With the exception of the very low volume and specialist car makers, every car manufacturer now has not just one, but in most cases several vehicles of the SUV or Crossover type in their range. This shift in the market has only occurred relatively recently, gaining momentum in the last ten or so years as more and more cars of this type have been introduced. It took time for some brands to be convinced that this was the way to go. Take the volume-selling Premium marques, the German trio of BMW, Mercedes and Audi, for instance. Two of them, BMW and Mercedes, eager to increase sales in the massive US market agonised over whether to move away from their traditional market offerings during the 90s, eventually launching large and US-built Crossovers which they appeared to be a bit unsure about, but they quickly find buyers not just in America but also in Europe and the rest of the world. Despite all is pioneering efforts with popularising the use of four-wheel drive systems with the quattro technologies, Audi continued to watch from the sidelines and it was not until the Frankfurt Show in 2005 that they launched their first Crossover, the Q7, a large machine aimed directly at the X5 and ML Series. As sales of this genre started to increase it is no surprise that all three manufacturers quickly added new vehicles that were one size smaller, and sales were stronger still, so the next step was to go down a size again, which is where real volume could be expected. 2011 saw the launch of both the BMW X1 and Audi’s Q3 as well as the Range-Rover Evoque in the premium sector and a whole load more models of similar size with slightly less premium badging. The market lapped them all up. The Q3 was based on a concept that had first been shown in 2009 and although it had many of the styling traits of its larger brothers and a strong family resemblance to all Audi models of the same era, it did have its own distinctive style which meant it was easy to tell apart from its stablemates. Slightly surprisingly, given the number of Audi models I have driven over the years, many of them as loan cars when my own Audi of the early part of the last decade was in for service, I’ve never driven any of Audi’s crossover models until now. That was all set to chance when I arrived at Milan Malpensa airport and Mr Hertz had allocated a 2018 model Audi Q3 to me. It looked smart in black, until I went all around it and found that one side had been parked somewhere in direct reach of a lot of birds who had used it as target practice. Really bad stains down the side were all too evident and looked dreadful, which is why you will find no pictures from one side of the car in this report. Hertz were short on cars so had no alternative, so I took the allotted vehicle keen to see how the Q3 would compare not just with its own stablemate, the Audi A3, but also other cars of comparable type that I had driven, the Mercedes GLA being fresh in my memory from only a few weeks back. I had the Q3 for a weekend, to find out what I thought of it.
As part of the VW Group, Audi make intelligent use of the various platforms and components available to them, so almost all the ingredients of the Q3 are familiar from other models in the range as well as seeing service in VW, Skoda and SEAT products. The Q3 is based on the MQB platform, and is actually built in Spain in what we think of as a SEAT plant. It comes with a range of petrol and diesel engines which are all very familiar. The test car had one of the most popular choices, the 2.0 TDi four cylinder unit. When this engine first appeared around ten years ago, refinement was perhaps not its strongest suit but VW Group had worked steadily on addressing that, as well as extracting more power whilst improving both fuel economy and emissions. In this car you get 150 bhp and a stonking 340 Nm of torque, a full 100Nm more than is available in the similarly powered 1.4 TFSi petrol-powered car. Despite the current attitude to diesel-power being somewhat less positive than it used to be. it is hard to see why you would choose the petrol one. The diesel is very refined now. When you start the Q3 up, which you do with a traditional key, there is virtually none of the characteristic diesel sound to be heard from inside the car, and this remains the case once underway. A combination of changes to the engine and the installation of more effective sound proofing have made this a quiet car at all times. The engine is smooth, too. The test car came with the 7 speed S-Tronic automatic gearbox and this is well suited to the Q3. It is smooth in operation and the transmission seemed to be good at being in the right gear for what you needed, so there was ready access to the torque band when you wanted strong acceleration. Of course the Q3 is not what you would call fast – Audi will sell you an RS Q3 with the 5 cylinder 340 bhp from the RS3 if you want that – but it is potent enough for the job, and the Q3 was well able to keep up with the challenges of driving in Italy, the way Italians do. The automatic gearbox made it quite relaxing, too, with little effort required and with high gearing in the upper ratios, the car could cruise on the autostrada at low revs and hence low noise levels. I covered 480 miles during the weekend I had the Q3, which is exactly 300 miles and needed to put 28 litres in it to fill it up on returning, which computes to 48.64 mpg, a good figure helped probably more by the fact that quite a bit of the mileage was done at a steady speed on the autostrada rather than any gains from the stop/start system which would have helped out in urban conditions. The system did work smoothly, though and rapidly, which is not something you would have been able to say a few years ago.
