As a loud and proud Queenslander, each year I look forward to heading home for some much needed rest and relaxation over the Christmas break.
With family scattered across the south-east corner of the Sunshine State, I prefer to drive the 800km north so that I can trek around and visit relatives and friends at my own convenience. This year I would be making the journey in the Audi Q3, effectively testing its capabilities on the open road, clocking up at least 2000km and conducting a long-range fuel consumption test in the process.
The pièce de résistance was that my test car came with a bonus: the Audi genuine accessory camping tent. Well, that changes everything!
I thoroughly enjoy camping, so pictures of the Audi tent certainly had me intrigued. It has an inflatable, tubular, exoskeletal structure that looks extraterrestrial or even arachnid (although if you squint the car almost looks like a turtle or a snail dragging its home along behind it too). No matter how strange it looked, I later found that the tent is a masterpiece of design and engineering, spawned from a partnership between Audi and Heimplanet.
Thanks to my mother's status as a diehard fan of The King, I was aware the Parkes Elvis Festival would be on at the time that I planned to be heading back south. So a plan was hatched: after having done the family visits, my Mum would join me for a mini-break and we'd head to Parkes in the Q3 to see what all the fuss was about.
The lead up to Christmas is a always a rush. Added to the inevitable end-of-year exhaustion was the complete lack of Christmas preparation, so after a late night wrapping presents, cleaning out the fridge, taking out the rubbish and mad last-minute packing (I was out loading the car at 3.30am on Christmas Eve), we readied ourselves for our journey, having had barely enough sleep. A friend was joining my daughter and I for the drive, and by 3.45am we were on the road. The boys in blue stopped me for a quick RBT as we headed out of the city, and given the all-clear we were quickly on the way again.
The good thing about a pre-dawn departure is that by the time the sun rises you're a good couple of hours out of town. As the sky brightens, there's a sense that you've made a decent dent in the distance you are planning to travel, and that you're well ahead of where you would have been, had you decided to wake at a more sensible hour. It's a good feeling, and the sense of accomplishment provides a nice little boost that distracts from the fact that there's actually still more than 600km to go!
The Pacific Highway (M1) is the main arterial heading north out of Sydney, forging a path straight up the coastline between the New South Wales capital and Brisbane. However, we were taking an inland route, and turned off around Twelve Mile Creek onto Bucketts Way which then becomes Thunderbolts Way around Gloucester.
Once you're off the M1, the drive is far more scenic and scattered with little towns worthy of a coffee-break and a wander - try Stroud if you feel like soaking up some genuine country town ambience, or you could try Gloucester, which is around 40 minutes further down the road. I was interested to see if the little Audi had the feature of reminding drivers to stop every couple of hours to rest, but after three hours behind the wheel I accepted the fact it doesn't, or I hadn't found where to turn it on in the settings.
My test car was the flagship Audi Q3 TDI quattro Sport with a 2.0-litre turbo diesel engine producing 135kW and 380Nm, teamed with Audi's seven-speed S tronic automatic transmission. The car itself was finished in Florett Silver with a black interior.
Fuel consumption is a claimed 5.4 litres per 100 kilometres. I was hoping to get really close to that figure given that much of my time on the road would be spent cruising over the long stretches of bitumen between regional towns. Still, I had three whole weeks of driving the Q3, so time would tell.
This particular Q3 costs $56,900 (before on-road costs) and also had a number of options fitted: metallic paint ($1150), S line interior and exterior sport package ($5600) that includes 18-inch alloy wheels, Technik package with MMI navigation plus, park assist and Audi sound system ($2990). Also included was the Assistance package with side assist, active lane assist, high beam assist, hill hold assist, hill descent control and exterior mirrors with electric folding, auto dimming on driver's side and kerb view function on passenger side ($2490) for a total as-tested price of $69,130.
Plus the tent of course!
After a coffee stop, all three of us were wide awake and, as is inevitable on any good road trip, it was time to pop on some tunes.
Time to review the list of requirements for music in a car: CD player not hidden away in the glove box (an Audi favourite) - tick. Bluetooth connectivity - tick. USB to charge the iPod or iPhone - fail. Yes, in 2016 the Q3 still misses out on a USB point. There is however an outlet in the centre console bin to connect your phone to the Audi music interface system via a cable. This is clunky and too hard when there's Bluetooth, the CD player, or even iPhone speakers. It is a feature that I'd like to see gone when the car is next updated. Just a simple USB port will suffice, thanks.
That being said, the cabin itself is a pleasant and comfortable place to be. It's well finished with quality material and the S line package adds sports seats with Alcantara, which is a welcome addition given the heat of the day and the length of time I would spend behind the wheel.
