George, Western Cape - Arriving at the George airport for the local media launch of the new Audi Q3, we were greeted with the kind of 'warning' that is music to the ears of anyone who actually enjoys driving - that the route ahead would include multiple mountain passes, as well as a fair helping of dirt sections.
Clearly Audi was confident in the newcomer's ability to multi-task as a vehicle that can nimbly gobble up back roads on lengthy roads trips, but also head off the beaten track when required.
Seeing the cars in the flesh certainly supported that assumption. The second-generation Q3 is an all-new vehicle, now built on the VW Group's MQB modular platform that underpins most of its compact to medium vehicles these days. 97mm longer, 25mm wider and 5mm lower than its predecessor, the new Q3 has a more confident and hunkered down look about it. Its ultra-wide octagonal grille adds to the effect, as do the wheels, which measure 18 inches on all but the base model, which doesn't do too badly either with its 17" alloys.
Only one drivetrain combination is offered from launch, in the form of Audi's 1.4-litre TFSI turbopetrol engine, with 110kW and 250Nm, driving the front wheels through a standard six-speed S Tronic dual-clutch gearbox.
Let's take a drive
Hitting the road after a lunch stop in George, I was soon greeted by a narrow and twisty stretch that could easily make a car feel cumbersome, but the Audi Q3 simply sliced through like a well sorted hatchback. Perhaps with a touch more bodyroll, owing to its stature, but not enough to be off-putting to the driver. I was also impressed by its sense of balance and agility in the wider, faster, twisties that we tackled later, including the Simola Hillclimb route in Knysna.
Thankfully, the Q3's neat handling doesn't come at the expense of ride quality, at least not to a large degree. Many European vehicles are sprung too firmly for our roads, and while the Q3 is a little on the stiff side, it still delivers a comfortable ride, and it also proved perfectly tolerable on the many dirt sections that we tackled during the day.
Bearing in mind that this is not an off-roader, the Q3 will happily tackle farm roads - and there is also an off-road mode on hand if you fit your car with the optional Drive Select system. Here you get six modes that influence things like throttle response, gearbox and steering characteristics, as well as the suspension if Audi's adaptive damping system has been ordered too.
Out on the open road, the Q3's 1.4-litre engine delivered just enough urge to overtake with relative comfort and to power through the bends at a brisk pace, but it's not a fast vehicle, and those with a more enthusiastic approach to driving will have to wait for the 140kW 2-litre TFSI version, which Audi SA hopes to add to the line-up once stock is available from the German parent company.
Smarter, tech-packed cabin
Taking a quick hop in the back during the lunch stop, it soon became apparent that the Q3 is not as roomy as other mainstream SUVs in its class. I could sit comfortably behind myself, with a little stretching space too, but you're not getting abundant legroom of the kind offered in a Rav4 or CR-V. It is versatile, however, thanks to a sliding rear seat that allows you to vary the boot space between 530 and 675 litres.
However, in other ways this cabin is a big paradigm shift. Audi's cabins have always been among the better-finished, albeit bordering on bland at times, but this new Q3 hits the right chord with sweeping lines and high-end materials - there's even a layer of suede cloth between the two dashboard levels.
There's a palpable high-tech atmosphere in here too, although to bring out the best in the Q3 you have to brave the options list. Although the Q3 comes with a basic digital instrument cluster as standard, you still have to pay an extra R3900 for the fancier Audi Virtual Cockpit system with additional functions. But the party only really gets started when you lay down R33 000 for the Technology Package which gives you the aforementioned, as well as the MMI Navigation Plus, Contour ambient lighting and 'aluminium look' interior trim.
On that note, Audi is aiming to simplify things on the options front by introducing a range of packages that bundle certain 'like minded' options together. In addition to that tech pack, buyers can opt for a Comfort Package, at R21 500, which includes electrically adjustable and heated front seats, a powered tailgate as well as front and rear park distance control. There's also a R34 900 Sports Package, which includes Alcantara sports seats, sports steering wheel and 20-inch alloys, and there's an S Line interior pack (R15 900), which brings sports seats, black headlining as well as S-inspired inlays and surfaces.
There are still quite a few individual options available, such as Matrix LED headlights, 360-degree camera (R13 500), Lane Departure Warning (R5800), Comfort Key (R7500) and more.
Pricing and standard features
Priced from R565 000 in base form, the Audi Q3, as a premium brand vehicle, is somewhat more expensive than your average compact to medium SUV, although it's only slightly dearer than the equivalent BMW X1 (R540 000), and it does undercut the base Lexus UX, which costs R602 000.
Standard features across the new Q3 range include dual-zone climate control, 10-speaker MMI Radio Plus with voice recognition and Android Auto/Apple CarPlay compatibility, cruise control, multi-function steering wheel, auto lights and wipers, tyre pressure monitoring and hill descent control. The seats are upholstered in a combination of leather and synthetic leather.
Q3 35 TFSI S tronic - R565 000
Q3 35 TFSI S tronic Advanced - R585 000
Q3 35 TFSI S tronic S line - R599 000
Prices include a five-year/100 000km Audi Freeway Plan.