NASHVILLE, Tennessee—The previous-gen Audi Q3 wasn’t exactly our favorite subcompact SUV. For one thing, it suffered from old age even when new, as it had already been on sale elsewhere for four years when it first came to the U.S. in 2015. We can deal with a dated design from Audi—the first-gen Q3 looked good then and now—but with its cramped back seat, paltry cargo area, and not-so-great fuel economy, we questioned whether buyers wouldn’t be better off with a good compact hatch like the Mazda3.
The new Q3 goes out of its way to address nearly all of our concerns. For one thing, it’s bigger in all dimensions, being 3.8 inches longer (with a 3.0-inch wheelbase stretch to ensure that back seaters are the primary beneficiaries), 0.7 inch wider, and 1.5 inches taller.
There are no surprises in the styling, at least not on the outside. Like other Audi models, the Q3 gets more sharply-defined creases and a bigger grille. A slightly faster final pillar compared to the Q5 and Q7 give it a youthful edge. (Audi recently announced an even-swoopier Q3 Sportback, but it won’t be coming to the U.S. Boo, hiss.) The overall effect is to throw off the cartoony roundness that afflicts most small SUVs (including the old Q3), and we’d dare say this is one of the better-looking entries in the segment.
Inside, the Q3 is like an album of Audi’s greatest hits. Its digital instrument cluster is now standard, with Audi’s Virtual Cockpit—which, among other tricks, turns the display into a photorealistic moving map—as an option. Also standard is a high-resolution center touchscreen integrated into a blacked-out panel. The three-dial climate controls are a carryover from the old car, and that’s a good thing; they’re way easier to use than the HVAC touch panel in Audi’s biggest models, though not quite as nifty as the toggles in the Q5 and A4.
The center stack features four USB ports (one USB-C) and space for large mobile phones. Techy options include a wireless phone charger, handwriting recognition on the touchscreen, and a powerful Bang & Olufsen stereo. A panoramic sunroof is standard, as are real leather seating surfaces, as opposed to the vinyl found in most of the Q3’s luxury-branded competitors.
Audi has gotten a bit more daring when it comes to interior trim. The orange synthetic-suede strip that runs along the dashboard is thankfully optional; we doubt it will be to everyone’s taste. But there’s more brushed-chrome trim and dark wood than before, both of which help chase away the gloom of an all-black dashboard. The Q3 is a master class in how a cabin can be nicely adorned without losing elegance or functionality. Are you paying attention, Lexus?
The new Q3 is also more practical. The cargo area grows by a useful two cubic feet, with a movable floor that allows the owner to choose between max space and a loading floor level with the rear bumper—all while leaving room for an honest-to-goodness spare tire (albeit of the compact variety). An adjustable rear seat allows some flexibility between cargo and passengers. Said rear-seat passengers get more space in all dimensions, including a notable five-inch increase in legroom, so the back seat is now habitable, if still a bit tight.
So far, it all sounds—and is—rather good, so where does the Q3 get it wrong? Surprisingly, it’s the powertrain.
The Q3 once again offers a two-liter turbocharged four, now up 28 horsepower (to 228) and 51 lb-ft (to 258). Audi claims a zero-to-60 time of seven seconds flat, 1.2 seconds faster than the old Q3. Quattro all-wheel drive is standard, which is worthy of note, as you’ll pay extra for AWD on competing SUVs from BMW, Mercedes, and Volvo, and you can’t get it at all on Lexus’s UX unless you opt for the hybrid.
The bad actor here is the eight-speed conventional automatic transmission, which does its job so ineptly that we questioned whether the engineers hadn’t forgotten to finalize its calibration. (Audi assured us we were driving the final production tune.) It takes forever to respond to part-throttle downshifts, and one never knows exactly how much pedal travel is required to get the acceleration one needs—it feels as if some prankster programmed a random-number generator into the throttle algorithm. Selecting Dynamic mode improves the transmission’s behavior slightly but never to the point where it feels acceptably predictable and smooth.
There’s also a lot of turbo lag off the line, a real problem if, say, you need to make a quick left turn in front of oncoming traffic. Another journalist attempted to chalk this up as a flaw of small-displacement turbo engines, but 2.0-liters in a compact SUV is not small, and a torque-converter transmission as used here (versus a dual-clutch unit, as used in the A3) should help alleviate this problem. It doesn’t.
Even the upshift quality is poor. Audi was, if we recall correctly, one of the first automakers to reduce throttle during upshifts in an effort to smooth acceleration, which worked and still works quite nicely with their larger-displacement engines. But in the Q3, it has the opposite effect: If the driver is even slightly deliberate with the accelerator pedal, the power cut before the shift is quite abrupt, and when power returns, it does so with a jolt. We expect more decorum from a luxury-branded car.
We’re pretty sure we know what the culprit is: The Q3 is likely programmed for maximum fuel economy, an acknowledged weak point of the old Q3. The punchline is that the new Q3’s EPA estimates are worse than the old car’s: 19 mpg city and 27 mpg highway, down 1 mpg across the board. (At least the Q3 has a big tank—15.9 gallons—and burns regular rather than premium.)
The rest of the driving experience is just okay. We can count on good grip and commendable cornering poise from all-wheel-drive Audis, and the Q3 is no exception, but the steering feels overly light and rather lazy on turn-in. We likened the outgoing Q3 to a Volkswagen GTI, but the new one seems to have disdain for driving fast in the curves. It’ll do it if it must, but only while wincing.
If the Q3 has a saving grace—besides its chiseled good looks—it’s one of Audi’s oft-overlooked strengths, which is value for money. The 2019 Q3 starts at $35,695, which is a grand or so higher than most of its entry-level competitors. But once you factor in all the standard equipment—all-wheel-drive, real leather upholstery, heated seats, a panoramic sunroof, power tailgate, and Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, just to name a few—the Q3 makes Audi the Crazy Eddie of small-SUV purveyors. There are plenty of optional goodies, including full-stop adaptive cruise control and self-parking, and Q3 pricing remains competitive even as you load on the extras.
Still, the Q3’s poorly calibrated powertrain is a sticking point for us. We’re sure a lot of reviewers will dismiss the Q3’s driveline issues by saying “but the average Q3 buyer won’t care.” We call BS: While most drivers can learn to live with indifferent handling, a lumpy transmission is an annoyance every day you drive the car.
Shame, because the Q3 is so close to greatness: It’s attractive, comfortable, nicely sized, and as German luxury SUVs go, a real bargain. Retune the transmission, Audi, and maybe sharpen up the steering a bit, and we’ll be fans—but until that happens, we question whether buyers might not be better served by a nicely-equipped Mazda CX-5.
2019 Audi Q3 Specifications
|ENGINE||2.0L turbocharged DOHC 16-valve I-4; 228 hp @ 5,000–6,700 rpm, 258 lb-ft @ 1,700–4,400 rpm|
|LAYOUT||4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, AWD SUV|
|EPA MILEAGE||22 mpg (combined)|
|L x W x H||176.6 x 72.8 x 64.1 in|
|0–60 MPH||7.0 sec (est.)|
|TOP SPEED||130 mph|