The Clarkson review: Audi Q3 2.0 TDI quattro SE S tronic (2012)

Fritz calls it a soft-roader. I call him soft in the head

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It is extraordinary how often a room full of well-qualified adults can discuss a subject in their chosen field and arrive at a conclusion that’s completely muddle-headed and stupid.

We see this a lot in politics. Only recently an MP called Keith Vaz went on television to say the immigration desks at Heathrow needed to be “personed up”. I actually went back and watched the moment again. But there was no mistaking it. This man — an MP with a first-class degree from Cambridge — had obviously been to a meeting where other sentient beings had convinced him to use words that no one else understands.

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Then there was the war in Iraq. Wise, clear-thinking people had access to all the information that the satellites could provide. And yet still they made a decision that was idiotic and wrong.

A few years ago Coca-Cola did the same thing, albeit with less important ramifications, when it decided to make Coke taste like a used swab. BA did it with its tailfins. Gerald Ratner described   a product he sold as “total crap”, Paul McCartney recorded Ebony and Ivory. Philips pioneered the laserdisc. Clive Sinclair decided to put his all into an electric slipper. John Prescott invented the M4 bus lane. The San Francisco Chronicle turned down the syndication of the Watergate story, saying it would only interest people on the east coast. And Top Gear made a film about an art gallery in Middlesbrough.

I’m to blame. I brought it up in a meeting and instead of getting insects to lay eggs in my hair, the production team nodded sagely. We’d take over an art gallery, fill it with automotive-based art and prove that cars bring in bigger crowds than unmade beds and pickled sharks. Somehow, though, it didn’t occur to any of us that this would be a very long and boring film until after it appeared on the show. “That was very long and boring,” we all said afterwards.

Of course, the motoring world is rammed with more mistakes than almost any other industry. Someone at Pontiac looked at the design for the Aztek and said, “Mmm. Yes. Excellent.” And there were similar noises in the Ford boardroom when the stylists mistakenly unveiled their joke plans for what became the Scorpio.

Daimler really thought it could compete with the Rolls-Royce Phantom by putting some cherry wood in a Mercedes S-class and calling it a Maybach. Toyota launched a car called the MR2 without noticing that when said in French — “MR deux” — it translates as “shit”, and Audi decided that it could improve on the airbag by developing a system called “procon-ten”, which used a fantastically complicated network of cables to pull the steering wheel forward in any frontal impact.

I could go on, so I will. Austin made a car that was more aerodynamic going backwards than forwards, Ford made a car that blew up if a leaf landed on it and Lancia made a car from Russian steel that was as long-lasting as fruit. And only recently Volkswagen was going to call its new car the Black Up!.

It’s almost as though every single meeting in the car industry is specifically designed to exclude rational thought, which brings me on to a gathering of fine minds that must have happened a few years ago in Audi’s boardroom.

They obviously decided that it would be a good wheeze to create a new type of medium-sized hatchback that looked like it might be able to go off road but couldn’t. “Yes,” someone must have said. “That’s a brilliant idea. No one else will have thought of making such a thing.”

And they were right. There are no other so-called “soft-roaders” on the market at all. Apart from the Land Rover Freelander, the Range Rover Evoque, the Honda CR-V, the Toyota RAV4, the BMW X1, the Nissan Kumquat, the Nissan X- Trail, the Mitsubishi Outlander, the Volkswagen Tiguan, the Citroën Cross-Dresser, the Subaru Forester, the Hyundai Santa Fe, the Volvo XC60, the Kia Sportage, the Vauxhall Antara, the Ford Kuga, the Mazda CX-7, the Kia Sorento and the Jeep Compass.

It’s possible they may have known all along that there are many options in this part of the marketplace. But it’s unlikely. Because if they had, they would have made damn sure their new car was better than all the others. And it isn’t.

Let’s start in the boot, which is very small. And the reason it’s very small is that under the boot floor, apparently, there is a large subwoofer. What kind of hallucinogenic drug were they taking at the meeting where everyone agreed that this was a good idea? Who stood up and said, “A good bass sound is more important than an ability to carry dogs, shopping or a spare wheel”?

Further forward, we find the rear seat, which is wide enough for three people but only if they have casters rather than legs. And then up front, at the business end, we find nothing at all, apart from some heater controls that have been designed to be annoying.

My £28,965 quattro SE test car was supplied in loser spec with cruise control as a £225 optional extra and, er, that’s it. Every time I selected some tasty-sounding feature from the onboard computer, I was given a message saying, “You couldn’t afford this” or “You really should have worked harder at school.” It didn’t even have sat nav.

To drive? Well, it’s hard to say because the wheels weren’t balanced properly, and trying to be rational when viewing the world through wobble vision is like trying to concentrate on the finer points of someone who’s constantly hitting you over the head with an axe.

All I can say is that the engine is rather good. I had the more powerful diesel option that had lots of oomph and the thirst of a bee. It sounded nice, too, in a gravelly, smoky, bluesy kind of way.

However, in the morning, when it had been asleep all night, it did take a second or two to remember what it was and what it’s purpose in life might be. You turn the key . . . and nothing happens. And then, shortly before it remembers that it’s an engine, you give up and turn the ignition off again. This causes a bit of swearing.

Mind you, for cluelessness, the gearbox is worse. In Sport mode it wouldn’t change gear at all, and in Normal mode did nothing else but. Every few seconds. For no discernible reason.

Then there’s the Efficiency mode facility that disengages the clutch every time you lift off the throttle. In theory, this fuel-saving measure sounds like a good idea. In practice, it means you simply cannot maintain smooth progress on the motorway.

The Q3, then. Not practical. Not nice to drive. And technologically, not thought out well, either. So what’s to be done if you want a car that looks like it could go off road but won’t? Especially if you specify the sports suspension that lowers the ride height to that of a centipede.

Well, the obvious answer is the Range Rover Evoque. But if this is too expensive for your taste and not spacious enough, don’t worry, because there is a better alternative. It’s called a saloon car.


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