This prototype Audi is a step ahead of its nearest rivals, with sharp lines and quality construction and plenty of power in its five-cylinder engine.
Road Test: 'Wee beastie' Audi Q3 2.5T packs a punch
An engine starts and heads turn. Even the supercool staff at Zurich's Dolder Grand Hotel, a Lord Norman Foster re-thought mix of old and new, momentarily lose their composure. There's a car launch going on, with the Warhols and other artworks of Zurich's talking point hotel joined by a fleet of Audi Q3s.
It's a blue one that's creating the biggest stir, and not simply because one journalist in a hurry takes the most direct route through the entrance rotunda's central water feature. It's the noise. Not the slight clatter of a diesel, or the smooth firing of a four-cylinder turbo petrol unit, but something a bit more guttural, a bit more offbeat and a lot more menacing.
It's a sound that's pure Audi, the unbalanced staccato rumble of a five-cylinder engine. And it's a surprise as nobody's mentioned anything other than four-cylinder engines; not in the information we received before arriving, nor as we decamp from the airport bus into our wheels for the day. Audi's PR man describes it as a "wee beastie", as much a jibe at my Scottish accent as an accurate representation of what we're hearing.
He's right, too; the Q3 is small. Think Q5 but dimensionally challenged and you're not far wrong. Typically, the real detailing externally is focused around the lights. Audi's mastery of LEDs is as yet unmatched among its peers. Front and rear, the lights are a complex mix of reflectors, chrome details, lenses and bulbs. They're dramatic when they're off, but dim the sun a touch and pop the lights on and the Q3 casts a spectacular light show. That's not to say the lights are the headline act or that its overall shape is without appeal, the Q3's lines just don't bring any surprises. Very Audi, very neat, but ultimately rather conservative. The interior, too, is just as you'd expect, which is to say beautifully finished and a tactile treat.
Inside and out, the Q3's sharp lines and quality is in stark contrast to the rather awkward melted look and cheap feeling interior of BMW's X1. The cabin is comfortable without being commodious, but if space in a Audi-badged SUV is what you're after then there's always the Q5 or Q7. Real visual punch in this emerging segment will arrive to shake things up in the shape of Range Rover's Evoque, its overt lines - offered in both three and five-door models - certain to attract those who want to be noticed.
But the Evoque's not here yet, and nothing I've read suggests the British car will have anything to rival this particular Q3. The fastest Evoques will be packing 240hp from a 2.2L turbocharged four-cylinder. Under this Q3's bonnet is a 2.5L five-cylinder with 300hp. All Audi is saying about it, is it's essentially the same engine found under the bonnet of the recent RS 3 Sportback. The output's down by around 10 per cent, for improved driveability and a more sensible torque response. That might be the case, but it's still an engine that produces its best at high revs. It's brisk at low revs; not alarmingly so, but wind on 3,000rpm or more and it becomes a very quick Q3.
Audi's people are keen to point out that this 2.5T Q3 is very much a development machine, a pre-production model that's here for our evaluation. Certainly there's some odd noises from underneath, that engineers will undoubtedly have identified and be working on. Likewise the sometimes snatchy response of the seven-speed S tronic automatic will be refined for production. Hopefully they leave the soundproofing alone, as the rousing note emanating from both under the bonnet and the exhausts is proper old-school Audi.
What's not is the ride and handling. The chassis shows real promise, the ride surprisingly supple for an Audi performance model - though our recent drive of the RS 3 underlined that Audi's days of too-taut suspension might be behind it. There's some feel to the steering too; the response at the thick-rimmed wheel demonstrating accuracy and nicely measured weighting.
No numbers exist, at least not for our consumption, but figure on a 0-100kph time in the sixes, with a top speed in the 250kph region. Prices? We'd be guessing, much like everything else in fact. Audi's not even got around to thinking what it'll badge this model - the bootlid currently wears TFSI quattro badging. RS is highly improbable, it's not raw and involving enough to wear two letters with credibility, but an S alone would fit. There's little externally to differentiate it from its more sensible relatives too, this pre-production model wearing S Line specification.
Some brushed metal addenda inside and out, slightly flared wheel-arches and a bootlid badge would help no end, though admittedly in its current guise it certainly puts the Q into Q3. All bets are off in the upcoming Audi/Range Rover battle.