The Audi Q3 has stepped up in size and tech for its second generation. But can it topple our current benchmark in the premium compact SUV segment, the Volvo XC40?
The original Audi Q3 was a big success story for the German brand, selling in its millions globally and reaching nearly 20,000 sales locally.
The XC40 has been a worldwide hit since it debuted in 2018, capitalising on the success of Volvo’s larger SUVs, the XC60 and XC90. In 2019, it topped a highly competitive premium compact SUV segment, while also winning a CarAdvice group test including the second-generation Range Rover Evoque and newbies from Lexus (the UX) and Jaguar (the E-Pace).
This segment of 10 vehicles accounted for nearly 16,500 sales last year. To appreciate the growth of premium compact SUVs, we can look back at the Q3’s debut year of 2012: just three models and 3452 sales.
The 2020 Audi Q3 aims to entice buyers with more features, technology, and – thanks to an increase in both length (+ 9.6cm) and wheelbase (+ 7.7cm) – more space.
There’s also a first-time ‘Sportback’ variant with a sportier shape, though it’s the regular Q3 that makes for a more natural direct competitor to the XC40.
Our specific choice of Q3 is simple; the entry level front-wheel-drive 35 TFSI (also available in a de rigueur Launch Edition).
For a match-up of luxury compact SUV starter models, we have the XC40 T4 Momentum.
Pricing and equipment
In their most basic forms, the Audi Q3 and Volvo XC40 couldn’t look more obvious rivals with their price tags: $46,400 for the 35 TFSI and $46,990 for the Momentum.
There’s good news for buyers who are either stretching their finances to own a compact SUV with a luxury badge, or those willing to sacrifice a larger mainstream SUV for the same: both models are decently equipped to the point where they can hardly be accused of being poverty packs.
Shared features include 18-inch alloy wheels, automatic tailgates, dual-zone air-conditioning, rain-sensing wipers, keyless vehicle entry and start, LED headlights, and an array of technology (see Technology and Infotainment section).
The Q3 and XC40 each has its advantages, too. The Audi has leather-appointed seat trim compared with textile/vinyl upholstery in the Volvo, ambient lighting, and a leather steering wheel whereas the XC40’s is leather-accented.
The Volvo comes standard with auto-dimming interior and side mirrors, and an electric driver’s seat (and charges only $380 to switch the front passenger seat adjustment from manual). The Audi’s front seats are manual operation.
If you want your Q3 35 TFSI to have electric seats, you’ll either need to pay for the $2600 Comfort Package that adds other items or buy the Launch Edition.
Audi offers two option packages and some items, such as sunroof, individually. Volvo also offers individual options, as well as three packages ranging from $1000 to $3000 – all of which were fitted to our test car to push its price up to $54,890 before on-roads.
The only option on our Q3 test car was metallic paint ($1250).
Technology and infotainment
In the domain of driver-assistance systems, the XC40 Momentum is the better-equipped premium compact SUV.
Adaptive cruise control (with partial hands-free steering) is standard, whereas it’s part of an option pack on the Q3, the Volvo exclusively provides speed-limit reading, its autonomous emergency braking system extends beyond vehicles, cyclists and pedestrians to monitor for large animals, while there are systems to warn and mitigate against potential intersection or oncoming collisions and being hit from behind.
The XC40 will also aim to stop you running off the road if the vehicle starts to make an unintended diversion.
The Q3 alone monitors for driver fatigue. Both models share blind spot and rear cross-traffic monitoring, hill descent control, tyre-pressure monitoring, and front/rear parking sensors.
A surround-view camera is an option on both vehicles. Neither is available with a head-up display.
Audi’s MMI (multimedia interface) system has long followed the BMW iDrive route with a centre console rotary controller (adding touchpad functionality along the way), but the company is gradually switching its models to the pure touchscreen approach.
While the deletion of the rotary controller feels like a loss for ergonomics – notably the ability to operate the infotainment system without taking your eyes away from the road for too long – the 10.1-inch touchscreen is undeniably slick in its presentation and functionality.
Volvo takes minimalism even further with a 9.0-inch ‘Sensus’ touchscreen that takes on extra duties, including various car functions and climate controls.
For the latter, you have to press the screen once to access the ‘Climate’ display, then select the change of fan speed or temperature, so it’s not as intuitive as Audi’s approach to have separate, conventional dials. Familiarisation helps, of course, and you quickly learn you can swipe the Volvo’s screen to find more features.
The portrait format of the XC40 is useful for showing more of the road ahead.
Both infotainment systems tick off key items: integrated navigation; Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone mirroring; digital radio; speech function (excellent on both); and in-car apps. Own-brand hi-fis are standard, but audiophiles can pay extra for a Bang & Olufsen system on the Q3 or a Harman Kardon system on the XC40.
Fully digital driver instrument clusters strengthen the technology cards, though Audi’s Virtual Cockpit offers more customisation.
The XC40’s 12.3-inch panel mainly mimics conventional dials with media/driver assistance/map able to be alternated in between. The Q3’s dials can dominate the display or, at the touch of a button on the steering wheel, shrink to allow the central info section to take priority. This is particularly effective with the nav-map. Virtual Cockpit was the first fully digital driver display to market, and it remains one of the best for intuitiveness and its superb clarity.
