Audi is really coming on strong these days. The luxury carmaker is helping parent Volkswagen stay afloat as VW struggles to regain its footing in several global markets.
In fact, Audi is the only serious new challenger to the Big Three brands in the luxury auto world. Mercedes, BMW, and Lexus have had the top of the mountain to themselves for decades. If you had asked me five or six years ago, I would have said that no one else stood a chance of cracking their dominance. But Audi is practically a fourth member of the group at this point.
I say “practically” because Audi simply hasn’t been a “tier one” luxury contender for long enough. When folks who would have been BMW or Mercedes buyers are on their third or fourth Audi, then I think it will have vindicated its top-level luxury chops and we’ll be able to say that we have a Big Four. But Audi is the young person’s luxury car, so this process could take a while.
If you’re going to climb to the top of this mountain, you actually need quite a few vehicles in your portfolio these days. The exotic luxury brands, like Ferrari and Porsche, can have fewer. But the Big Three all sell a wide variety of cars, SUVs, and crossovers.
Audi can’t really get away with leaning on VW to fill in any gaps because while VW cars and trucks may be more “premium” than the competition, they aren’t truly luxe.
And therein lies the odd experience I had with my most recent test car, the Audi Q3.
The Q3 is a compact luxury crossover/SUV. My test car was the 2015 model, with a 2.0-liter turbocharged engine and Audi’s “Quattro” all-wheel-drive system (Audi has two variations on the Quattro system, with the Q3’s system serving up better gas mileage while other setups can handle tougher conditions). Colour: Black. Interior: Black leather.
This is a white-hot segment these days. If you’re selling a compact SUV, luxury or not, you are selling cars. I would go so far as to suggest that there’s a structural change happening in at least the US auto market: sedans are on the way out, permanently. People prefer the versatility of small hatchbacks that don’t look like the econo-rides of yesteryear.
The Q3 was almost the ideal vehicle for New York City, my current home but perhaps the worst operating environment for the automobile ever conceived by humanity. Easy to park, easy to zip around buses and taxis, but also stylish, in Audi’s echt-minimalist way, and fairly elegant for such a modest package. I’m not a young man anymore, and the Q3 made me feel like I was in a car that suited my stage in life, without coming off as wannabe plutocratic.
The interior was a bit snug, but it accommodated two adult and two kids without any major difficulties (adding a third kid, however, would have made matters cozy). The cargo area was big enough to swallow enough bags and gear for a trip of a few days. And from the driver’s perspective, Audi has just about the best instrumentation around.
The controls for everything from the heating and air condition to the panoramic moonroof to the cruise control are relatively simple and straightforward. The infotainment system is excellent, with navigation that’s supremely accurate. SiriusXM sounded great on the audio system. The front seats are heated. The cupholders in the back seat are actually retractable. Bluetooth pairing is a snap.
Driving the Q3 was both effortless when necessary and loads of fun when necessary. It’s a comfortable cruiser when the road is long and straight, but a snappy and sport-car-like when the road begins to wind and twist. I enjoyed both on a weekend run from Manhattan to Rhinebeck, NY, about 100 miles up the Hudson River.
I generally don’t much like automatic transmissions that can be slipped into a sort of fake manual mode, allowing you to “shift” gears by popping the shift lever up or down (or, worse, by using paddles behind the steering wheel), but the 6-speed system on the Q3 was the first of this type that I’ve ever really enjoyed.
At $US35,000, the car is a terrific choice, if you’re looking for SUV features in a smaller package. This is a lot of car for the money. The mpgs, for an AWD set of wheels, is acceptable: the government says 23 city/highway combined, but I was getting about 25.
So why did it confuse the heck out of me?
Couldn’t find a comfort zone
Apart from the engine, which with its 200-horsepower output was able to accelerate and pass without difficulty but which could also sound a tad unrefined at times, the Q3 checks of all the necessary luxury boxes. The problem — my problem, of course — was one of scale.
The Q3 can come off as a larger luxury vehicle placed under a shrink ray. Consequently, I vacillated between feeling like I was driving an full-on Audi and feeling like I was driving a squooshed-down Q5 or Q7.
That’s not exactly a novel observation. But my point is that I couldn’t find a pleasing compromise with the Q3. One minute, I felt great. The next, I felt as if I were encased in a well-executed example of wee luxe.
Ultimately, I concluded that the luxe, although diminutive, was authentic. And the car, overall, was splendid. My confusion was entirely my own. It wasn’t fair to hold the Q3 accountable. If you’re in the market for a small luxury sedan, and you live in a part of the world where AWD is useful. the Q3 is definitely worth a look. It could change your mind about small luxury sedans forever — and about how big a car needs to be to qualify as properly luxurious.
NOW WATCH: Executive Life videos
Business Insider Emails & Alerts
Site highlights each day to your inbox.