The Audi Q3 has commanded a staggering 50 per cent share of the small premium SUV segment for the first half of this year, its sales totalling a full 72 per cent more than arch-rival the BMW X1. It’s the Audi, then, that is the biggest rival to the brand new Mercedes-Benz GLA-Class and the stalwart it must beat here (although we also requested an X1 to no avail) for the title of Australia’s best small premium SUV.
It’s worth keeping in mind that a fully loaded mainstream SUV, such as a Mazda CX-5 GT or Volkswagen Tiguan 155TSI, costs around $10K less than these premium-badged variants, so both the Audi and Benz also need to prove their worth beyond the allure of four rings or a three-pointed star.
Although the Q3 and GLA250 start at about the same money, one contender is significantly better equipped than the other.
Both come standard with leather (and leather-look) trim, foglights, auto headlights and wipers, rear parking sensors, and dual-zone climate control.
From there the GLA250 exclusively adds 19-inch alloy wheels (17s on Q3), panoramic sunroof, electrically adjustable front seats with heating, bi-xenon headlights with auto high-beam, satellite navigation, front parking sensors with semi-automatic parking function, adaptive cruise control, blind-spot monitor and nine airbags – adding rear side airbags and a driver’s knee airbag to the Audi’s six in total, including dual front, front-side and full-length curtain protection.
Various packages are available on the Q3 2.0 TFSI including the S line sport package fitted to our test car, which for $9100 includes a bodykit, 19s, xenon headlights, leather/Alcantara sports seats, and sports interior trim and steering wheel.
Adding xenons with smaller 18s comes in a Style package for a more reasonable $2600; ticking the Technik package with nav, semi-auto parking, and reverse-view cam adds $4927; and matching the Benz’s auto high-beam and blind-spot monitor needs a further $1625.
Even selecting those latter three packages, plus the stand-alone panoramic sunroof option ($2500), raises the Audi Q3 2.0 TFSI price tag by a staggering $9152 to $65,652, and you still don’t get adaptive cruise. Our test car with the S line sport package totalled an eye-watering $76,072.
The Q3 looks more like a traditional tall-boy SUV than the GLA-Class, which deliberately aims to be different by looking like a larger A-Class hatchback. Although the Audi seems larger, its 4.39-metre-long body is actually 3.2cm shorter than the Mercedes-Benz. Both stretch 1.8 metres wide, though expectedly the Q3 towers 9.6cm above the 1.5m-tall GLA.
That height advantage is realised inside where in this test the Audi offers a lofty driving position and airy glasshouse for better visibility. In the Mercedes-Benz you sit lower, and less side and rear glass makes it more difficult to see out of, two aspects which may turn off some SUV buyers.
Despite being the older of the two models, the Q3 has superior interior finish, although its dashboard design is more generic than that in the GLA-Class.
Typical-Audi plastics are soft to touch, nicely grained and consistently matched, although the pop-up colour display and audio system is the same as that used in the A1 hatchback that costs half the price.
The seven-inch screen isn’t as large as that available in the newer A3 hatchback, and nor is the same level of connectivity included.
The Technik package gives you twin SD card readers and 20Gb music storage in addition to an intuitive and user-friendly nav with voice control, but you’ll still need an Audi-specific USB/iPod cable and there’s no apps or internet connectivity included.
Arguably, the Mercedes-Benz GLA-Class has the more stylish interior, with stitched-leather-look dashboard surfacing, a nice interplay of textures and five, cool-looking aviation-style airvents. However the tactility of its controls isn’t as good as its rival, and nor are the scratchy lower dash plastics.
The Mercedes-Benz Comand infotainment system is excellent, but a $2490 option – the only box worth ticking in the GLA250. It includes a high-resolution eight-inch screen with web connectivity that allows you to pilfer off your smartphone internet connection to use apps such as TuneIn worldwide radio that works well.
Digital radio is also standard, and the 12-speaker Harman Kardon audio system that comes with Comand is a treat, though there’s only a 10Gb music register.
There are a similar level of storage spots in each car, and further back both score rear-seat air vents. Actual legroom is similar, but because the rear bench in the Q3 (above - top) sits higher, longer legs have more space to drop down without forcing a knees-up position.
Not that the GLA-Class (above - bottom) is bad in this respect, but in addition to the panoramic roof taking up space, headroom is also more compromised. The black headlining creates cave-like claustrophobia back there, too.
