AUTOCAR COMPARISON TEST
Softy-roaders, hard decision
You would think that shrinking an Suv would diminish its appeal. Not true, these scaled-down Suvs are better suited to our conditions. Our test tells you which one is the best
For something that spends most of its life in crowded urban environments, the full-size luxury SUV is becoming increasingly impractical. Manoeuvring its considerable girth and supertanker length on increasingly congested roads in an exercise in furrowed brows and extreme concentration; battling it out with rickshaws is best left to the chauffeur.
Which is exactly where the compact luxury SUV comes in, notably the BMW X3 and the Audio Q5. Smaller, but no less desirable, the Q5 and the X3 benefit from the reduced footprint of a regular saloon and the high seating position of an SUV. For the size, both seem overpriced, and maybe not exactly what your ego demands, but still are great cars to own and drive – as we found out. The X3 is not new. It’s been in India for more than a year, but didn’t have a diesel option for most of this time, and so, remained anonymous. Still, it’s interesting to note that X3 sales have grown since the launch of the diesel. The Q5 is new and is the X3’s only competition at present. Both have high-powered petrol options on offers, but we’re testing the more relevant BMW X3 2.0 diesel and the Audi Q5 3.0 TDI (the only diesel options available here). The Q5 is more expensive, but Audi hoes the extra equipment offered will offset the higher list price. Our aim is simple –find our which one we would take home.
Despite looking very much like a 75 per cent scale of their full-size brothers, the Q5 and the X3 share nothing with the Q7 and the X5. Both are based on car platforms – the new A4’s modular chassis for the Q5 and the previous-generation E46 3-seiries chassis for the X3-it’s fitting as both are more in tune with on-road performance than Humvee-challengine antics. There are no ladder frame chassis or dedicated four-wheel-drive transfer cases and the suspension layout is more corner-carver than scenery-climber. Neither use fancy air suspension systems; they rely on steel springs and are fully independent at each corner.
Part of the reason they snap at sports cars’ heels on mountain roads is because they both come with full-time four-wheel-drive systems (which, as a default, distribute power with a 60 per cent rear bias) and chassis that are stiffer than the average English upper lip. The only concession they make for off roading is the hill descent control and an off-road ESP setting, not to mention decent ground clearance. They have little extra technology to help should their owners wish to head off into the wild which few will, of course. The Q5 does have an option of adjustable damper control and variable-ratio steering in other markets, but Audi isn’t offering it in India as yet.
The Q5 is longer, wider and has a longer wheelbase than the BMW, Thanks to the wider stance and the higher bonnet, the Q5 looks a lot brawnier too. This is a crucial victory for the Audi because in this class, perceived size matters. The Q5 also has the bigger boot.
Despite being compact, both tip the scales on the wrong side of 1.5 tonnes. The Q5 weights 1,865kg while the BMW is a mere 40kg lighter. Both come with space saver spare wheels and thankfully, no run-flats.
From the moment you grip the nicely sculpted wheel of the Q5, you know the Audi has the BMW’s cabin beat by a considerable margin. The dashboard design is a lot more interesting, the red backlit buttons look like an aircraft cabin at night and, barring a few bits of patchy plastic, it is a cabin high on quality and expensive feel. It’s well specced too – you get a reverse camera, a 14-speaker Bang & Olufsen audio system, Audi’s MMI system and fully powered seats with seat memory.
However, we didn’t like the optional panoramic sunroof – good as it is on a full moon night, it’s the reason the car gets unbearably hot when parked. The air-con takes longer to cool the cabin too. Save yourself some money and perspiration – leave this box unchecked.
That said, the cabin is impressively spacious, with plenty of leg-and headroom for four adults, five at a push (the high and wide centre tunnel means the rear centre passenger has to sit with his legs splayed). The rear seats are comfortable enough to ensure longer journeys will pass without complaint. The deep 540-litre load bay is big and in tune with its activity vehicle tag; the boot has a useful selection of hooks, power sockets and fastenings to keep things tied down. The seats are more comfy than the BMW’s and the cushioning is almost perfect. However, people of bigger build might find the Audi’s seat contours a bit too narrow.
In contrast, the BMW’s seats are wider and have better under-thigh support, especially at the rear. Again, the centre tunnel means the car is most comfortable as a four-seater. The seating position is almost-perfect though – high enough to provide the driver a clear view ahead, yet low enough that you feel in touch with the road. Accommodation is surprisingly generous too. We couldn’t fault the build quality of the X3’s interiors. However, the dashboard design is boring and there’s just too much black lifted from the palette. Fit and finish may be a notch above the Audi’s and the switches may work with more feel, but you won’t like the hard, shiny finish of the centre console. Plastics aside, the interior is a fine place to be. The controls work with reassuring solidity but we found the buttons on the centre console a tad too small.
