter how good, affordable or comfy it may be. After a week at the wheel, we’re sure Audi should have waited for a full redesign of the Q3 before introducing it to the North American market. As a stopgap, this crossover does a fine job, but it’s not strong enough to stand out in an increasingly competitive marketplace.