If you had read other reviews of the Q3, it is the other driving dynamics which come in for their strongest criticism. But then that is true for pretty much every Audi and when I get to sample the car I often wonder if they really drove the same model or not. For sure, the steering in the Q3 is light. Whilst this does make the car easy to manoeuvre especially in urban conditions and when parking, the lack of feel is not ideal to my mind but this is a common characteristic of cars aimed at the family rather than the enthusiast and far from unique to this Audi. Like all but the entry level models in the Q3 range, this one had four-wheel drive, with an on-demand multi-plate clutch system similar to that used in the VW Tiguan. It is not permanently there, cutting in when a lack of traction is detected and you really would not be aware of it unless someone told you when it operated in more extreme conditions. It does mean that there is plenty of grip, of course. There is also plenty of understeer if you tackle the twistier roads with some exuberance and the higher centre of gravity compared to an A3 means that there is some body roll, but drive this in the way you should on a public road and really there won’t be issues even if there is not as much fun as you would derive from behind the wheel of a Mazda or a Ford. Perhaps more importantly, the ride was good. The test car came on 235/55 R17 wheels, and standard suspension and these may well be the optimum choice compared to the slightly lowered set-up and larger wheels you get in the S-Line versions. The brakes seemed well up to the task in hand, with a good weighting and progressive feel to the pedal. There is an electronic handbrake, but with this being an automatic there was no particular need to use it. Visibility was generally good, The Q3 has coupe-esque styling at the rear with quite a sloping rear tailgate, but even so I found no particular issues either out on the road or when parking up. There are parking sensors to help you to judge when nearing obstacles behind the car.
Open the door and look inside and even if the badge on the steering wheel hub were covered over, you would know instantly that this an Audi. The overall style would give you a clue and the choice of high quality materials and the way they are put together would make you certain of the brand. This Audi may be Spanish of build, but it seemed constructed to the same high standard as the German made cars. There is a lot of black inside, but the dashboard does have a pleasant brushed aluminium inlay and tasteful use of chrome highlighters give you the impression that this is a true quality and premium car. The steering wheel is leather wrapped and very pleasant to hold. Although there are lot of individual component in here which will be instantly recognisable from another Audi or indeed other VW Group product, the Q3 does have a different interior from its stablemates. There is a simple cowl over the instrument cluster which contains two large circular dials for the speedometer and rev counter with smaller circular dials for water temperature and fuel level inset within them. All are easy to read at a glance. Between the dials is a digital display area with the trip computer and other data presented in a number of separate layers and you can change what some of these show using buttons on the steering wheel boss to cycle through the options. There are two large column stalks for indicators and wipers which are very much standard issue items and a stubbier one on the left of the wheel for the cruise control. Lights operate from a rotary dial on the dash to the left of the wheel. The display screen for the infotainment unit powers up out of the dash when you switch the ignition on and retracts when you switch off. It can be powered down manually, as well. The graphics are crisp and clear and will be familiar to anyone who as driven another recent Audi. The system in the test car was relatively simple, though, with limited functions around settings for the car as well as showing audio information, and some menus that were not operational in the absence of navigation. It is not an MMI unit as such and so there are no controls for it in the centre console. Instead you use a thumb wheel on the steering wheel boss to make selections, which actually works pretty well. Immediately below the unit are a pair of air vents and then you find the Concert audio system with conventional knobs and buttons to operate it. A CD slot is still included. The sound quality of this entry level system was decent enough. Mounted lower on the centre of the dash are the controls for the dual zone climate control, identical to those in the A3 model, and again, easy to use, and effective though the May timing of my visit meant that the ultimate cooling capability of the system was not put to the test. The centre console contains the gearlever and electronic handbrake, leaving the rest of the space for the cupholders and central armrest.
