Good: high quality, smooth controls, classy image
Not so good: better with quattro four-wheel drive, but too expensive
There aren't many truly premium cars in the compact SUV sector, but we reckon it's due for a little reinvigoration. A brand new BMW X1 is on the way, Mercedes-Benz has the GLA and rumours suggest that Land Rover is planning something too. They're all gunning for one of the success stories of the sector, the Audi Q3.
We drove the facelifted Q3 back in November and the car arrived in Ireland well ahead of the 152 plate. Visually, little has changed on the 'new' model, this facelift certainly falling into the refresh camp in the replace/refresh mid-life update scale. In fact, approach the new car from the rear and unless the optional LED lights with their Knight Rider-esque 'dynamic turn signals' have been specified you would be hard pushed to tell the 2015 Q3 from the 2011 version. Thankfully things are much clearer around the front - Xenon headlights are now standard and the large 'singleframe' grille from the new Audi Q7 makes an appearance. This works on the largest member of the Q family but to these eyes is less successful on the smallest. It visually ages the Q3 and does it no favours against stylish rivals like the Range Rover Evoque and Mercedes-Benz GLA, both of which retain a more timeless, more handsome front end.
The interior is also a continuation of what Q3 owners have come to expect, both the good and the bad points. The fit and finish is, as one would expect from Audi, exemplary, though this cabin is dating. The MMI system is still dashboard rather than centre console mounted meaning the controls can be tricky to operate without taking your eyes off the road. The small screen that springs forth from the dashboard is shown up by the smooth gliding action of the one fitted to the latest Audi A3 (not to mention the glorious unit fitted to the TT) and the high transmission tunnel means you will get no thanks from whoever is forced to take the middle perch in the back seat.
However, despite its poor positioning, Audi's MMI interface is still the infotainment system to have with an ease of operation other manufacturers can only hope for, the boot is a generous 420 litres and the standard specification of Xenon headlights, front and rear parking sensors, cruise control, multi-function leather steering wheel and electric lumbar support on entry level SE models is generous.
Enough about the cosmetic stuff though; as with most updates recently the big changes made to the Q3 are mechanical - extending to revised engines that are more efficient that before, the introduction of the 1.4-litre TFSI cylinder-on-demand unit from the Volkswagen Golf and a revision of the steering and suspension systems smooth off the rough edges of before and leave the Q3's handling closer to that of a hatchback than an SUV. That's a good thing.
With the ability to shut down two of its four cylinders when not required, thereby using as little as 5.5 litres/100km (51.3mpg), that 1.4-litre TFSI model should not be overlooked, but the truth is that it likely will be as Irish buyers are still firmly rooted in the diesel camp. On that front the diesel engines have received a power hike, yet with lower emissions than before. Well two of them have; the 120hp entry level option remains unchanged but the 140hp version has been boosted to 150hp while the 177hp range topper was replaced by a 184hp engine with emissions dropping by as much as 27g/km in the top-selling mid-power version driven here.
And when you look at the figures you can see why the (now) 150hp version of the 2.0-litre TDI engine is so popular; 119g/km equates to €200 a year to tax, 4.6 litres/100km (61.4mpg) is impressive whatever way you cut it and a €38,950 on-the-road price tag for an SE version with six-speed manual gearbox makes for strong pricing in what is an increasingly competitive sector. The BMW X1 and even Mercedes-Benz GLA may have the Q3 trumped in the handling stakes unless you opt for an expensive quattro four-wheel drive system (add €2,200 to the purchase price), but the Q3 is ultimately an urban car, an area in which front-wheel drive excels and you can forgive the steering being overly assisted and lacking ultimate feel. The truth is, buyers of cars like this are more concerned with comfort and practicality and on these counts the Q3 scores well, the changes to the suspension shining through - until you order a car with S line suspension and undo the engineers' hard work.
The 2015 Audi Q3 may be fundamentally unchanged but the updates that have been made are noticeable ones that will allow the baby SUV to compete against new rivals from the likes of Mercedes-Benz and updated ones from BMW.