Even with the tent and its accompaniments, the Q3 still managed to fit luggage for three people, along with Christmas presents overflowing the 460-litre boot to occupy part of the back row. Despite this load, there still felt like there was plenty of space in the cabin. Note that the boot space increases to 1365-litres with the rear seats down.
At Uralla we turned onto the New England Highway and travelled up through Armidale, stopping in at Glen Innes before heading for Stanthorpe. The fatigue was kicking in during those last couple of hours, so it was necessary to stop at every opportunity and get out for a stretch to get the blood flowing again.
With the potential threat of double demerits hiding around every corner or behind every tree, cruise control was on at every opportunity. On flat stretches of road the Q3 held the requested speed really well, deviating by only a kilometre or two per hour.
However, on downhill runs the cruise control seemed to check out, letting the car run away. In a 100km/hr zone with a steep, straight hill, I tested this by selecting 80km as the limit for the cruise control. Sure enough, I had to hit the brakes as the Q3 coasted to 100km/hr - 20km over!
According to Audi, the model ranges that are built on an MLB platform (with a longitudinal engine and powertrain, like in the A4 and A8) actually do have active braking as part of cruise control, however the Q3 sadly isn't one of those cars. Not great for a $70,000 SUV.
The trip home to Queensland was a bit of a blur. The nuances of the car's behaviour on the road got a little lost in the fog of mental exhaustion that tends to gather at the end of the year, however I was eager to arrive at my destination and finally catch up with loved ones.
Luckily there was still the return journey, which would allow me to focus on the car and the roads in a more relaxed frame of mind.
But first, Queensland Christmas was to be had. Celebrations, catch-ups, and daytime naps; these tasks all joined together to make the majority of the break fly by. My family found the idea of the Audi camping tent fascinating, so one afternoon we popped it up so that everyone could check it out. It's so tall that the neighbours spotted it in the backyard, and soon there was a group of people oohing and aahing.
But Elvis was calling. Once again the boot of the Q3 was filled to the brim, as was the fuel tank.
I have recently spent time in one of the Q3's main competitors, the BMW X1, taking it on a road trip from Coffs Harbour to Sydney. One of the biggest detractions of that car was the noise infiltrating the cabin. The Q3 was noticeably better in this regard, allowing conversations to flow from driver to front and rear passengers without the need to raise voices.
The BMW X1 has a far more modern cabin that is cleverly designed and interesting to look at. In the Q3, as I previously mentioned, the materials used are premium and it's well finished, but it does still feel a little dated in comparison with the BMW. Modernising the centre stack would make a huge difference in the Q3.
This trip would see us head south-west from Queensland's Southern Downs region, starting on the Cunningham Highway, which is a good 820km from our destination. Parkes is located in the Central West region of New South Wales and tens-of-thousands of Elvis fans flock there every January.
The first Parkes Elvis Festival was held back in 1993 and the five-day event has steadily grown in popularity. In fact, the town's population of 12,000 swells by more than 20,000 over the five-days. Here's a fun fact, January 8 is Elvis's birthday and he would have been 81 this year.
After a couple of hours on the road, we made a pit stop for breakfast in Goondiwindi before turning on to the Newell Highway. This highway is more than 1000km long and stretches from Goondiwindi all the way down to Tocumwal in Victoria, serving as a major road freight link from Queensland to Victoria and regional centres in New South Wales. There are a lot of trucks on the road.
As well as being relatively quiet at speed, the Q3 was in its element out on the open road. the S tronic's gear changes were smooth as we accelerated out of the small towns that commanded a speed of 50 kilometres an hour. The transmission certainly made overtaking a breeze, although there was a slight delay for the car to pick up when you put your foot down. But once it grabbed the gear it wanted, nothing could hold it back. Trucks and caravans were effortlessly left in our wake.
The quattro all-wheel-drive system is impressive and the Q3 felt solid and well planted on the road, inspiring a sense of confidence and surety as I wound my way through the occasional windy sections.
The ride may be a little on the firm side but doesn't jar over undulations, though you'll feel sharp edges like potholes or uneven road joins.
Mum and I made a late lunch stop in Coonabarabran, just north of Dubbo. We had a less than enjoyable roast beef and gravy roll; the meat was so dry and the gravy so thick that it was like eating wood chips and glue. Nevertheless, sometimes anything will suffice and this was one of those times.
We'd left that morning at around 6 o'clock, and had hoped to get to our campground by 4pm so that we had enough time to set up camp. We arrived right on schedule, but in our post-road trip rush, had made a few rookie errors.
It's hot in the west and any shade would have made a huge difference to the temperature inside the tent, but we chose a site without a tree or a building in sight.
The Audi camping tent weighs just over 13kg and folds away into a custom bag that's barely bigger than a carry-on case. I began unloading the rest of our gear, while Mum rolled out the tent.
