Welcome to Critic's Notebook, a quick and off-the-cuff collection of impressions, jottings, and marginalia on whatever The Drive writers happen to be driving. Today's edition: The Audi A3 Sportback e-tron.
Auto journalists love to criticize sport-utility vehicles as impractical and irrational, at least compared to station wagons and minivans. But that's just us trying to justify our preference for more fun-to-drive vehicles. In many ways, SUVs—and especially car-based CUVs—are more practical. They sit higher, making them easier to clamber into and out of. And they can handle rougher roads than cars can—which, in a place with awful roads like New York City, means fewer jaw-clenching moments driving over potholes, speed bumps, or other obstacles.
The 2016 Audi Q3 is a perfect illustration of why John and Jane Q. Public like these sorts of vehicles. There's a high seating position, an H-point ideally situated for easy entry (i.e. not having to step up or plop down), all-wheel-drive, and enough ground clearance to easily handle dirt roads and potholes. Yet it’s also small enough to park neatly on a city street, and even manages to rack up some pretty decent fuel economy figures. And all this in spite of being a five-year-old design built on a chassis that dates back to the early 2000s.
It still looks pretty good, too, especially from the outside. The chunky, modern front fascia may be the best expression of the modern Audi front end—not as generic as the A3/4/6/8, as harshly male-model angular as the R8 and Q7, nor as plump as the Q5. But that chunky design comes with some downsides: The aggressive hatch and high belt lines mean the view out the rear end is severely compromised; if not for the rear-view camera, parking would take a whole lot of guesswork and probably result in a whole lot of scraped bumpers.
Hop in, and the Q3's age starts to show. Not in a glaringly obvious way, but anyone who's spent some time hopping into Audis (or VWs, for that matter) will quickly realize this one's roots go way back. The MMI controller is a tiny knob on the dashboard instead of the usual click wheel by the shifter, the flip-up screen looks bulky and tacked-on, and there's no USB port—just that dumb proprietary jack every German car built between 2006 and 2013 seems to have.
Move back past the B-pillar, and the Q3's diminutive proportions start to work against it. The rear seat isn't large, even by compact car standards; don't plan on wedging anyone you like back there, unless those people are frequently compared to Tyrion Lannister. And the cargo bay's efficacy is severely compromised by the rear end's sharp angles. With the cover on to keep the contents out of sight, the trunk is barely big enough for a couples' weekend in the Poconos.
On the road, the weight the chassis gained in its transition from sixth-generation Golf to Audi sport-ute makes itself apparent any time the turbocharged four is asked for a little bit of pep—especially when trying to hustle the car up a hill. It wouldn’t be a problem if not for the transmission’s tendency to drop into its higher gears too quickly, and then hold them a little too long before downshifting. Sport mode makes up for it, but make sure you shift back to D on the highway, otherwise it’ll buzz along in 5th, and you’ll be wasting gas.
Once it builds up a nice head of speed, though, the Q3 turns out to be a playful companion on a winding back road, hurtling through turns with less body roll than the anemic engine might lead you to believe. And the ride is a treat, striking a Goldilocks balance between wallowy and harsh that SUV makers the world over should strive to emulate.
Bottom line: while the Q3 offers plenty of strengths, it’s long in the tooth, and its main competitors—the BWW X1, Mercedes-Benz GLA-Class, and Lincoln MK…whatever—are far fresher. If you really loved the last-gen GTI but need a bit more ground clearance and AWD, buy one of these. Otherwise, unless you can get a swingin’ deal on a Q3, better hold off for the upcoming Audi Q2.
2016 Audi Q3 quattro Prestige
Powertrain: 2.0-liter, 200-horsepower turbocharged I4; six-speed automatic
0-60 mph: 7.8 seconds
Price (as tested): $40,700 ($40,700)
MPG: 20 city, 29 highway
Best Old-School Feature: Rotary climate control knobs