Audi Q3 : First Drive in Switzerland

Having built its SUV rep on mass and muscle with the Q7, Audi seems to have gone on a diet with the Q3 taking it small and swelte to give the masses admirable muscle for little money, a mantra which will work wonders when it hits Indian roads in mid-2012. Adil Jal Darukhanawala gets behind the wheel to see whether it excels in this role and how potent will it be to entice many away from, say the likes of the BMW X1

So many things come to mind when you first think about baby SUVs and also then relate them to the marques in the VW Group who have such cars in their product portfolios. We have already seen Audi taking a strong solid hold on the senses at the upper echelons of the SUV pecking order with the gargantuan Q7 (no car this big can ever tip toe so daintily yet with such surefootedness is what its rivals are all so baffled about) and then to further rub in the glee, it has its assembled in India Q5 to take care of the middling classes who want a decent sized Q7 look alike without its bulk but with its gravitas more or less intact. Recent VW Group acquisition Porsche (how can it be recent when it was already working within the VW fold for so long you might well ask but that is another story altogether) has the excellent Cayenne in its product range and this is one hell of an SUV, which truly lives up to the Sport moniker in the SUV. Fair dinkum then that it shares its platform with the Q7! As does the Volkswagen Touareg which is also sold in India.

Probably the most genuine mass-market on-off roader from the VW Group in India is the Skoda Yeti and even then this is, well a soft-roader with the decidedly evident visual clues to grant it that off-road cred for the road! Having front wheel drive, a manual ’box and a decently sized diesel engine for affordable money seems to suggest the Yeti ticked all the boxes for its maker but then there still existed a gap for VW to exploit in India. A place where the pricing looked seductive, the segment acquiring great critical mass and there being the runaway success of BMW with the X1 suggested that action was indeed inevitable.

VW might have missed a trick or three by having the vehicle to not just further its cause in the Indian market but also to slot in right there with its impressive Tiguan but all of a sudden Audi seems to have blown this strategy (‘seems’ being the operative perception here) by stating its Q3 is ready for India, BMW, Honda, Toyota and all else! To many it might look so very opportunistic but Audi has a particularly strong SUV programme penciled in and while the heavyweight Q7 and mid-weight Q5 are already well known, the new welter weight champion from Ingolstadt is up and running and coming to India in the second quarter of 2012 but even more appealing is the prospect of the lightweight Q1 due to hit the deck running next year.

Exciting as the news about the Q1 might be, the main story we are focusing on here is the Q3, and in sync with Audi’s top down strategy, the new Q3 clearly has the genes and the visual makeup of its larger siblings but overall this newest Q-ty has the best proportions (Static Shots & Details) of them all which are intended to please as well as to signify what this vehicle is all about. More importantly, this is an Audi for not just Europe and its tight roads and socially conscious car users but also for the burgeoning Asian markets where growing middle class affluence has seen many buyers take pride in choosing their set of wheels.

Given this latter line of thought it was quite clear that the car was unveiled at this year’s Shanghai auto show, just about four years after the wraps being taken off the Cross Coupe concept at Shanghai in 2007. Of course the flamboyant lines of the concept have been smoothened out but the overall packaging is both aggressive yet compact, has the SUV-look in brilliant proportions and it stands well on its big wheels without looking lopsided from any angle. The new single frame corporate face of many a modern day Audi adorns the Q3 as well and with Audi having mastered the art of LED lighting (Static Shots & Details), both in terms of the enhanced illumination as well as the art form of using them to enhance the overall look of the vehicle, this is the car which has so many rivals – cutting across segments and price points – in its cross hairs but more of that later.

The Q3 seamlessly blends SUV stance with a coupe-like superstructure giving the 4390mm long vehicle an elegance that is hard to fault. The Q3 is near about 240mm shorter in length than the Q5 but it is spot on with its VW Tiguan sibling in wheelbase (2603mm) and width (1831mm). Logical this last fact because it shares the floorpan of the Tiguan which itself is based on the Golf but more importantly, Audi has used a fair bit of Vorsprung durch Technik to make itself stand away and above its VW sibling. For one the radical approach to light weight is something which is gathering massive momentum within the Ingolstadt-based manufacturer and “ultra” is how Audi terms its lightweight strategy. The Q3 has a most impressive body structure, which employs lightweight but high tensile steels, tailored blanks and ample use of aluminium to whittle down weight massively. And with the car sporting an uncharacteristically beneficial 0.32 coefficient of drag, this slick lightweight shell helps in more ways than one.

A second techno highlight of the Q3 is further implementation of Audi’s engine downsizing solutions taken to a newer level. There are three engines available as of now and in Henry Ford’s parlance you can have any of them as long as they pack in four cylinders only. Two TFSI petrol (Static Shots & Details) and a singleton TDI diesel are earmarked for the Q3 with a multitude of manual gearboxes, DSG-transmissions and the clever new seven-speed S-tronic gearbox which integrates a mechanism which disengages the clutch when the car is coasting to let the Q3 free roll and thus save on fuel, albeit of course you have to be slotted in the Efficiency mode in the Audi Drive Select system (optional as of now) to make this work.