The Mercedes-Benz offers 421 litres of boot volume, extending to 1235L with the 60:40 split-fold rear-seat folded – 39L/130L down on its rival. Surprisingly, though, the Audi has the less usable space with a higher loading lip and an awkward fixed cargo cover compared with the big, deep, simple space of its rival’s.
Both models utilise a 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder engine that each produce 155kW of power (at 5500rpm in GLA250, but consistently between 5000-6200rpm in the Q3).
The mini-wagon Benz is, however, lighter than the SUV-alike Audi, weighing 1505kg versus 1565kg. The GLA also gets 350Nm of torque (between 1200-4000rpm) compared with 300Nm (over a broader 1800-4900rpm) in the Q3. Each run a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission, which Benz dubs 7G-Tronic and Audi labels S tronic.
Curiously, despite weighing more but thanks to the inclusion of launch control, the 0-100km/h performance claim in the Q3 is 6.9 seconds, or two-tenths faster than its rival. The GLA250 wins the claimed economy award, though, its combined cycle figure of 6.6L/100km a full 1.1L thriftier than its competitor.
Both SUV models have different upsides and downsides to their drivetrain on the road.
The Mercedes-Benz engine is louder, but it has a tasty induction rasp that feels as sporty as its strong, surging mid-range performance. It feels slower off the line than its rival thanks to an auto that can stumble off the line in its default comfort mode, with a throttle that feels doughy and discourages spritely spurts of acceleration.
When you need to fill that fast-disappearing traffic gap, the auto can take an age to downchange. The problem is solved by selecting Sport mode, which makes the car feel alive, sharpening the throttle and keeping the auto in lower gears, though occasionally it can feel too frenetic.
The Audi engine is quieter and silky smooth, and its automatic is more immediate and reacts faster to a press of the throttle.
It feels more urgent, though when maximum acceleration is asked for the Q3 feels more strained through the mid-range and slower than its rival, owing to the heavier weight and 50Nm deficit. Curiously, the VW Group 2.0-litre is available in 350Nm application (as it is in Golf GTI) but not in this older variation.
The GLA-Class spins the tables around town, feeling smoother than its rival over bumps large and small. Only very occasionally does it clang its 19-inch wheels over the sharpest of potholes. Generally, however, it presents an excellent balance between comfort and control, perhaps better than any A-Class, B-Class or CLA-Class model we’ve tested.
Wheels that match the size of the Benz affect the ride quality of the Audi more. It is very firm and occasionally fidgety and unrefined around town, though it smoothens out at higher speeds and on rougher country roads.
Both models also suffer from a level of coarse-chip road noise that isn’t to premium SUV standards, with the Q3 being marginally quieter in this regard. Both also put the ‘S’ in SUV with greater emphasis than the average mainstream model, though each have different handling characteristics.
The GLA250 has smoother and more consistent steering, with a slightly heavier and more reassuring weight than its rival. Tip into a bend and the Benz rolls noticeably more than its competitor, but its balance is exemplary. It always feels planted, yet is playful. The on-demand all-wheel-drive system sends a noticeable amount of drive to the rear wheels quite quickly, making this little mini-wagon feel very rear driven at times.
By comparison, the Q3 2.0 TFSI does not feel like it sends much drive to the rear wheels.
Thanks to a stiffer suspension setup, though, and in conjunction with super-grippy tyres, the Audi is ultimately more agile and can be thrown around with a verve that is verging on hot-hatch standards. You can lean on its front end more than in the GLA, though don’t expect the same adjustability.
With the exception of the brilliant dynamics of the Mazda CX-5, there are no cheaper small SUV models that handle as well as these two models. For drivers who once owned a hot-hatch but have been forced into domestic duties, both will satisfy them well.
In the final reckoning, the Q3 2.0 TFSI simply can’t overcome its poor value equation. We know from experience, however, that Audi dealers are very willing to throw in options packs that should be standard, so if you bargain hard there really isn’t much in it between these two.
It’s the Mercedes-Benz GLA250 4MATIC that best balances sport with utility. It is brisk and involving to drive, more comfortable in its suspension and is superbly equipped for the money.
However the Q3 is ultimately more like an SUV in its driving position, easier to see out of particularly if you’re in the rear, and is less doughy to drive in stop-start traffic – three big advantages for the SUV buyer and enough to sway the verdict if only the price was right.
Photography by Mitchell Oke and Christian Barbeitos.