The idea of a small premium crossover like the new Audi Q3, while certainly not lost on North Americans, does seem to face both corporate and public resistance Stateside. The frequent customer logic goes something like, "It's small and expensive, so why wouldn't I just buy the bigger Q5 or maybe an A4?" Hence most of the reason why Audi North America hesitates on bringing the Q3 over to us.
This sporty, tall sort-of-A3 is considered an "A-SUV" in Europe, belonging to the smallest A-segment of the market there. Built at the underutilized yet state-of-the-art Seat factory in Martorell, Spain, on a spanking new production line, Audi projects annual sales in a full year of 100,000 units. Chief stated competition for the Q3 includes the BMW X1, Land Rover Evoque and the forthcoming Mercedes-Benz BLK currently in prototype testing.
Of the four engine variants that we were able to test – two torqued 2.0-liter TDI diesels (138 horsepower and 174 hp) and two versions of the 2.0-liter TFSI gas engine (168 and 208 hp) – we went straight for the hotter 2.0-liter TFSI quattro with full S-line trim package and the seven-speed S-tronic dual clutch gearbox, certain to be the top trim for hot urban late 20s and early 30s trendsetting smoothies. Our tester even included Audi Drive Select with its Efficiency/Comfort/Automatic/Dynamic chassis and drive settings now calibrated exclusively through Audi's MMI controller. Note: There's no driver-customizable "Individual" gradient for the Q3's Drive Select, which is a bit of a bummer.
The Q3's exterior design is, of course, very Audi, but if we're being honest, it's not quite the sexy execution we had in mind thanks to some packaging and stance issues. Despite this, Audi designers have clearly decided to make the tail end "sporty" instead of maximizing hauling room in back. A subtle design detail that's worth noting is the added crease running down the rearmost support pillars – it's a first for Audi. To our eyes, the Q3's sloped rear end cuts too much into the overall side view proportions, so the whole design feels a little pudgy to the eye – even when hunkered lower in dynamic mode.
On the inside, passenger room for four adults is impressive. Try five folks, though, and you'll be wishing you'd grabbed a Q5 or Volkswagen Tiguan. The velveteen Alcantara mixed in with the leathery touches and S-line trimmings make for a really pleasant feeling, and side support proves good enough in the curves around Zurich, Switzerland, where we tested. Cargo room is okay, though not enthralling, at 16.3 cubic feet seats up, increasing to 48.2 cu. ft. with the rear seats down. The functionality for flopping seatbacks forward is as simple as it gets, but sadly, the backrests do not lay flat.
We love the S-line-trimmed steering wheel and those 19-inch optional five triple spoke S-line alloys. The latter really look the part, bookending the 102.5-inch wheelbase – a wheelbase that's identical to that of the VW Tiguan. At the same time, the Q3's front and rear tracks are slightly wider but overall height is almost four inches less than on the facelifted VW. Equivalent power units on the Q3 need to haul around 110 pounds less than they do in the VW, so the Q3 promised to be better dynamically.
That promise was basically fulfilled, too. For one thing, the Tiguan with 4Motion and seven-speed DSG gets to 62 mph (100 km/h) in 7.4 seconds. This similarly propelled Q3 can do so in 6.9 seconds. With the wider tracks, made a bit broader still with the 19s and 255/40 Pirelli P Zero tires and lower center of gravity, it does live up to Audi's boast that the Q3 is the sportiest CUV in its segment. Of course, we'd like to get it together with similarly equipped versions of both the Bimmer and Landie to be sure.
Together with its good down-the-road athletics, however, the instant-to-instant feel of the three-mode dampers, as transmitted through the Q3's McPherson struts, plenty of aluminum in the front axle and multi-link configuration out back, handling comes across as a little jittery. We really wanted to have that Individual setting for the ADS so that we could leave everything in Dynamic apart from the dampers. Alas, the Q3 gets this simpler version of the $2,950 option that alters the damper settings, engine mapping, throttle response, shift timings, and steering input, but each aspect is not individually selectable. When we left the whole shebang in Comfort or the new and greener Efficiency mode, the dampers were a much happier place to sit on top of.
Various members of the Q3 development team explained to us that this is actually the first time for this particular chassis configuration, which uses mostly the PQ35 architecture of the Tiguan, adds a healthy dose of the PQ46 architecture under the A4 and Passat (the European one), and also contains some few bits from the future modular global MQB architecture that underpins the next Golf and A3. It may sound weird, but by the end of the day, the Q3's ride and dynamics felt exactly like all of that put together.
This Q3 with the sensational and much used 2.0-liter TFSI four-cylinder, prior to adding S-line equipment and ADS, would cost roughly $29,500 if it were to come to the States right now, which is just over 15 percent below the equally decked-out Q5. But then, of course, come the fun and games of the Audi options list that tends to add many joyous dollars to that bottom line.
If this driving through Switzerland's foothills and dales weren't enough to eventually have us grinning pretty big-like, the head of development at Quattro GmbH, Stephan Reil, threw us the key fob to his prototype Q3 S (working title). Strictly a prototype at this point, the rig borrows its 2.5-liter TFSI powertrain from the TT RS, good here for just north of 300 hp. This trim should come along around about the time – in a year or so – when Audi USA might be ready to bring the Q3 over as Americans rush toward smaller everything like citizens of Tokyo away from Godzilla. The unfinished prototype was dynamically a bit of a jumble and the rumbling exhaust is still handmade at this point, but all that power was there and we jumbled along at quite a pace for a brief but enjoyable loop.
Key markets at launch for the Q3 include all of Western Europe, with particular focus on Germany and the UK, plus China and Russia. This makes sense, as not only was the original Cross Coupe Concept (which foreshadowed the Q3) unveiled at the 2007 Shanghai Motor Show, the Q3 in production-ready trim was also first shown there this past April. Initial examples start arriving in customers' driveways in western Europe at the end of October, then in the first quarter of 2012 in Asia and Putinville. All units for the Chinese market will be built in Audi's factory in Changchun along with the Chinese A6, A4, and Q5, thanks to company's joint venture with First Automotive Works (FAW).
So, we like the Q3 as is, but we don't love it. With Audi's momentum, however, it should do pretty well in the initial markets it's targeting, and we can see it working in the U.S. – eventually. What do you think, should Audi go big by going little?