ENGINE, GEARBOX & PERFORMANCE
The cars may be relatively new in India, but the engines aren’t. The Q5’s 3.0-litre V6 is from the Q7 and the X3’s 2.0-litre in-line four is from the BMW 320d. The Q5’s 240bhp engine is powerful and quiet, mated a seven-speed dual-clutch S-tronic transmission (DSG by another name). It’s the first time the seven-speed twin-clutcher has been fitted to a longitudinal engine and it’s as clinically efficient, if a little slow to kick-down. The Q5 is blisteringly fast for a vehicle of this size. Flat-out, its 63bhp advantage and considerably shorter gearing will, unsurprisingly, leave the X3 choking on its dust. It gets to 100kph a full 1.6 seconds faster than the X3.
Which isn’t to say that the X3’s performance is lacking, because it takes just 9.2 seconds to 100kph and will hit 205kph flat-out - impressive for a relatively heavy four-wheel drive propelled by a small, economical diesel engine. In town, both engines are well suited to the cut and thrust of the traffic wars. However, the BMW’s six-speed auto has none of that annoying delay in kick-down that the Q5 has, making it a tad easier to slot into gaps.
Out on the highway, the Audio has a clear advantage. The extra power helps in overtaking, and it is easier to maintain higher cruising speeds, Its super-tall seventh gear means the engine is spinning at a lazy 1600rpm at 100kph. In fact this is apparent from the moment you start the engine. At idle, it’s almost impossible to tell if the V6 is running. The engine is smooth, refined and a lot more relaxed then the BMW’s relatively thrummy four-cylinder unit. It’s on open roads that you really wish BMW India would offer the X3 3.0-litre diesel that it has on sale elsewhere on earth.
The Audi’s least endearing characteristic shows up the first time you go into a corner. You’ll find the gearbox is slow-witted initially. It rarely selects the right gear for powering out of corners and by the time the ‘box shifts down, the moment is long gone. This is true even in Sport mode and frantically tugging at the paddleshifts is pointless. However, once past this initial lethargy, the DSG ‘box is quick and snaps up gears in quick succession.
RIDE & HANDLING
With its taller profile tyres, we expected the Audi to trounce the X3 over bad roads. It doesn’t. The problem is small-to medium-sized intrusions. The combination of stiff spring rates and damper settings doesn’t allow enough suppleness over less extreme bumps. As a result, the Audi’s ride is always fidgety over town roads. It gets better at speed, but never disappears-there’s a hint of stiffness even at speeds that normally suit stiff suspension setups. In comparison, the X3 feels better damped. Yes, it is a tad stiff at low speeds, but not as bad as the Q5. The downside is an unsettling rebound motion from the rear over undulating roads at higher speeds.
The Q5 turns with little body roll and changes direction without protest. It steers accurately, too, although with a curious mix of weight. Usually it’s too heavy quite quickly off-centre. There’s fantastic grip from the four-wheel-drive system and, if it weren’t for the BMW, we would even call it nimble.
The X3 handles like a BMW should. The outgoing 3-series chassis, on which the X3 sits, responds positively to enthusiastic driving. Grip is outstanding from the Pirelli Scorpion tyres, and the X3’s hydraulic steering rack, though almost completely unassisted at parking pace, is amazingly accurate and confidence-inspiring, especially at high speed.
Of the two, it’s the Q5 that suppresses wind, road and tyre noise better than the X3.
No surprises here, With an engine that is exactly 972cc larger than the X3’s, the Q5 is the thirstier one. In town we got 8.0kpl against the X3’s 9.3kpl. On the highway, despite the Audi’s extra gear, the gap still remains wide open. It gave us 11.1kpl against the X3’s 12.5kpl.
We fell in love with the X3 2.0d when we tested it a couple of months ago. It had just the right blend of ground clearance, space, size and sporty dynamics for our conditions. This time around too, a lot of that admiration has been carried over. The BMW’s cabin has the more solid build and its handling is in a class of its own. The overall ride is better too.
But it’s the Q5 that has won our hearts this time. Sure, it isn’t perfect, not with the gearbox that does a ‘wait-a-bit’ when you want a downshift, and a ride that is always fidgety on our uneven rods. However, there’s plenty of good stuff too. The performance is much stronger, the V6 is one of the most refined diesels we’ve tested, and the Audi isn’t too far off from the BMW on your favourite mountain road. The cabin is beautifully detailed, you get a seven-speed DSG ‘box and in many ways, this feels like a scaled-down Q7, greatly enhancing its appeal.Yes it’s more expensive than the X3 but for what you get, we thinks it’s well worth the extra bit.