Audi's Q3 boasts excellent tech and a premium feel, but the newer competition from BMW and Benz have raised the bar.
Judged solely on its performance during a week of testing in and around CNET's San Francisco offices, the 2016 Audi Q3 Quattro comes out looking pretty good. Its cabin is quiet, the performance is pretty good, and the small crossover is almost universally handsome both inside and out. If you walked into an Audi dealership looking for a premium/luxury small crossover and drove away in the Audi Q3, you'd probably be pretty happy.
However, it doesn't live in a vacuum -- most drivers don't make purchases without also testing out the competition, and my evaluation of the Q3 came right on the heels of an adventure in the excellent and all-new 2016 BMW X1 xDrive28i. So at the end of a very pleasurable week with the Audi, I can't help but think about all of the small ways that it falls short of the competition.
The Audi Q3 is not wanting for power; the 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder that lives under its hood makes a stated 200 horsepower and 207 pound-feet of torque. This is, essentially, the same powertrain that lives beneath the hood of the Volkswagen Golf GTI, but with a tune focused on efficiency, rather than all-out performance. However, when equipped with its optional Quattro all-wheel drive system and standard six-speed automatic transmission, the Q3 is some 700 pounds heavier than a GTI, which you feel as a slight lag when accelerating.
You also feel the weight when changing direction, but only just. The Audi feels nicely planted when rounding a bend or off-ramp, but there's a definite lack of feel through both the seat and the wheel. Now obviously, I don't expect the Q3 -- a compact crossover -- to round bends like a sports car, and a bit of softness to the suspension and top-heaviness to the ride is forgivable.
Our Q3 was equipped with a Sport package that adds larger wheels, sport styling bits inside and out and -- most interestingly -- a Drive Mode Select button that allows the Q3's pilot to toggle between Dynamic, Sport and Auto drive modes. Unfortunately, all three of these modes feel largely identical. Any changes to steering feel or throttle response were basically undetectable, which is a shame. The automatic transmission, on the other hand, has a Sport program of its own, which does liven up the throttle response by holding lower gears, keeping the engine RPMs ups and maintaining the turbo in a primed state.
Going fast in the Q3 requires becoming more patient with the crossover, smoother with the inputs. If I wanted a surge of acceleration, I'd simply have to keep my foot planted and wait for the turbo to surge -- not leap -- into action. The Q3 likes long, sweeping turns, where it can settle its mass between transitions and grip. I couldn't just chuck the Audi into a corner like I would the Mazda CX-3 or BMW X1.
In the Quattro configuration, the EPA reckons on 23 combined miles per gallon (which breaks out to 20 city and 28 highway), which is fairly efficient, but not what I'd call thrifty. The numbers are basically the same for front-wheel drive Q3s, gaining only a single highway mpg.
For comparison sake, Audi's own significantly larger 2016 Q5 2.0T has EPA numbers identical to the Q3's. Back in this class, the 2016 BMW X1 is also powered by a 2.0-liter turbo-four that makes 28 more horsepower and 51 more pound-feet of peak torque, and the Bimmer bests the Audi's combined mpg by 4 miles -- still not a huge amount, but every advantage counts in this fiercely contested segment.
Inside, the Q3 gains ground on the BMW and the Mercedes-Benz GLA250 with its excellent tech, premium design and quiet construction. The Audi does an excellent job isolating its occupants from road and engine noise and has a cozy, inoffensive design that is simpler and more timeless than what Benz and BMW are doing with their cabins.
Part of the reason the Audi's cabin feels so cozy is that it's plainly smaller than the competition's, with a noticeably less space for cargo and souls than the BMW X1 and Benz GLA250. This is surprising, because the Audi certainly looks larger than the competition when viewed alone; the illusion is shattered when the models are lined up in a parking lot.
Size doesn't matter when it comes to tech, and the Audi packs in an excellent assortment of standard and optional gizmos that help justify its sticker price. Our Q3 Prestige leads with full LED headlamps -- a hallmark of Audi design -- and finishes up with amenities such as a power rear hatch.
In the driver-aid tech department, the Audi Q3 is rocking an optional blind-spot monitoring system and a rear camera with park-assist proximity detection, but lacking some of the more advanced features (adaptive cruise control, semi-automatic parking, lane-keep assist) found elsewhere in Audi's lineup.
The dashboard tech, typically a high point for Audi, is a bit of a mixed bag. What I love is Audi's MMI software and hardware; their snappy response to inputs, crisp visuals, and smartly organized menus. What I don't like is the dashboard-mounted MMI control bank, which is both more awkward to reach and more spread out and difficult to use than the console-mounted MMI controller that I've grown used to in Audi's other vehicles.
I'm also still not a fan of Audi's proprietary MMI connection point, which requires the driver to swap pigtails to connect USB, Lightning, Apple 30-pin or analog auxiliary connection. For households that use multiple devices, a simple USB seems like the best solution.
The 2016 Aud Q3 starts at $33,700 for the front wheel drive Premium Plus model, but bumps up to $41,825 as tested for our Prestige Quattro model with its $550 sport package, $575 Mythos Black Metallic paint and destination charges.
In the UK and in Australia, the crossover starts at £25,650 and AU$42,900, respectively, for their entry point 1.4-liter turbo engines. A 2.0-liter turbo model in those markets jumps up to £29,045 and AU$52,300 starting prices.
Compared to last year's much more compact BMW X1 or even the current Mercedes-Benz GLA, the Q3 seems like a pretty good deal. But the competition is always evolving, and I think a new Q3 owner will be feeling just a hint of buyer's remorse when the more spacious, more powerful, more efficient (and, admittedly, more expensive) 2016 BMW X1 pulls into their neighbor's driveway.