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Audi Q3 vs BMW X1 - XQs us!

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This is what SUVs have now come to. We buy expensive, capable and huge SUVs and test their water-wading abilities by attacking potholes and evaluate their approach-breakover-departure angles on mere speedbreakers. What a waste. So (ha, ha) don’t buy the Q7, the X5, the Q5 or the X3. Buy one of these two SUVs. Which one? Ahh, now you’re talking.

Which one turns heads?

Let’s start with the newer of the two cars here. The Q3 came wearing that very attractive shade of metallic orange, so it really didn’t require a sticker that exclaimed ‘LOOK AT ME.’ Had the Q3 come in one of those shades that its bigger sibling the Q5 is seen in, perhaps it wouldn’t have turned that many heads. The Q3 is well-proportioned and looks like a miniature Q5 or Q7, unlike the X1 which is more car-like than SUV-like. Though


it is the winner of this round, I’d rather criticise its appearance than praise it. Hear me out. Why should the Q3 look like a reduction photocopy of its bigger siblings? If it is targetted at an all-new audience, shouldn’t it look different? Just because the ‘Q’ is there in its name, should it follow the family look? The Range Rover Evoque, for instance, is radical, but you can’t mistake it for a Mercedes, right? Audi designers have taken the easy way out with the Q3; their new AQR programme promises a prominent design departure but that’s well into the future. As of now, the Q3 is all right as it is, especially with the sharply raked tail-gate and distinctive headlamps and tail-lamps.

 

The X1 has now become part of the urban landscape – and that’s not just in Europe, but in our country as well. It contributed to 30 per cent of BMW India’s sales in 2011. The familiarity of the X1 plus its non-imposing size does not turn as many heads. In other words, you would look at the X5 but won’t give a passing glance to the smaller SAV, as BMW calls it. Unless you’re driving it in the day with the daytime running lamps, it does not attract much attention. And as far the overall design of the X1 goes, its proportions are somewhat off – now that’s thanks to its prominent snout. Being a BMW, it has to have a long hood, to signify potent performance (and of course its engine is also mounted longitudinally) but the consequence is that it looks more like a two-box hatch on stilts rather than a proper SUV. Okay, it has more muscles than the Audi and looks premium too, especially in some of the blues and that Marrakesh Brown, but as far as the overall appearance and attraction goes, it’s the Audi that wins here.

Which one is better inside?

Because of the long nose of the X1, the interior room is compromised a bit at the back. Leg room is adequate but it’s not too spacious. Well, it is a compact SUV, after all, so you can’t expect much anyway. The middle seat at the rear is good only for a child, as the tunnel protrudes rather extensively. The Q3 is a mite better when it comes to rear space. But this too does not pamper the middle passenger. Both are good as four-seaters.

The X1 is typical BMW in the way things are laid-out and the acres of black surfaces. It is well put together and everything is ergonomic, but if you are familiar with BMWs, especially the 3 Series, it is nothing new. The central console display is easy to read and the iDrive scrolling is much easier now. Though it has all the features you’d expect to have in a Beemer, the thing is it does not make you feel extra special – well, you have bought a budget BMW and that’s what you get. For instance, I would have liked illuminated buttons for the mirror folding function or the mirror adjustment. I would have liked different plastic colours and textures too.

 

The Q3 comprehensively trounces the X1 in this department. For one, by using beige and light coloured plastics, the feeling of space is even more pronounced plus of course it makes you feel as if you’ve got yourself something more expensive than it actually is. The fit and finish is terrific and the quality and texture of stuff is quite impressive in a vehicle of this class. Sure, it will be pricier than the Beemer, but it does make you feel as if you’ve got yourself a deal. Okay, there are sections where you can see that Audi has used the plasticky stuff and have raided the VW parts bin, but seriously, no issues with the interiors of this car. The MMI screen can be tucked in when not required, which is a good thing. But the MMI controller is not that dial like in other Audis or like the iDrive – it is compact and located on the central console. Fine by me. The displays are also beautiful with nice fonts and colours and the MMI is easy to scroll through. For someone like me who hates fiddling around with gizmos, I was at ease with it. This can only be a huge compliment.

Which one is better to drive?

