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Compact soft-roaders are the new battleground for luxury brands eager to capitalise on a downsizing trend, as city dwellers switch from traditional sedans and hatches to a genre that promises greater functionality, lots of good gear and a slightly loftier view of the world - all wrapped in stylish packages.
These days the smaller SUVS are an easier choice to make; they are less threatening than their bigger siblings, safer in most respects, offer way better fuel economy and ultimately they're not as antisocial.
They also offer the vague promise of an off-road capability, even though these vehicles rarely muddy their tyres.
Audi Q3 v BMW X1 v Range Rover Evoque
Audi's new Q3 soft-roader takes on the BMW X1 and Range Rover Evoque.
There is also an element of brand snobbery involved.
The BMW X1, Audi Q3 and Range Rover Evoque - all with sub-$55,000 price tags until loaded with options - are the three European five-seat soft-roaders that dominate the compact luxury SUV segment having found favour, principally, with urban professionals who live in the right postcodes.
We put examples of the three - with turbocharged diesel engines and all-wheel-drive systems - to the test.
Audi Q3 2.0 TDI Quattro
The newest of the three, the Q3, was launched here a few months ago with a range of petrol and diesel engines and high hopes of targeting car buyers from mainstream brands wishing to move up.
The noise suppression is excellent without any intrusive diesel engine clatter. Occupants are cocooned from any obvious road and engine noise. It has much, though not all, of the refinement of its more expensive siblings.
The engine and seven-speed transmission work together well in most instances, though the twin-clutch gearbox - called S-Tronic in Audi speak - doesn't react instantly to the throttle at standstill. On the move it changes gears swiftly and cleanly in a largely unobtrusive manner, coming to notice only when it grabs a lower gear (with the revs rising) on descents.
The 130kW engine is a pearler with a driveability and immediate response its rivals can't get near to matching. Using Drive's usual slightly uphill piece of road, the Q3 did the zero-60km/h burst in 4.6 seconds and 0-100km/h in 10.1 seconds - comfortably faster than the X1 and the Evoque. Around the city, or on the highway, the 380Nm of torque gives it instant surge that makes overtaking and climbing a snack. Even with this response and flexibility, claimed fuel economy is an excellent 5.9 litres per 100 kilometres.
Though the ride is firm enough to react to imperfections on a tarmac road surface, with minor vibrations through the steering wheel on less-than-smooth corners, the Q3's pleasing, composed roadholding compensates for these niggles.
Here, too, is another Audi interior of understated elegance with subtle chrome touches that contrast with the dark-grey fake-leather trim and an electric parking brake that takes up less space than a regular handbrake. Ventilation controls low on the centre stack and a pop-up screen are the only jarring visuals.
The manually adjustable front seats are excellent with good shape and a comfortable cushion. There is no lumbar adjuster but this isn't a serious omission because the seats feel agreeably supportive.
Safety and equipment levels are generous and include cruise control, Bluetooth connectivity, rear parking sensors, 12-volt outlet, automatic headlights, rain-sensing wipers and dual-zone climate-control airconditioning. There are two cupholders in the centre console and big door pockets capable of taking bottles.
You can link a music player (iPod, USB, etc) to the Q3 via the optional Audi Music Interface system but this requires an additional cable that costs about $100. However, owners with a smartphone can connect via Bluetooth and use audio streaming to play the music on their phone through the Q3's audio system.
The cabin is roomy for front-seat occupants; less so for those in the rear. Big passengers might find that knee-room is tight. Up to three kids can comfortably park their backsides on the rather flat bench, though. Rear-seat passengers don't get a centre armrest but do have air vents.
Split-fold rear seatbacks open up the modest (460-litre) boot space, which has a solid flat floor hiding a temporary spare wheel/tyre.
Six airbags help earn it a five-star Euro NCAP safety rating.
Audi Q3 2.0 TDI Quattro S-Tronic
Price $54,500, plus costs
Engine 2.0-litre 4-cyl turbo diesel
Power 130kW at 4200rpm
Torque 380Nm at 1750rpm
Transmission 7-sp dual-clutch auto
BMW X1 xDrive 20d
As with its Audi and Range Rover rivals, BMW is in the compact luxury car field as a lure to make conquest sales, winning over buyers who seek the driving experience and badge kudos - without a budget-belting price.
The X1 - the smallest BMW SUV - has done well in this role since its introduction in April 2010. Initially there was criticism of the X1's ride but this deficiency was quietly tweaked a year or so back.
Frankly, this is not a stunner in the looks department; in profile there's the hint of a saggy wagon with better ground clearance.
But in unadorned form, the X1 xDrive20d is the cheapest of the trio, at $53,300.
To boost its appeal, this particular xDrive20d gets a $4200 BMW M package comprising sports seats, firmer suspension and a body kit, among other goodies. Add the optional Steptronic auto transmission at $2280 and the price starts to creep up.
In those great M Sport seats, the driver will notice a more car-like view of the world, sitting low and snug.
Quite intrusive at start-up is the unmistakable sound of a diesel engine, but the noise fades on the fly. The 2.0-litre engine produces 130kW and 350Nm and the resulting acceleration is handy without rocking your world; 4.7 seconds from rest to 60km/h, and 11.2 seconds for the 0-100km/h.
An auto stop/start system helps efficiency, with the X1's claimed fuel use 6.2L/100km.