Audi’s high reputation for great interiors has typically been maintained, even with its more affordable models, and the Q3 is no exception.
There are clever touches to the design, such as the infotainment surround and Audi logo border on the steering wheel that play on the company’s single-frame grille. Nice details, too, such as the four-ring Audi logo embossed on the passenger side of the dash.
The infotainment display dominates the middle section of a triple-decker dashboard, with the upper layer featuring vents with gloss-black surrounds and the lower layer housing climate controls complete with beautifully knurled dials.
Although Audi has ditched the rotary infotainment controller, there are still plenty of (neatly positioned) buttons on the upper and lower parts of the centre console to suggest the company wants to keep extreme minimalism to a minimum (or to put it another way, refusing to adopt the Tesla approach).
The upper front door cards of our test car made a clacking sound if you pushed them, but this ultra-rare blemish aside, the Q3 otherwise exhibits Audi’s trademark fit and finish.
The XC40’s interior isn’t as daring as its exterior design, though it’s distinctive in the segment, and it certainly has the quality and premium feel to go toe to toe with the Q3.
And the Volvo’s cabin is not without its flourishes, such as the vertical vents and ‘urban grid’ metallic-style trim inserts on the doors and dash.
Volvo’s interior designers have been the most creative around storage. The super-wide door pockets – enabled by the repositioning of audio speakers – can hold laptops, tablets or umbrellas not just a drink bottle, the glovebox features a pull-out hook for a handbag or carrier bag, a removable rubbish tub is incorporated into the centre console, and there’s a pull-out drawer beneath the driver’s seat.
Smartphones of varying sizes fit on a longitudinal charging tray at the front of the centre console. The enveloped section includes USB and 12V sockets.
While the Q3 doesn’t apply the same level of stowage ingenuity, it’s far from impractical.
Large front door pockets accommodate large drink bottles, its glovebox is usefully sized like the Volvo’s, it too has a generously sized smartphone tray with charging (regular and USB-C ports), and there’s a great example of attention to detail with the dedicated centre console spot for the key fob (an idea all carmakers could perhaps adopt now keyless-start cars are so common).
With its longer wheelbase, the second-generation Q3 makes a notable leap in rear-seat space over the original. Space is excellent in every respect – rear passengers no longer have to fear having taller people in the front seat.
The rear seat includes a slide function with 150mm of travel, so owners can switch between prioritising leg room or cargo space. There’s also a choice of seven seatback angles.
The rear bench just lets overall comfort down by being too flat and unsupportive. The wide centre armrest’s pop-up cupholders are also quite small – a regular-size coffee cup only just squeezes in. Kids' bottles will have to go in the door pockets.
There’s also plenty of leg room in the rear of the XC40, and the roof lining won’t ruffle too many hairs as there’s good head room even with the optional sunroof fitted. Foot space is particularly generous.
A little extra cushion length would make under-thigh support even better, though the XC40’s rear bench feels the more comfortable.
Outward vision isn’t quite as good as the Audi’s owing to the fancy upward kick on the rear doors. The Q3 also features a 12-volt socket and two USB-C ports in the back to the XC40’s single USB-C. Both have dedicated rear ventilation.
The Q3’s boot capacity is now 530L, whereas the XC40’s 460L is identical to that of the previous Q3. There’s little in it, however, if the Audi’s rear seats are in their rearmost position.
Floor dimensions are almost identical, and both boots will easily take two large family suitcases and large- and medium-sized duffels. The Volvo does this even with the cargo shelf still in place; the Audi’s shelf has to be removed, though it stores conveniently under the floor.
Audi opts for rear seats with a 40-20-40 split; Volvo goes 60-40 with a ski port.
The XC40’s boot has some extra tricks up its sleeve. The floor can be folded up in the middle via a handle to create a divider, which is useful for keeping shopping bags in place. The divider also reveals three hooks for hanging bags onto, and a shallow underfloor storage layer.
There are integrated hooks on the sides of the boot, a long elasticated holding strap on one side, and a 12-volt socket. Both SUVs provide space-saver spare wheels, and each auto tailgate includes a hands-free opening/closing function.
Turbocharged petrol engines and front-wheel drive unify these two entry-level premium compact SUVs. For buyers seeking all-wheel drive, it requires stepping up to the Inscription model in the case of the XC40 and moving up to the more powerful 40 TFSI ‘quattro’ models in the case of the Q3.
The Q3 35 TFSI is powered by a VW Group 1.4-litre four-cylinder, and its outputs of 110kW and 250Nm look modest even before you compare it with the 140kW and 300Nm produced by the XC40 Momentum’s 2.0-litre four-cylinder.
It’s not ideal that this Q3 offers no more power or torque than an entry-level Volkswagen Golf that is about $20,000 cheaper.
The next-model-up 40 TFSI with 132kW/320Nm would make a more convincing base engine.
For buyers not dreaming about one day owning the fast flagship RS Q3 variant, the 35 TFSI’s performance may be sufficient.