This is something that concerns the drivetrains as well as the ride and handling, so it’s a rather long section. But it is interesting, because we have an ultimate driving machine with rear-wheel drive and a leadership through technology machine with all-wheel drive.

Powering the X1 is a 1995cc turbodiesel with 174.2 bhp available at just 4000 rpm and over 35 kgm of turning force between 1750 and 3000 rpm. Amongst four-pot, two-litre oilburners around, this is one of the very best. It is prodigious when it comes to effortless performance and is easy with its drinking habits too. The 6-speed automatic also respects its inherent nature and both make a good pair! The Q3 also gets a 2.0-litre TDI, but this one is transversely mounted. The 1968cc four-cylinder turbodiesel has similar output to the X1’s unit; 177 bhp at 4200 revs and better torque at nearly 39 kgm that you can revel in between 1750 and 2500 rpm. Shifting all that power to all the wheels via the Quattro system is a 7-speed auto. Diesel drone is prominent on the outside of both cars, but inside, it’s the X1 that keeps the noise away, rather than the Audi.

 

On paper, both powertrains are evenly matched, but the natures of the two are quite different. The BMW is much more enthusiastic despite the marginal disadvantage in the engine output. It feels quicker on the go and it is more responsive than the Q3. You are tempted to floor it all the time, compared to the Audi’s relaxed nature. This despite driving both cars in their Sport settings. Though downshifts in the X1 are a bit slow, it is nowhere as bad as the Audi. The Q3’s gearbox is the weak link in the package, behaving almost like a CVT, even though it's a dual clutch. All the motor’s enthusiasm is curbed by the tranny – it doesn’t upshift as quickly, nor does it downshift when you’d expect it to. Essentially, it’s not intuitive, forcing you to take control of gearshift duties. Too many gears spoil the drive, to paraphrase an old saying. Not just that. Though the Audi motor has the output advantage, it loses out to the Beemer in the power-to-weight ratio stakes, despite using weight-saving aluminium for the hood and the tailgate.

Both cars offer a firm ride. Well, what can you expect when you buy entry-level SUVs? If you want a plush feel for your rear-end, you have to go for a more expensive one. Still, the ride quality of both SUVs is not much to complain about – it is an acceptable degree of firmness. It’s only in the bad patches that the suspension setups give up and transfer it to you. (In other words, if you’re living in Mumbai, buy the bigger SUVs!).

Now, tall cars like these would benefit with having power going to all four wheels for better grip, handling and safety. So in this case, the Q3 benefits from Quattro, allowing you to carry more speed into corners and exiting them without drama. Though the system is geared for a front axle bias, the advantage of all-wheel drive is best felt when you go flat-out around decreasing radius corners – despite its height, the Q3 feels car-like and goes without a fuss. The so-called sDrive X1, on the other hand, does not offer these levels of grip but it can be chucked around too. Only, remember, it is rear-wheel driven, so it cannot be thrown about the way you would  the Q3. You shouldn’t be stunting in SUVs, even if they boast car-like handling. To put it in a nutshell, the X1 is more fun but the Q3 is more forgiving.

 

The biggest difference between the two cars – and this is BIG – is the steering setup. The BMW steering is so tight that you could get yourself a hernia, especially at low speeds, while the Audi’s steering is so loose that you think you’re piloting a boat. Both are at the extreme ends of the spectrum – the ideal one should be somewhere in the middle. At least at higher speeds, the X1 eases up and you know exactly where you’re placing the front wheels, but in the Audi, it is vague. The steering doesn’t tighten up at higher speeds and that makes it quite disconcerting. In the attempt to make a city SUV, Audi has gone a bit too easy while someone forgot to tell the engineers at BMW that it is not a track car but it’s a city SUV. That said, give me the tautness of the X1 steering any day over the female friendly Q3 (sorry for the chauvinistic remark). Look, I said sorry, no?

So who is the winner in this round? Easily, it is the machine that brings joy.

Which is the better buy?

Why, the Yeti of course! Sorry, just got distracted. Audi has not given the Q3 a price tag yet, but it will be higher than the X1 for sure. Will it be worth the extra bucks? Hmm, I have to admit it’s a grudging ‘yes’. The reason is that it makes you feel more special – inside and outside – and is refreshing, even though the BMW is a better driver’s car. As for me, that Skoda will do just fine, thank you.