REGULAR READERS OF this column may recall that a year or so ago, this writer drove between Shanghai and Shenzhen aboard Audi's then still-to-be-launched Q3 crossover SUV. Passing through Hangzhou, Fuzhou and Xiamen, it made for a memorable journey, though curiously in retrospect the thing I least remember about it was the car itself.
Now that's not because the Q3 was especially forgettable – on the contrary, it impressed me in several key areas – but rather because I never really got to live with it. Yes, we drove the car for several hundred kilometres each day, but as soon as we'd reached our destination for the night the Audi crew would swoop down and hurry it away for maintenance and cleaning. Thus I had little idea of how much I could cram into the back, what kind of fuel consumption I could expect around town, or even how the stereo would sound if I cranked up the volume (my co-driver had made it plain that he wasn't wild about the contents of my iTunes playlist).
So when our obliging local Audi distributor offered to lend me its Q3 demonstrator over a long weekend, I grasped the opportunity, keen not only to reacquaint myself with a car that had transported me in safety and comfort – and without a single incident or glitch – on my 2,000-kilometre run along China's east coast, but finally see how it acquits itself as an everyday runabout.
To backtrack for a moment, Audi's “baby” soft-roader – I use quotes because, at almost 4.4 metres long and more than 1.8 metres wide, the Q3 is hardly what you'd call pintsized – first appeared on Asian roads in mid-2011, plugging a hole (if indeed one existed) at the lower end of the SUV segment in the German manufacturer's exponentially expanding range. Like its closest competitor, the Range Rover Evoque, the Audi makes no claims to hardcore off-road capabilities, but with quattro permanent four-wheel drive on all but the base version of the car (which in any case isn't available in Asia) and suitably jacked up suspension, it will manage more than a modicum of rough stuff.
Buyers here get to choose between a pair of 2-litre, turbocharged four-cylinder petrol engines, the lesser of the two producing a perfectly adequate 170bhp and the gutsier version a more muscular 211 horses – not to mention 300Nm of torque that usefully kicks in at engine speeds between 1,800 and 4,900rpm. That latter lump, which is fitted to my test car and drives through the standard, seven-speed, dual-clutch S tronic gearbox, provides 0-100km/h acceleration in less than seven seconds and maximum speed in the range of 230 – creditable figures that several ostensibly more sporting machines are hard pressed to match. Also on the way, or so it's rumoured, is a 330bhp, 2.5-litre turbocharged five that would turn a potential S or RS variant of Audi's crossover into the ultimate Q car (though whether this beast, which is said to top 260km/h and has been filmed while testing on the Nürburgring Nordschleife, eventually enters production is another matter entirely).
For the moment, however, the Q3 2.0 TFSI quattro that I have my hands on sits at the top of the range – and to endow it with even greater presence the test car is loaded with almost every available option on the list. These include the S Line package (up-rated suspension, deeper front end, side skirts and rear diffuser), drive select system, five-spoke 19-inch alloys, light and rain sensors, and Bose surround-sound stereo, while standard equipment includes a panoramic glass roof, dual-zone climate control, distinctive LED daytime running lights, and front and rear parking aid (though strangely there's no parking camera). Sporting the metallic orange paint job that appears to be the car's default colour, the Q3 looks handsome and purposeful, if not anything like as attentionhogging as an Evoque, with which one can't help but compare it.
Behind the wheel and in the close combat of city traffic, the Q3 reveals itself to be quick, nimble and remarkably wieldy. Its characteristically over-light steering may be uncommunicative, but it's reassuringly precise and the car tracks exactly where it's pointed. The elevated driving position is a boon, too, as is the punchy power train that, thanks to the low-end torque and the seven-speed box, serves up oodles of oomph whenever it's needed for slipping into gaps in the traffic that really don't exist.
Ride quality is pretty good, too, in spite of the 19-inch wheels that do tend to slap over expansion joints and other undulations in the carriageway, while on what is a relatively tall car there's a surprising absence of body roll, thanks to the well-calibrated adaptive dampers (rather than twiddle about with the settings to no particular purpose, I leave the drive select control in automatic mode, which seems to work fine). And apart from a certain four-cylinder roughness on startup, the engine is smooth almost to the point of total unobtrusiveness, so that I'm never quite sure whether the fuel-saving stop-start system is doing its job or not (but with fuel consumption of 10.2 litres/100km for the urban cycle, you may rest assured that it is).
Interiors have long been Audi's forte, and the Q3's doesn't disappoint, with class-leading quality of materials and build, while the total absence of squeaks, rattles and other aural irritations is especially impressive. Admittedly the test car's cabin is on the severe side – except for the metallic rings around the instruments, switchgear and vents, and a shiny dashboard, it's black pretty much everywhere – but there also are some lovely touches that I never noticed last year when barrelling south through China: the discreet lighting beneath the interior door handles that illuminates the electricwindow switches, for instance, and the ring of cool light that surrounds each Bose speaker (and which, I must say, sound even more awesome than they look). I'd like to see a sat-nav among the car's battery of systems on the multi-media interface (MMI) that pops out from the top of the dash, but that's about the only option I can think of that's missing.
The exemplary leather-covered seats are hard to beat for comfort and support, and unless they're especially tall, passengers in the back have ample head- and legroom too. And as for luggage space, the rear compartment comfortably accommodates almost everything I stuff into it without needing to flatten the rear seats, with the exception of photographer Migs' tripod.
So far from familiarity breeding contempt, I'm rather glad to be reunited with the Q3, and when I do have to hand it back to the folks at Premium Motors I'm genuinely sad to see the back of it. No, it isn't anything like as dramatically edgy as the Evoque – which however much you try to ignore it does seem to be the elephant in the room when talking crossover SUVs – but it's good looking in a pleasantly undemonstrative kind of way, and as a driver's car gives nothing away to its British rival. In fact, it's marginally faster and I suspect that it may be better built, too. Whether the sum of those is sufficient to sway potential buyers in the Audi's direction is a moot point, but were I looking for a car in this increasingly popular category, I'd look very hard indeed at this capable, characterful and competent contender.