The gearbox is a regular auto with six speeds and paddle-shifting if you want to get busier.
The steering is noticeably heavier while parking and at low speeds than its rivals, but comes alive when cruising.
The M pack's sportier suspension tune means the X1 corners with greater surety and without the tendency to shift its weight fore and aft or side to side. However, reflecting the firmer nature of the suspension and run-flat tyres, it's a little skittish over the bumps.
The sombre all-black cabin with fake leather appears a little dated in more contemporary company. We counted a cupholder on the console, plus another under the armrest, bottle holders in the front doors, and smaller receptacles in the rear door; the mobile phone bracket (who uses them?) soaks up storage space. In the rear armrest, there are two more cupholders but the back-seat jockeys don't get rear air vents. Headroom front and rear is excellent, but those sitting on the hard rear seats will struggle to park their legs comfortably.
Those rear seatbacks are split 40-20-40 and fold to expand the luggage space; the boot (the smallest) will swallow 420 litres. The back seats also come with recline adjustment.
Equipment extends to cruise control with brake function, climate-control aircon, rear parking sensors, tyre pressure monitor and Bluetooth connectivity. Safety equipment includes all the familiar BMW acronyms and six airbags, but there is no spare wheel/tyre.
BMW X1 xDrive 20d vital statistics
Price $53,300, plus costs
Engine 2.0-litre 4-cyl turbo diesel
Power 130kW at 4000rpm
Torque 350Nm at 1750-3000rpm
Transmission 6-sp auto
Range Rover Evoque Pure TD4
The baby Range Rover, the Evoque, is the newest, smallest and most affordable of the iconic Rangie's line-up. Helped by its broad and bewildering range of two- and four-wheel-drive models, in three-door and five-door form, it has been selling strongly since its launch last year, limited by availability.
It's easy to see why.
The Evoque manages to simultaneously look aggressive, chic and racy, and its edgy appearance is sweeping up plenty of new-to-the-brand customers.
The driver is welcomed by an upmarket cabin with lashings of light-coloured leather trim, aluminium inserts and soft-touch materials.
A Jaguar-style rotary gear selector emerges from the console when the start button is activated, in this case followed by the usual diesel engine rattle that fades on the move.
The Evoque we tested, a TD4 five-door wagon in Pure specification, produces 110kW and 400Nm from its 2.2-litre turbo-diesel. That's less power but more torque than its rivals. This translates to a surprisingly indifferent accelerative performance, reaching 60km/h from rest in 5.7 seconds and 100km/h in a leisurely 14.4 seconds.
We tried it in S for sport mode and went a little quicker (5.6 seconds and 13.8 seconds). Still, it's the slowest of our trio.
Transmission is the optional CommandShift six-speed auto costing $2480. Depending on conditions, the driver can select one of four modes - on-road, snow/ice, sand, or rough terrain.
The Evoque is very handy off-road - better than the Q3 or X1 - though the optional 19-inch wheels and tyres are not suited to the rough stuff.
On the road the Evoque is a pleasantly smooth highway cruiser with an abundance of useful low-rev muscle, and good cornering and braking behaviour. And it's easy to overlook some lumpiness in the steering at low speed, and its jiggly ride over imperfections.
The cabin looks and feels big, wide and luxurious. The driver's seat has a power tilt switch but is mainly manually adjustable. The rotary wheel adjuster for seat-back rake is poorly located and hard to move. The seatback also could have benefited from a lumbar setting.
The driver's view is interrupted by the large pillars on either side of the windscreen and oversized exterior mirrors. The high glass line and coupe-like shape also impedes vision over the shoulder and through the mailbox-slot rear window. Helpfully, parking sensors are standard, but a camera costs extra. Despite the sloping roofline, headroom is surprisingly good front and rear. Knee-room in the back is tight, though backsides will surely appreciate the soft cushion and support.
The Evoque serves up the expected menu of convenience and safety features, including nine airbags, but surprisingly dips out on automatic headlights. Some buyers will rue the absence of keyless entry and start. It's a $1495 extra often standard on much cheaper cars.
The tailgate is heavier than most but the Evoque has the tallest of the cargo areas among the three SUVs on test, and also benefits from split-fold seat versatility.
The boot is the biggest (at least on paper) at 575 litres but it cannot fit a full-size spare.
Range Rover Evoque Pure TD4 vitsla statistics
Price $53,395, plus costs
Engine 2.2-litre 4-cylturbo diesel
Power110kW at 4000rpm
Torque 400Nm at 1750rpm
Transmission 6-sp auto
All three contenders possess notable attributes, and all play the compact-premium SUV role with the required melding of comfort, features, badge respect, style - and even fuel economy.
That said, none has standard rear-view cameras, a safety item Drive feels should be mandated for all vehicles.
With M package assistance, the X1 brings the most precise dynamics to the table. But its cabin looks passe. The X1 will benefit from a midlife pep up-late this year when it will get an eight-speed auto, and power and torque increases from all the engine choices, while improving fuel efficiency.
The eye-catching Evoque is the visual standout with a genuine driveway presence not quite matched by its performance or refinement.
The Q3 has the smoothest, liveliest turbo diesel engine, pleasing looks and an overall refinement that can't be beaten in this select company.
Still, given that buyers in this segment are often helpless fashion victims, it won't surprise us one whit if the Evoque's look-at-me shape continues to whip fashionistas into a frenzy.