All 2.0-litre four-cylinder engines feature turbo charging and have direct injection systems with stop/start capability built in as standard. The highly acclaimed TFSI units will come in either a 170bhp / 280Nm spec or the top of the line 211bhp / 300Nm version which will come equipped with Audi’s famed Quattro four-wheel drive system. The singleton TDI at the moment would be the logical choice for India and with 130bhp plus a stonking (for its size of car) 380Nm of torque this could endow the Q3 with terrific propulsion in the Indian scheme of things. This latter unit will also come with just the front wheels to transmit power down to the road via a six-speed manual gearbox and in this guise the Audi boffins state that it would average less than 5.2-litres per 100km, works out close to 20kmpl which for a car of its size, weight and capability is the one sure death knell to the likes of the brilliant but thirsty petrol-engined Honda CR-V, long the champion in this class of premium small size-SUV. A hotter 2.5-litre TFSI engine is in the pipeline but won’t be ready till midway through 2012 though this was available to us to try out when we had the first drive through the sanitized environment around Zurich.

Underpinning the chassis is a sub-frame mounted MacPherson strut front suspension system employing aluminum lower A-arms, stabilizer bars and an anti-roll bar. The set up at the rear is rather more sophisticated with a four-link set-up, again sub-frame mounted to isolate shocks and reduce NVH while yet delivering a well damped ride and delivering great body control and handling. The Q3 features an electro-mechanical steering system with speed-dependent power assist and features a very pleasing 2.7 turns lock to lock operation making for a very maneuverable vehicle. The Drive Select system is truly a most innovative but slightly pricey option but hill hold assist comes as OE across the range.

Audi hasn’t let go of its lead in crafting some of the best interiors in present day automobiles and the Q3 is no exception. It continues the wrap-around dashboard treatment form the new A6 (due for launch later this month or early August) and though there I none of the flash and bombast of many other smaller SUVs masquerading as premium, the understated brilliance of the fittings and the ergonomics present a fantastic environ for the driver and the front passenger. Leg, elbow and head room space for the back benchers is more than adequate and could be termed spacious and ultra-comfortable for its class. Also with the split 60:40 seats there is enough to convert the Q3 into a mountain bike carryall should the need be felt but otherwise the vehicle does have a respectable 460-litre load area.

Getting into the car is easy though some shorties would be challenged when getting behind the wheel. All is forgotten once you punch the starter button and hit the road. The first thing gets you is how effectively easy is the driving position with good all round visibility barring for a slight blind spot at the rear. The steering on the petrol engined model that I drove seemed much too over over-servoed but the one on the diesel was progressive and had great feel. What did impress though was that the Q3’s cabin felt airy and bright and the air con plus the LED interior lighting systems, the power-adjustable front seats and the fine 465 watt 16-speaker surround sound Bose audio system were clear details focusing on creature comfort. These were also however joined by the park assist system, to help soccer moms park safely and surely in tight spaces without damaging egos or bodywork (Static Shots & Details). Audi side assist for safe lane change manoeuvres and active lane assist are other details linked to the steering gear and if that’s not all, at least in Europe where GPS navigation systems have now evolved into very sophisticated yet user friendly bits, the infotainment system can even guide you to hold your speeds to the speed limits enroute while also simultaneously indicating traffic signs. Audi will also make available a Bluetooth system that will help pair with WLAN hotspots to provide full internet connectivity.

On the move though is where the Q3’s wide track and wheelbase help deliver a planted feel, which does wonders for the driver’s psyche. The car rides exceedingly well though in speed controlled Switzerland’s billiard-smooth narrow roads, there was no way once could dare try to put the Q3 through its paces like we would be able to in say Spain, Italy, Germany or India. Having said that, the Q3 steered in typically precise and measured manner and has the wherewithal to be a sporty runner capable of being the one car which would work at both work and play.

So lets get back to what we were debating at the beginning of this feature. Who is the Q3 gunning for, where would it be positioned and what would be its pricing? Well for one, the BMW X1 has set the proverbial German cat among the Oriental spring chickens and at the price it is being sold, there is a rush for prime Bavarian fare. Audi knows that it needs volumes as well to enhance its brand presence on Indian terrain and for that it is working out a product spec that would feature all the bells and whistles (well the most important ones), pack in Quattro drive with diesel propulsion and deliver for under Rs 25 lakhs! And as if to think even more mass-market, the diesel front wheel drive could be a bargain under Rs 21 lakhs! What this might do to grab sales from the X1 is something best answered after about a year, the others who could be collateral damage could be the likes of the Honda CR-V, the Hyundai Santa Fe, the Mitsubishi Outlander, the Pajero even and yes two other high profile and successful models at the moment – the Toyota Fortuner on one hand and the Skoda Yeti on the other! If this is power to the people in the manner it relates to where it counts, we say bring it on Audi!


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