2012 Audi Q3 road test - Andrew Noakes - Motoring Writer

Audi launched the Q3 at the Shanghai motor show this time last year and it has been on sale since November. It's shaping up to be one of the most important new Audis for a long time.

The Q-series of SUVs started in 2005 with the mammoth Q7 which is still available, now in face-lifted form, for anyone who needs a four-wheel drive carry-all with acres of space. It was joined in 2009 by the more sensibly sized Q5, and the Q3 extends the range still further, offering more compact dimensions but still with enough space to be a useful and practical car.

In fact there's plenty of room inside, with enough legroom and headroom in the back for proper adult-sized passengers, though the boot is only average size unless you fold down the rear seats (which irritatingly do not fold far enough to give a flat load area floor). The trade-off will probably work well for most Q3 buyers, though parents with toddlers might wish for more luggage capacity. Up front the cabin has a familiar Audi efficiency and quality about it, though the upright driving position will feel uncomfortable at first to some drivers.

Four different 2.0-litre direct injection engines are available, two petrols (177PS and 211PS) and two diesels (140PS and 177PS). The less powerful of the two diesels has front-wheel drive, while the rest have a quattro four-wheel drive system which sends most of the power to the front wheels unless wheelspin is detected. Six-speed manual gearboxes are standard and there's the option of Audi's seven-speed S-tronic dual-clutch automatic. Another option is the 'Drive Select' system, which tailors various vehicle settings to your personal taste. One of its modes disengages the S-tronic clutches when the Q3 is not accelerating, coasting along to save as much fuel as possible.

Most buyers will plump for one of the diesel engines because they offer lower fuel consumption and better CO2 emissions. There's little to be gained from opting for one of the petrol units: though smooth, they are raucous, and even the 211PS unit is no quicker in real-world conditions than the refined 177PS diesel.

The Q3 is sure to be a big seller here, but it's significance for Audi goes beyond a few thousand UK sales: this year the Q3 is expected to take over from the Q5 as the German company's biggest-selling car in China – the biggest new car market in the world.

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