Audi was a little late to the crossover party, but its been doing some catching up for lost time in recent years. Its first offering -- the seven-passenger Volkswagen Touareg-based Q7 -- arrived in 2005. Three years later came the arrival of the five-seat Q5. Now, three years after the launch of the Q5 comes the even-smaller 2012 Q3. However, this one might not be coming to America -- Audi's top suits apparently don't think its big enough for Yankee tastes. During our recent drive, we were told by the project chief that it wasn't built to meet U.S. regulations and that there are no plans for export.
But when pushed, he conceded the all-new Q3 could be altered for U.S. sale without too much effort. If the similarly sized BMW X1 makes it here, we bet Audi will be watching its reception very closely.
Because it is built around a transverse AWD drivetrain, the Q3 doesn't suffer too much in cabin accommodation compared to the larger Q5 with its longitudinally mounted engine. The Q3's European prices are about 15 percent cheaper than the Q5, with matched spec and engine.
In fact, the Q3's wheelbase and much of its basic suspension hardware are shared with the VW Tiguan, a machine deemed to be of interest to U.S. buyers. What's that about being too small again?
Just to make things a little more interesting, in addition to the very fine 211 horsepower 2.0 TFSi quattro dual-clutch model, we also sampled a couple of other engines that might do nicely in the U.S. and as of now have no direct competition.
The first short but intriguing squirt was on some mountain roads in a prototype Q3 powered by a mildly detuned, 300-hp version of the five-cylinder turbo out of the TT RS. What a hoot that turned out to be, with heaps of readily accessible power and an engine note to make you smirk.
We also sampled a front-drive Q3 with Audi's 140-hp diesel, which was no slug and went about its business in relative quiet. In the U.S. it could be the new green SUV poster child. Audi has been careful to keep its weight under control, using aluminum for the hood and tailgate, for example, which should help boost fuel economy across the range.
While it may be too small for the U.S., the Q3 certainly doesn't look small. Its up-front confidence and full-on body detailing to the body commands your field of vision more than adequately for a shrimp of a crossover.
The Q3's chiseled, loudmouth front grille is flanked by a pair of eyes with the brand's trademark LED light pipes as mascara. Out back the theme continues with red taillamps, a wraparound tailgate, and a strongly sloped rear windshield.
Inside, Audi's cabin materials show no signs of cheapening. The real aluminum knurled knobs for the A/C temperature feel more finely engineered than those in a Rolls-Royce. The seats are solid (in a good way), and the instruments and ergonomics are as near faultlessly clear as you can find. An optional interior light package adds more LED flavor to the borders of the speaker grilles and cupholders.
Once it's underway, there are no arguments with the Q3's heart-of-market 211-hp turbo four. All the Q3's engines are quieter and smoother than they are in other transverse Audis. The turbocharger puts its shoulder to the wheel right through the working rev range, and the twin-clutch unit backs it up with prompt shifts, either in the auto range or when you call for them on the little paddles.
The torque is good for an SUV, and its instant response and hi-revving exuberance are quite sporting. When heading into a second- or third-gear corner with the revs up, then lifting off the throttle a bit, it doesn't understeer badly for a crossover, and it responds to the torque reversal by tucking in the nose and neatly going neutral. But you aren't quite having the fun you ought to because you can't sense the front tire grip -- it's the dead hand of the Q3's electronic power steering at work.
There's an optional S-line chassis with stuffer springs, but it results in a borderline uncomfortable ride without a worthwhile handling benefit. Another option is Audi's adaptive damping system, which brings a small but worthwhile improvement to the standard setup.
At highway speeds, all's well. The aforementioned engine quietness, plus a relative absence of tire noise thanks to comparatively tall sidewalls, make this seem like a quieter cruiser than Audi's sport sedans and hatchbacks.
Speaking of hatchbacks, it's worth noting the relationship with next year's A3, and the A3 sedan it will spawn -- previewed by a concept car at the Geneva auto salon in the spring. While the new A3 hatch will be the first car to use the VW Group's MQB platform, the Q3 actually uses the old PQ35 platform, as do the present A3 and VW Golf. That's because versions of the MQB with off-road suspension are some years away, while the robust version of the PQ35 chassis was already fully developed for the current Tiguan.
So while the Q3 employs design cues from the next-generation Audis and has the newest driver assist and sat nav features, underneath it's a little old hat. Still, most of the time you don't notice the gray hairs...
| 2012 Audi Q3 |
| Base price || N/A |
| Price as tested || N/A |
| Vehicle layout || Front engine, FWD/AWD, 4-pass, 4-door SUV |
| Engines || 2.0L/170-211-hp/207-221lb-ft DOHC 16-valve turbocharged I-4; |
2.0L/140-170-hp/236-280lb-ft turbodiesel I-4
| Transmissions || 6-speed manual, or 7-speed twin-clutch auto |
| Curb weight || 3300-3500 lb (mfr) |
| Wheelbase || 102.5 in |
| Length x width x height || 172.6 x 72.1 x 63.3 in |
| 0-62 mph || 6.9-9.9 sec (mfr) |
| EPA city/hwy fuel econ || N/A mpg |
| On sale in U.S. || Unlikely |