The Q3 is not that large a car, measuring about 4.3 metres, so it is not reasonable to expect it to be really roomy inside, and indeed it proves not to be. But it should be adequate for many families. By going Q3 rather than A3 you are getting a slightly taller car with a raised driving position and entry point. As the driver you might not notice, as you do not feel to be sitting notably higher than you would be in a regular hatch model, though there is a bit more headroom. Seat adjustment in the test car was all manual, with a bar under the seat for fore/aft movement and levers on the side for backrest rake and seat height. The steering column telescopes through quite a wide range, both in/out and up/down, so it was easy to get the driving position that suited me. The seats in the test car were covered in a cloth upholstery which was among the nicer of its type, and equally importantly, the seat itself proved to be comfortable as I found out when driving for a couple of hours uninterrupted on the second day of the test when I went further afield from the hotel.
This bodystyle type appeals to many as they find it easier to be able to get babies and small children into the back seat without the need to bend so much. Young occupants will be fine in the rear of the Q3, but gangly teenagers and adults may not feel quite so comfortable. Rear seat space is not particularly generous, unless an occupant here happens to be sitting behind someone like me who as the front seat set well forward. Set the seat well back, though, and space is on the tight side. No-one will fight to get the middle seat, either. The centre console unit, complete with air vents on the rear face, is quite bulky and does extend well back, and there is a noticeable central tunnel as well, so a middle seat occupant will struggle a bit for leg and knee room, even if headroom is in generous supply. There is no central armrest. Places for odds and ends are a bit limited too, confined just to deep but quite small bins on the doors, as rather than a net on the back of the front seats there is a cutout to give slightly more leg room.
Similarly, the boot, whilst of a nice regular shape is not all that big. The floor is flush with the base of the tailgate but the raised height of the Q3 compared to a hatch car means you will have to lift items a little higher to get them in. There is a well on the left side of the boot between the rear wheel arch and the rear of the car, but otherwise you get a squared off load area which is a little shallow under the load cover. The rear seat backrests are asymmetrically split and simply drop down to create a much longer load platform. It is not quite flat, sloping upwards to the front of the car. There are plenty of hooks and retaining devices to attach things to so they would not slide about in transit. There is a space-saver spare tyre located in a wheel under the boot floor. Inside the car there are plenty of places for odds and ends: bins on all four doors, a modestly sized glovebox, a cubby over the driver’s left knee, a recess in front of the gearlever and a cubby under the central armrest.
Audi have offered the Q3 since 2011 and during that time there have been a number of updates both mechanically and to the trim and equipment of the cars. Even so, an early model looks very similar to the 2018 model year like the one I drove There were some visual changes in 2016 with an altered grille surround perhaps the easiest recognition point. There have always been a number of different versions available and that is still the case now. Start point when choosing your Q3 is the engine. Current options are a 1.4 TFSi petrol which puts out 150 bhp or the 2.0 TDi diesel unit as featured in the test car, available in either 150 bhp or 184 bhp, or if you really want to go all out then the RS Q3 with a thunderous 340 bhp in standard and 367 bhp in Performance guises. All bar the entry level cars come with standard all-wheel drive, the cheapest cars being front drivers, and there is the choice of a 6 speed manual or 7 speed S-Tronic auto to think about. Earlier in the Q3’s life, you could get more potent petrol engined cars with the 2.0 TFSi unit offering 170 or 211 bhp, but demand for these was low in Europe and the option was dropped in some markets, including the UK, at the same time that a clever cylinder on demand option on the 1.4 TFSi was introduced, to improve fuel economy and reduce emissions and the diesels received a small power boost. Initially there were just two trim options: SE and S-line, in keeping with other Audi model ranges, but this has changed over time as Audi have added more standard features. Externally the SE has 17-inch alloy wheels, contrasting exterior trim, chrome window trims, aluminium roof rails and rear parking sensors, and inside dual-zone climate control, a Concert audio system with 6.5-inch manually