The Audi Q3 is a vital car for the German brand. Since its launch in March 2012, it has dominated the small luxury SUV market over a period in which these type of vehicles have experienced a surge in popularity.
It is subsequently not just a segment-leader, but also one of Audi’s most popular model lines in Australia. In 2014, the Q3 finished within a hair’s breadth of pipping the A4, once the company’s unassailable champion. The only others it trails are the hugely popular Q5 and the A3 hatch and sedan.
But as the segment hots up, so does the competition. Chief rivals at this end of town are the BMW X1 and, as of last year, the Mercedes-Benz GLA. You might also feasibly see a top-end Mazda CX-5 buyer snooping around, or a Volkswagen Golf owner contemplating something taller.
It is the latter that is picking up steam as supply eases, with the Benz ousting the Q3 from the monthly top spot on occasion in the tail end of 2014. As such, Q3 sales dropped 10 per cent in a segment up 20 per cent, though it retained 40 per cent market share by year’s end.
It leads narrowly again over the first two months of 2015, with 561 sales to 511 for the GLA.
From about June this year, a refreshed version of the Spanish-made Q3 with revised engines, tweaked suspension and fettled styling will roll into showrooms with the mission of re-asserting the Ingolstadt marque’s dominance.
Audi is promising the value equation will be improved — if not the actual sticker price. This is an area we’ve slapped the Q3 on before, so we hope this proves to be the case.
First off is the design, which is ostensibly familiar but tweaked in a few ways. Up front is a cleaner and bolder single-frame grille with chrome highlights linking to the revised bi-xenon headlights and LED daytime running lights.
There is also a sharper rear bumper and new LED tail-lights with Audi’s ‘dynamic indicators’ that scroll in a directional line outwards rather than flashing, and redesigned alloy wheels.
Minor tweaks then, but it remains a subdued and fairly classy-looking little SUV that makes a nice counterpoint to the flashy GLA. Like a number of Audis outside its devoted R, RS and TT sports offerings, it’s handsome but doesn’t court attention.
Likewise the cabin is classy but subdued, though the extra chrome lashings offered with the update breathe a little life into proceedings. It remains a beautifully-built cabin with sound ergonomics and high-quality plastic, leather and chrome materials.
The new rounded steering wheel design is also more appealing, and is reminiscent of the A3.
But in other ways, it lacks the flair of the sublime A3 cabin, though its X1 rival feels little better. The design itself is looking a little dated, with an array of 40-plus buttons littering the fascia and no transmission tunnel-mounted toggle to control the car’s functions.
Instead, the dial is mounted on the fascia — a small difference but one that makes an impact. Likewise, rather than rising from the dash on startup like a proverbial phoenix, the 7.0-inch screen that perches atop the soft dash needs to be folded manually.
Small touches, but it’s small touches that define an Audi cabin. Furthermore, there remains a bit of a shortage in storage space up front.
You do still get the typical Audi multimedia setup with various scrolling menus that is generally easy to navigate, though perhaps a shade off the benchmark BMW iDrive system in the X1. The navigation system is intuitive though had the odd moment of lag.
The continued absence of a USB input (unless you pay for a cable) remains an annoyance.
Audi Australia will, however, improve the standard equipment on the Q3 from June.
Full details will have to wait for the local launch, but all variants from base level will now get a reverse-view camera with front and rear parking sensors, paddle-shifters behind the classy leather wheel, dual-zone climate control and ‘leather-appointed’ seats with extendable bases.
Satellite navigation still won’t be standard at base level, though at least the options package it comes as part of will be cheaper, given the reverse-view camera is now standard fare.
Variants higher up the range will all get more equipment as well, plus the option of full LED headlights. Full details, however, remain under wraps for the time being.
Expect a small price bump across all variants in return, but one that is smaller than the list of equipment added. The range currently starts at $42,300 plus on-road costs for the 1.4 TFSI front-drive variant and grows to $55,000 for the flagship 2.0 TDI quattro, and then there's a big step up to the RS Q3, at $81,900.
As ever, the Q3’s interior remains relatively spacious, with plenty of headroom, foot room and elbow space in the rear two outboard seats, compromised slightly only in the area of legroom for the tall. The middle seat is a higher, narrow perch.
One welcome touch is rear air vents, as are the large door pockets. There is also a ski port with a felt-padded storage compartment. A gripe to counter is the sloping rear hatch which, combined with the large D-pillar, inhibits rear visibility.
