Audi goes full zeitgeist on us and brings in the first 'proper' coupe derivative of a compact premium crossover/SUV in the form of this rakish, christened the Sportback. It aims to inject a dash of extra glamour to what is already a pretty accomplished SUV in Mk2 format, so is the Sportback a welcome addition to the Q3 ranks or a needless evolutionary dead-end?
In the metal
Coupe-SUVs are a contentious issue at the best of times and when you start 'sporting-up' a model that's in the sub-€50,000 bracket and powered exclusively by four-cylinder engines, you run the risk of being accused of being somewhat disingenuous. At the very least. But we're going to stick our colours to the mast now and say we really like the look of the Audi Q3 Sportback. It's just a bit interesting, don't you think? It's 16mm longer (4,500mm), 49mm lower (1,567mm) and 6mm slimmer (1,843mm) than the regular Audi Q3, with black contrast exterior detailing, pronounced swage lines on the sides and big, chunky wheel arches. The overall effect is quite pleasing, especially if finished in a bright colour like Turbo Blue.
Inside, it's the usual Audi excellence up front - namely, the Virtual Cockpit digital instrument cluster, with 10.25- or 12.3-inch screen sizes depending on spec (and a new digital rendering of speed and rpm that we're not 100 per cent convinced by), with a 10.1-inch screen for the MMI infotainment system. As yet, though, the Q3 family doesn't have the lower climate touchscreen in the dash found in larger Audis, so the Sportback makes do with physical controls - this will probably please some people, mind, rather than serving as a technological drawback.
Crucially, Audi claims very little loss of practicality: the Q3 Sportback is a full five-seater, not a four-pew model, and its boot with all chairs occupied stands at the same 530 litres as the regular Q3. It's only when you fold the rear seats down that it loses out because of its sloping rear, although 1,400 litres of outright clobber capacity is only 125 litres down on its SUV source material. Better still, the rear seats are actually useable; average-sized adults will be more than happy back there as it's reasonably spacious and comfortable, albeit headroom is a touch restricted. Nevertheless, if you were asked to sit in the back of a Q3 Sportback for a period of time, you'd be OK with it.
Drivetrains are almost carry-over from the Q3 range, with one exception. At launch, the 35 TFSI, 45 TFSI and 35 TDI will be on offer, with a 40 TDI joining soon after. If none of the above makes any sense, that means 150hp in either of the 35s, 190hp in the 40 and 230hp in the 45. Having driven the 35 TDI and the 45 TFSI, we can say the former is pretty 'meh' and doesn't make a lot of the Sportback's athletic profile, while the latter is comfortably the one to go for if you're a keen driver - it feels easily the most lively of the launch phalanx, sounds the best too and offers up surprisingly spry handling.
Nevertheless, the big news here is the 35 TFSI. It's the same 1.5-litre Evo four-cylinder engine as found in a Q3 35 TFSI, but here it is now augmented by 48-volt mild hybrid technology (making it a Mild Hybrid Electric Vehicle, or MHEV). This couples up to the Cylinder-on-Demand (CoD) tech of this engine anyway to make it further sip fuel, although homologation issues mean no fully confirmed performance or eco-stats for the 35 TFSI are available at the time of writing. Nevertheless, the MHEV tech on the Q3 Sportback can recover up to 12kW of power during deceleration via a belt-alternator starter (BAS), which it feeds into a lithium-ion battery. It'll coast off the throttle anywhere between 40- and 160km/h, it'll engage its stop-start function below 22km/h and, according to Audi, it will save up to 0.4 litres/100km of fuel.
Extrapolating from the Q3 35 TFSI's figure of 4.9 litres/100km (57.6mpg), that would mean more like 4.5 litres/100km (62.8mpg), although it's not clear how much the MHEV equipment adds to the kerb weight of the Sportback. We'd also expect its performance to be on a par with the Q3 35 TFSI (207km/h, 0-100km/h in 9.2 seconds), but the torque-infill of the MHEV system might trim a few tenths from the acceleration stats.
Whatever the final ratified numbers, though, the Q3 Sportback 35 TFSI is precisely what you expect of it: urbane, ridiculously refined, possibly a bit uninvolving to steer. Truth be told, we couldn't discern any sharper edge to the way the Q3 Sportback handles when compared to its regular stablemate, despite the fitment of Sport suspension across the whole line-up, but as the Q3 Mk2 is much better for handling than its predecessor, this isn't such a bad thing. The steering is light but accurate, the grip levels high and the body control strong, which means you can get the Sportback into a decent clip. Albeit not one that's going to have you grinning from ear to ear; you'll also find the two-stage recuperative brakes a bit wooden, needing a hefty prod of the middle pedal to get an onrushing Sportback 35 TFSI to slow down in a meaningful fashion.
The Q3 MHEV does manage to overcome some of this drivetrain's low-revs hesitancy when it doesn't have any 48-volt stuff fitted to it, but to call it 'quick' would be stretching the point somewhat. It stays smooth and unruffled around much of the rev range, and feels admirably brisk on part-throttle openings, but thrashing the nuts off it doesn't really elicit a huge upsurge in accelerative force. Similarly, the Volkswagen Group's DSG gearboxes seem to have gone all doolally in the wake of the latest emissions legislation, as they now do their damnedest to get into the highest possible gear at the earliest possible opportunity - even in Sport mode. As a result, they're often way up in the top ratios when you want them down near the bottom, and so the seven-speed twin-clutch auto felt particularly dozy in this 35 TFSI and the 35 TDI also, only really livening up when subjected to the 230hp/350Nm punch of the 45 TFSI engine. You'll therefore need to use manual mode in the 35 TFSI to counteract the dim-witted responses of the DSG, although you'll then have to deal with small and plasticky paddle shifts on the wheel as the Volkswagen Group continues to insist on installing its sequential gear lever gates 'back-to-front' - totally counterintuitively, we might add.
What the Q3 Sportback is, however, is almost impossibly cultured and suave. The ride quality on fixed-rate springs and dampers, controlling 19-inch alloys, is truly remarkable; the days of hard-riding Audis seem to, finally, be behind us, as the Sportback simply oozes along even badly rutted surfaces. Similarly, the inhibition of exterior noise contributors is authoritatively oppressive, because you'll hear precious little of any of what the engine, tyres nor aerodynamics are up to, even when you're travelling at significant speed. So for the kind of SUV-y things this not-quite-a-full-SUV needs to do, it's spot on the money.
What you get for your money
Prices and specifications for Ireland are yet to be confirmed, but a Q3 35 TFSI SE starts at €38,600. Given the more-aspirational Sportback is not likely to be sold in SE spec, instead starting at Sport and progressing to S line, and also given that coupe-SUVs normally command a premium over their slightly-more-practical siblings, we'd be very surprised if the Sportback dips below anything like €42,000. Not cheap, therefore, although only one of the rivals listed below starts from less than €40,000...
The Audi Q3 Sportback might not be the most engaging thing you'll ever drive (even in the buttoned-down world of crossovers and SUVs), but it's broadly a very pleasant thing to travel in. All the usual great Q3 Mk2 manners have been preserved, only in a body that looks a bit more daring and which doesn't sacrifice much in the way of practicality. Considering that, and the four rings on the prow and boot lid, it's not hard to imagine the Q3 Sportback is going to be a big success for Audi.