The world may know Audi as the maker of some of the best engineered cars around, and in many ways it is. But here in India, Audi is famous for something else – SUVs. The Zeppelin-sized Q7 really caught the fancy of many a Bollywood star when it was launched back in 2006, and the positive rub was so strong everyone on Page 3 wanted at least one. Soon the Q7 went on to become the mechanical equivalent of the rajah’s haathi – a vehicle of great pomp, glamour, comfort and higher living, but without the massive ‘tail-pipe emission’ problem, of course. And justifiably so. Here was an SUV that had almost everything – the right size, imposing looks, top-class interiors, seven seats, massive space, good driving manners and an identity all its own. Then, in 2009, Audi brought in its less generously proportioned five - seater, the Q5. Though successful, it had a much tougher time scaling the charts. Now, in true Germanic, regimented, mathematic progression, comes the smallest member of the family, the Q3 – baby bear for all you Goldilocks fans. But don’t underestimate this car’s importance. Audi’s baby SUV may be the smallest Q of the lot, and it may be the least glamorous. But be in no doubt, this is a car that has the potential to go viral. It is comparatively affordable and hence accessible to a much larger audience lower down the pyramid – Audi is super keen to roll out the red carpet for first-time buyers of the brand. Question is, is it good enough? We had a whole day behind the wheel in sunny Goa to help us decide.
First impressions are really important, especially when something that’s meant to be big has been zapped or scaled down. But the Q3 passes test number one with flying colours. It may only be 4.4 meters long and not much taller than a Hyundai i10, but in the flesh the Q3 looks sufficiently bulky and large to be a convincing SUV. Audi’s larger Q5, parked right behind, isn’t that much bigger. And then this car’s big grille, wrap-around headlights and confident stance mean it looks more compact SUV than large hatch, and that’s important. What the handsome-looking Q3 also has is a bit of swagger. The big tyres or ‘boots’ give it a nice, planted stance, the Bowie-knife headlights really stand out and the coupe-like raked rear section gives it some much-needed character. Adding significantly to all this is the near-perfect build of the car. Shut-lines are millimeter-perfect, doors open and shut like they have each been individually sanded down and custom-fitted, and you could search for hours before you spot even a single blemish in the chrome, the line of the body or the paintwork. This car may have been built in a Seat (VW’s) Spanish subsidiary) plant in Martorell near Barcelona, as against a plant in Germany, but you just can’t tell.
Incredibly, I step into the driver’s seat and am greeted by even more of the same. There just aren’t any poor quality bits here, and believe me, I’m looking. Maybe it’ the fact that I expect a proportionate drop in quality along with price, or that I expect to see some cost cutting. But here too, Audi’s technical knock-out is so complete, it’s stunning. Okay, there are bits of equipment missing compared to Audis that cost twice as much, and at times you do miss stuff like the full-fledged MM-I, adaptive dampers and paddle shifts (an optional extra). But other than that, there isn’t really anything of significance deleted. You get the same beautifully crafted steering wheel, where plastic, leather and chrome are all blended aesthetically. The fit and finish on the dashboard, central console and doorpads is equally good, and Audi has chosen the right sort of colours for the Indian market. Even the buttons on the central console are well built. And though the Q3 is compact from the outside, there’s plenty of passenger space. The cabin feels reasonably wide and airy from the front, and the powered front seat kept us comfortable over a day’s driving. Though you don’t get that ‘perched up high’ feeling of driving a full-fledged SUV, the slightly elevated driving position still gives you a super view of the road.
I’m keen to see just how much space there is in the back of the Q3. So I step out, front seat adjusted to my driving position, and get into the rear seat. And there’s plenty of space here too, which for many will be the deal maker. Unlike BMW’s X1 that has a long bonnet and relatively short cabin, this car’s transversely located (east-west) engine allows for better use of space. So legroom at the rear is more than sufficient, the backrest has just the right inclination and support and seat comfort is reasonably good. There should have been more thigh support, you can’t seat three at the rear in total comfort, and headroom could be an issue for really tall passengers. But comfort for two even reasonably large-sized adults is surprisingly good.
Audi says the Q3 must deliver not just the brand, but the brand experience as well. And so, along with the top-ranging 174bhp diesel, you get a seven-speed double-clutch automatic and even four-wheel drive or Quattro. This of course means there’s no shortage of performance on hand. The motor has only a relatively light 1.6 tonnes to push around. So when you squeeze the throttle, acceleration is really strong. There’s a satisfying surge once you cross 2000rpm, there’s considerable punch in the midrange and even throttle response are very good – especially if you put the gearbox in ‘S’ or sport, instead of D. The Q3 easily sprints up to speeds as high as 140kph without you paying much attention. Its ability to cruise at high speeds is genuinely impressive and the gearbox’s ratios are well spread out too. As a result, stepping on the throttle almost anywhere in the power band yields an obedient downshift, followed by a surge in power. Even flat-out is very quick. So, as a far as straight-line performance goes, a double thumbs-up. Yes, the double-clutch gearbox is a bit slow to downshift at times, and that is a bit frustrating. But for anything apart from maximum attack rally-stage-style driving, the DSG gets the job done.
The Q3 also has plenty of straight-line stability and a fair amount of grip. The car-like construction allows Audi’s baby to be light on its feet, the stiffened-up chassis and all-independent sub-frame mounted suspension lends the Q3 plenty of agaility and, all things considered, this should have been a great car to drive. But it isn’t. It’s only average, and that’s primarily down to the anaesthetised steering, which often feels as disconnected as a gaming console. So, while you can carry a fair amount of speed into a corner and drive out accelerating sharply as well, the entire process is fraught with a level of uncertainty. And this is especially true on tight and twisty roads where you are so dependant on that string of information from the steering and a greater connection to the car and the road.
Part of the reason for this is that under the skin, this car is more Volkswagen than Audi. The Q3 is built on the same platform as the new Golf and the Tiguan, and so most of the mechanical bits are shared. Unlike most Audis that use a longitudinally mounted engine and full-time Torsen-based Quattro system, VW’s PQ35 platform uses a pure front-wheel-drive architecture. So you get transversely mounted engines, a primarily front-wheel-drive torque split from the Haldex 4WD system, and more of a focus on efficiency and lower cost than pure driving pleasure.
But does that really matter in the large scheme of things? No, not really. That is refuses to sparkle as a driver’s car will make little difference to most buyers, most of whom will be more interested in other sensible everyday features. Like its practical 170mm of ground clearance, the large 460-litre boot, compact urban-friendly dimensions and masses of feel-good luxury trimmings liberally sprinkled all over this car. What may matter a bit more, however, could be the fact that the diesel motor sounds a bit gravelly at low engine speeds, that ride quality is a bit stiff and skippy and you only get a space saver instead of a full-sized spare wheel.
On the whole however, and as a package, Audi’s Q3 is simply the compact luxury SUV Indian car owners have always been waiting for. Possessing the right blend of practicality, luxury and brand character, the Q3, sensible price willing, has the ability to take the Rs 25-lakh-plus segment by storm. It’s speceed as lavishly as any Audi. It also looks, feels and, for the most part, even drives like one. And that’s exactly what a lot of car buyers will want – 90 percent of the ability at 60 percent the price. Call the booking office early if you want one.
Source: Autocar May 2012