With good kickdown response from the six-speed dual-clutch transmission and a kerb weight 86kg lighter than the XC40, the base Q3 has decent speed for overtaking or traffic-gap filling. The engine generally responds well to requests for incremental increases in speed and the auto provides super-smooth gear changes.
The Q3’s six-speed ‘S-tronic’ also proved to be easy to live with in daily driving, which isn’t always the case with the Volkswagen Group’s dual-clutch gearboxes.
The one quirk of this Volkswagen Group auto it retains is the slight delay taking off from standstill, and the key is to be patient momentarily. Pushing harder on the throttle can otherwise lead to the turbo spooling up, and giving you faster acceleration than you intended once everything hooks up.
No such dramas with the XC40’s regular eight-speed auto. Owners just need to get accustomed to the gear lever action, which requires two pulls to engage drive or two pushes to engage reverse as there is no neutral lock-out. It’s odd, but should become like second nature after just a few days.
The XC40 T4 is available with optional paddle-shift levers; if you want them on a Q3, you need the 40 TFSI.
Volvo’s 2.0-litre sounds more industrial than the Audi’s 1.4-litre, but you can feel the extra torque. The XC40 T4 always feels sprightly, with excellent response from low to medium speeds. There’s ample mid-range muscle for overtaking, and acceleration generally feels more urgent than that offered by the Q3, and the eight-speed auto is silky in its operation, if not as rapid at swapping gears as the Audi’s dual-clutcher.
It’s easy to believe the Q3 is almost a second slower than the XC40, according to their 0–100km/h claims: 9.3 seconds for the 35 TFSI versus 8.4 seconds for the T4 Momentum.
Need more speed? Then the more powerful T5 engine available exclusively with the flagship XC40 R-Design variant is a cracker. For the Q3, there’s the aforementioned 40 TFSI.
On the road
The Q3’s driving position could easily trick you into thinking you’re driving a hatchback, whereas the XC40’s more elevated hot seat is more typical of an SUV. There’s no positive or negative either way here, and outward visibility is excellent in both vehicles – it will simply come down to personal preference.
It’s easier to get comfortable in the Volvo, though. Its good range of electric driver’s seat adjustment trumps the Q3’s more fiddly and more limited manual levers, and the Audi’s front seats feel quite flat and lacking in lateral support, so you don’t nestle into them quite like you do the Volvo’s ‘Comfort’ pews (trimmed in $750 accented leather in our test car rather than the standard textile/vinyl combination).
The XC40’s comfort advantage extends to ride quality, its suspension delivering more suppleness and more compliance to be consistently more relaxed across a variety of surfaces. There’s more vertical movement on undulating patches of country road but avoids wallowing.
The Q3’s ride improves at higher speeds and its firmer damping approach works well on country roads, where it keeps body control well in check. That helps make the Audi quite fun to punt along a winding road, along with precise steering and excellent traction out of corners, even in damp conditions.
Riveting dynamics have never been a cornerstone of Volvo’s engineering philosophy, though the XC40’s chassis at least feels more enthusiastic about corners than either of the Swedish carmaker’s other, larger SUVs. Its steering is similarly smooth, accurate and effortless (even lighter than the Q3’s steering).
Whether you’re on a freeway or country road, the Audi takes quietest-cabin honours with the least tyre roar and wind whistle of this duo, though they’re just more noticeable in the XC40 rather than ever being intrusive.
Volvo has recently made the move to a five year warranty in Australia – joining Mercedes-Benz, which was the first luxury brand to join the new industry standard in early 2019. At the time of publishing Audi offers only three years warranty coverage.
Maintenance costs are virtually lineball. Audi charges $1610 for the Q3’s three-year service plan; Volvo asks $1595 for the same period. Visits are annual or every 15,000km.
Official, laboratory-derived fuel consumption figures have the Audi and Volvo pegged at 7.2 litres per 100km, but our real-world testing revealed the Q3 35 TFSI as the thriftier SUV.
While our overall drive left the Q3 and XC40 registering 7.4L/100km and 8.4L/100km on their trip computers, respectively, the Audi registered as low as 6.6L/100km after an inner-and-outer suburbs stint compared with a best of 8.5L/100km for the Volvo.
Both engines run on premium 95RON fuel.
The second-generation Q3 improves upon the popular original with a big ramp-up in space and technology. Families can now genuinely consider it as a more affordable alternative to Audi’s larger, five-seater SUV, the Q5.
In entry-level 35 TFSI form, however, the overall package would be stronger with some extra performance, a more compliant suspension, and seats that offered greater comfort. And Audi’s three-year warranty is now behind customer expectation more than ever.
The XC40 Momentum is the most affordable Volvo you can buy right now, yet it presents so much of the quality craftsmanship and safety/convenience technology of the company’s larger SUVs – while adding an even stronger dose of distinctive Swedish charm.
It offers genuine interior ingenuity with its array of clever storage options, and it delivers on the road with superb ride quality and a responsive engine.
The lower servicing costs and longer warranty that have been recently introduced are merely icing on this Scandinavian compact luxury SUV’s kaka (cake).