retractable colour display screen, Bluetooth interface, Audi Music Interface iPod connection and light and rain sensors. The Q3 came equipped with navigation preparation, enabling customers to ‘activate’ navigation retrospectively by purchasing an SD card if required. For a premium of £2,750 the Audi Q3 can be upgraded to the S line specification, which includes 18-inch alloy wheels, body coloured exterior trim, xenon headlights with LED running lights and LED rear tail lights, S line exterior and interior styling enhancements, Dynamic suspension with a 20 mm lower ride height, leather/cloth upholstery and front sports seats. As with all Audi models, the options list was extensive and from the outset included ‘steerable beam’ adaptive light technology for the xenon plus headlights, a high-beam assistant to intelligently illuminate the road ahead, the hard drive-based navigation system plus with seven-inch colour screen and 3D mapping and the side assist blind spot warning and lane assist lane departure warning driver aids. Among the extras is a luggage compartment package, a front-passenger seat with a folding seat back, a reversible loadliner, a reversible mat, a load sill protector made of stainless steel, a load-through hatch in the rear seat backrest and a ski bag. In January 2014, a new S line Plus specification was added, slotting above the S line option, available only with the more powerful engines, and carrying a £2,350 premium over S line trim. This new top-ranking specification boosted visual appeal by replacing the 18-inch S line wheel with a 19-inch ‘five segment spoke’ design, and by incorporating privacy glass extending from the B-pillar rearwards. It also included a choice of seven metallic paint finishes – Ice silver, Samoa orange, Monsoon grey, Caribou brown, Platinum beige, Cobalt blue and Glacier white. Inside, the standard S line cloth and leather combination upholstery was replaced by a perforated leather and Alcantara mix in S line Plus models, and they also benefit from the addition of cruise control, the Audi parking system plus and SD card-based satellite navigation via the 6.5-inch colour display. With the mid-cycle update in the autumn of 2016 there were further changes, leaving the range as it is now. At entry level, SE became the Sport through the addition of SD navigation as standard and through styling enhancements that lend an even more purposeful air, including larger front air vents and a body-coloured front diffuser. S line Navigation models became S line Edition by gaining standard interior features such as cruise control and the Audi Parking System Plus, and by adopting a new look for the front end, which now incorporated a distinctive horizontal strut spanning its full width, above which are air inlets with more pronounced surrounds and a new diamond-pattern mesh design. They flank a more eye-catching Single Frame grille with a new high gloss finish which is also shared by the air vents. The main attraction in the range was the new Q3 Black Edition. Replacing the S line plus model, it had metallic paint, privacy glass from the B pillar rearwards and a Bose sound system upgrade, plus the distinctive black styling pack which starts with piano black inlays inside, Alcantara and leather sports seats, tinted windows, cruise control and Audi’s parking-assist system. Outside it includes the 19-inch alloy wheels, wheelarch cappings, a single-frame grille surround, roof rails, rear spoiler and exhaust pipes, all of which are finished in gloss black. My test car was a Sport version and did not seem to have much in the way of options fitted, with the cruise control being the most obvious extra cost feature.
I quite liked this Q3 and can easily see why others would do so, too. It is beautifully finished, like all Audi models, and is decent to drive, with a refined and economical engine. It is not particularly spacious inside, but that is always going to be the case with cars in this class and is why Audi will sell you a Q5 is you want more room. It certainly impressed me rather more than the rival Mercedes GLA I had driven a few weeks ago. I can’t comment on the BMW X1 from personal experience as I’ve not driven one yet, but even so, I can see the appeal of the Q3 even though it is now a 7 year old design and due for replacement later in the year. However, the question has to be whether this is a better proposition than an A3 Sportback, and here I am not so sure. You do pay quite a lot extra for a car that is not quite as good to drive and with only marginal gains in internal space. If you are going to be putting little ones in the back and find it easier to do so with the crossover style, then fair enough, but otherwise I’m not really convinced. Looking at the sales figures, though, plenty of people disagree with me, completely vindicating Audi’s decision to add the Q3 to their range.