This also cuts into cargo space in the rear for tall objects, though it remains sufficient for a handful of large travel bags (460 litres with the seats in place to 1365 litres with the 60:40 rear seats flipped forward). This is good for the class.
Behind the wheel, the Q3 remains a relatively pleasant crossover, more reminiscent of a small hatchback than an SUV proper. Only the slightly raised driving position and higher roof give the game away. As before, the Q3 rides on similar architecture as the current Volkswagen Tiguan, rather than the new MQB matrix of the A3 or MK7 Golf.
Chief among the changes are the new powertrains. Typical of Audi — or any German premium brand, really — even a mid-life update brings significant gains to power and torque, accompanied by reduced fuel consumption.
Still kicking off the range is a 1.4 TFSI turbo-petrol with 110kW/250Nm, though cylinder deactivation cuts 0.4 litres per 100km from the claimed fuel consumption figure (now 5.8L/100km). This is matched to a six-speed S tronic dual-clutch auto sending power to the front wheels.
The other petrol offering — beyond the RS Q3 which we’ll discuss in a moment — is a 132kW/320Nm 2.0 TFSI, which replaces the old 125kW/280Nm unit, cuts the 0-100km/h time by six-tenths to 7.6 seconds and reduces fuel use on the combined cycle to 6.5L/100km (was 7.7L/100km).
The 155kW version presently offered is no more.
On the diesel side of the ledger is a 110kW/340Nm 2.0 TDI (up 7kW/20Nm) that cuts fuel use by 0.6 litres to 4.6L/100km. Also available is a 135kW/380Nm (up 5kW) 2.0 TDI that punts the Q3 from 0-100km/h in 7.9sec but is also capable of fuel use of 5.2L/100km (down 0.7 litres).
Each of these two diesels, as well as the 132kW TFSI petrol, is matched to a seven-speed S tronic and a quattro all-wheel-drivetrain. Each of these new S tronic gearboxes now comes with paddles.
The boosted new RS Q3 with its 2.5-litre five-pot now makes 250kW/450Nm and meets Euro 6 regulations. The 0-100km/h time is cut to 4.8sec. This version — surprisingly popular — launches in Australia a month or so after the rest of the range, around July/August.
Our brief drive in Europe on the back of a visit to the Geneva motor show featured the 132kW petrol and 135kW diesel.
The new petrol proved a punchy and exceedingly quiet little unit (capable of sitting happily at more than 200km/h on a derestricted piece of Autobahn, we’d add). With 320Nm on tap between 1400 and 3900rpm, you have a broad band of peak torque, making it feel more muscular than you might expect.
The S tronic is lightning fast once rolling, though it also remains a touch indecisive at low speeds, a factor more exploitable when punching the throttle to take a small window in traffic. You might notice a half-second or so of delayed response.
The diesel is a cracker, with its 380Nm on tap from 1750rpm, albeit across a narrower spectrum. Lucky there are seven ratios then. Typically tractable, it also proved generally refined, with only the lightest vibrations and slightest gruffness from inside the cabin.
If you do mostly inner-urban driving, the petrol is the better bet.
Impressive also is the quattro variable AWD system, which coupled with winter tyres to make light work of some winding alpine roads at the tail end of a white winter. The Q3 felt planted and assured, like a hatch, with good traction to back up its controlled body.
The electric power-assisted steering is light at low speeds, and while it offers little direct feel or feedback, it offers sufficient resistance once at speed. It turns in well enough given the decent body control (for a tall design), though the A-pillars are intrusive.
Audi did some recalibration to the chassis and suspension, and indeed the Q3 felt more composed and refined over corrugations than we’ve experienced before — addressing a bugbear we felt extant on the outgoing car. That said, on Euro roads and winter tyres, take that with a grain of salt until we drive the new Q3 at home.
In addition to the hushed engines, general noise suppression remains above-average. Little tyre or wind noise intruded the cabin across a variety of surfaces at a variety of speeds. A hushed cruiser this remains — something we can’t always say for newer MQB-based VW Group offerings…
So then, that’s the updated Q3. It may appear similar, but Audi has made good improvements to the powertrains and suspension, and is promising more equipment with a modest extra cost impost. It also remains a relatively spacious small SUV with good practicality.
Whether these changes are enough to help it remain top of the heap in the sales race remains to be seen, though if Audi can sharpen the value equation sufficiently, it will go a long way to deserving the mantle.