The tent itself is incredibly easy to raise; just make sure its laid out flat and the right way up, check the air valves are all closed, attach the hand pump and begin the bonus workout.
Apparently it can be inflated in less than seven minutes, but I wasn't in any rush to break a sweat. Even taking a more relaxed approach to the set up, it took less than 15-minutes to inflate and then attach to the back of the car. The tent slips over the open tailgate and there are various hooks, zips and loops to secure that create a waterproof seal around the car. The boot light fades out quickly so there's no risk of draining the battery (unless you leave the stereo on all day).
There are separate attachments for the Q3, Q5 and Q7, though the main body of the tent is identical for each car. When joined to the car, the boot space acts as a storage area or even a place to sit, and there's a large annexe-like area with huge zippered openings on each side. Given the heat and the intense sun, we could open one side to let the air in and close the other for shade.
The tent has a separate sleeping area with room for three. We took advantage of the space by using a blow-up queen-size mattress in the room and popping two sleeping bags on top.
The tent fabric is light and seems to breathe, but has a 4000mm water column and can handle winds of up to 70km an hour when secured with the eight included tent pegs.
We had a table, two chairs, a single butane burner, pots and pans, a small box of staple food supplies, a lantern, portable charger and more. It's quite striking that all of this had fit in the car along with our suitcases and the Christmas presents I was bringing back home with me.
I have to admit that I'd been a little curious about whether or not the most impressive thing about the tent would be its quirky design, rather than its practicality. That concern was completely unnecessary, as it served our needs perfectly, never felt insecure in the light winds that picked up at times, and the air flowed through thanks to several zippered and netted openings in the roof and sleeping area.
The tent doesn't require attachment to the car to remain upright and pinned down on its own, as there's a flap that unrolls and zips up to cover the front (where the tailgate would be) then it's simply a matter of removing the parts that attach to the car and you're free to roam.
It was also the star attraction at the camping ground.
One of the reasons I love camping is the people. I've never met a cranky camper, everyone is friendly, full of interesting stories and they're always keen to hear yours.
People were constantly popping over for a chat, asking about the tent, having a look through it and taking photographs. We were the rock stars of the camping scene for a few days.
The Parkes Elvis Festival had never been on my radar, but it was on my Mum's bucket list, which is how we ended up there. I'm glad I did, because it is a lot of fun.
I would describe it best as "schoolies for adults". People travelled to Parkes from across Australia and hundreds, possibly thousands were dressed as Elvis or Priscilla. There were swing dancers, retro and rockabilly influence, fabulous old cars, performers and karaoke in every pub, concerts at the Leagues Club and Services Club as well as a huge outdoor stage and seating area in a park in the centre of town.
We headed to a local winery one night for a sumptuous dinner in the vines with entertainment by 'Bollywood Elvis'. He may not have known all the words to the song but he was a fantastic entertainer.
After three big days and nights, it was time for the dreaded pack-up. But the tent proved again to be a small task to pack away, being a quick and easy affair to deflate the tent, roll it up, and secure it back in its little bag ready for the final leg of my Christmas holiday adventure.
It was a 380km, five-hour drive from Parkes to my Sydney home, but at the last minute we decided to change our plans and head 20km out of town in the opposite direction to check out "The Dish".
Otherwise known as the Parkes Observatory, this large radio telescope was built in 1961. The Dish was one of a handful of sites that received and transmitted live images of Apollo 11 landing on the moon in 1969 and its involvement in the historical event was portrayed in the movie of the same name (by Working Dog Productions). If you're ever in the area, it's well worth a look.
We took our time on the drive home, jumping on the Great Western Highway at Bathurst after passing through Orange, and stopping at the Hydro Majestic Hotel in the Blue Mountains to take in the spectacular views.
After almost 2200km, it was good to be home! After all this distance, I was pleased to find that my fuel economy seemed in line with Audi's claims. The Sydney to Queensland leg resulted in an impressive 5.7-litres per 100km, which is just 0.3 more than claimed. The Queensland to Sydney via Parkes results were even better at 5.6-litres.
I spent three weeks with the Audi Q3 and have very few complaints, although I'd like to see the interior layout and centre-stack updated. Competition in the luxury small SUV segment includes the Mercedes-Benz GLA-Class, BMW X1, Lexus NX and Mini Cooper Countryman so with a slightly outdated interior, there's nowhere to hide.
The Q3 was fun to drive, responded well to inputs on the brake and throttle, and felt secure on the road. It's spacious and practical, and the diesel fuel economy was excellent. The tent ($2232) is also well-worth considering if you're an avid camper and are thinking of picking yourself up a Q3 or even a Q5 or Q7.