Love ‘em or loathe ‘em, today’s luxury mid-sized SUVs like the Audi Q5 45 TFSI and BMW X3 30i are now as much a part of the story of us as any homegrown Holden or Ford. It just depends on where you are in life.
Thirty-odd years ago, with Ps in hand, maybe your choice – like mine – was between a Volkswagen Golf and Nissan Pulsar. A decade on, commitments might have meant a Mazda 6 or Toyota Camry (and a No Doz addiction), before the need for bigger stuff like a Ford Territory or Holden Captiva arose. Life’s great tapestry and all that.
Today – if you’re lucky – you’re middle aged (ish), middle class and in the market for a mid-sized premium SUV. You’ve made it this far, so why not? And before you think this is yet another instance of you turning into your parents, don’t forget: back in their day, a Ford Fairlane or Volvo 740 was likely in the mix. So maybe not.
Freshest of the medium luxury SUV all-stars right now is the facelifted Audi Q5. To bring you up to speed, it gains a minor visual makeover (usual stuff: headlights, grille, bumper, tail-lights and alloys) and the mandatory multimedia update, but lo and behold – a major mechanical upgrade, including fresh mild-hybrid engine technology. Crikey.
The latter’s interesting because it builds on an already-frugal proposition – up to 90kg was skimmed off when this current, B9 A4-based, second-generation, Type FY Q5 debuted in mid-2017.
Later that year was also when the third iteration of BMW X3 surfaced, though its mid-cycle nip ‘n tuck probably won’t happen before later this year at the earliest.
Like the two designs that came before, the G10-series SUV shares much of its underpinnings with the corresponding 3 Series – namely the rejuvenated G20 that’s been a firm favourite of ours since launching back in early 2019.
Classic Audi versus BMW stuff then. It’s like the old Holden versus Ford feud but for well-heeled folk. And on the subject of money.
Sledgehammer SQ5 aside, the 2021 Q5 is offered in five versions, with a trio of newly mildly-electrified internal combustion powertrain choices.
The base and Sport grades are only available with a 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo, driving all four wheels (hence ‘quattro’) via a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission. It can be had with a 150kW/400Nm 40 TDI diesel from $68,900 or 183kW/370Nm 45 TSI petrol for $1700 more. All are before on-road costs.
While these prices are around $2K dearer than before, the new $89,600 50 TDI S Line quattro is over $4500 exxier; it’s powered by a 210kW/620Nm 3.0-litre V6 turbo-diesel and employs an eight-speed torque-converter auto.
Safety is on a par with the class expectations, and includes Autonomous Emergency Braking (AEB), blind-spot monitor, lane keep warning and assist, Rear Cross-Traffic Alert, approaching traffic warning when turning right, hill descent control, parking sensors, tyre pressure monitor, driver attention monitor, reverse camera, auto headlights and rain-sensing wipers.
Also featured are keyless entry/start, Audi’s Virtual Cockpit digital instrumentation, ‘Hey, Audi’ speech control for the new 10.1-inch touchscreen multimedia, two-phone Bluetooth capability, Audi Connect real-time info connectivity, wireless Apple CarPlay/Android Auto, satellite navigation, digital radio, wireless smartphone charging, paddle shifters, leather upholstery, electric front seats, tri-zone climate control, ambient lighting, a powered tailgate with gesture control and alloy wheels.
Our 45 TFSI quattro is the better-equipped Sport, which adds adaptive cruise control and Traffic Jam Assist offering semi-autonomous driving, Collision Avoidance Assist, Turn Assist, a 360-degree view camera, automatic parking, a panoramic sunroof, sport front seats with heating and driver-side memory, a premium audio upgrade, heated/folding/dipping electric mirrors and 20-inch alloys – and all for an extra $7K.
Listed at $76,600 before ORC, the Audi’s driveaway pricing differs in each state/territory due to tax variations, ranging from a $84,909 low in Queensland to a $87,809 high in WA.
Meanwhile, the cheapest X3 petrol with AWD equivalent – the xDrive30i M Sport Pack – kicks off from $76,396 before ORC or $85,900 driveaway (nationally), and it too relies on a 2.0-litre four-pot turbo, with just 2kW more power at 185kW but 20Nm less torque at 350Nm than its four-ringed foe. The auto is ZF’s eight-speed torque-converter unit.
The SUVs from Ingolstadt (but built in Mexico) and Munich (via South Africa) offer near-lineball pricing and equipment levels, except that the xDrive30i standardises adaptive dampers, a head-up display and an M Sport body kit, uprated brakes and racier trim package… but forgoes the 45 TFSI quattro Sport’s sunroof and banging stereo.
For that, the X3 can be optioned up with a $4810 Visibility Package as per our test car, which also ushers in premium audio (to match the Q5’s), metallic paint and fancier alloys, meaning the BMW breaches the $90K barrier (by $710). Cheap these aren’t.
Replete in body-kitted activewear, both German SUVs look better than their base-grade brethren, though neither will be remembered for their beauty. The X3 in particular has always been the pretty X5’s fuglier baby bro. Fun fact: today’s G10 is larger than the original 1999 E53 X5.
As far as the post-purchase costs are concerned, a very interesting anomaly arises. Weighing in at 1825kg, the 45 TFSI quattro Sport’s official combined fuel-consumption figure is 8.0L/100km (for a carbon dioxide emissions rating of 182g/km), compared to the 1745kg xDrive30i’s 7.4L/100km and 169g/km. That disparity makes sense on paper given the mass differences.
Out in the real world, however, our stringent at-the-pump procedures saw the Q5 return a teetotaling 8.9L/100km over our mix of urban and rural-road testing, while the X3 necked down 12.7L/100km.
Audi’s 12-volt mild-hybrid tech and on-demand AWD system seem to more than offset the extra kilos. Unsurprisingly, 95 RON premium unleaded petrol is their preferred tipple.
Where both brands stumble is with their sub-standard three-year/unlimited-kilometre warranty, when rivals like Mercedes now offer five years.
The Q5’s servicing intervals are 12 months or 15,000km and can be purchased with a five-year service plan for $2870, while the X3 adheres to BMW’s condition-based servicing regime, where the car will display when it requires attention depending on distance and wear and tear.
However, there is a ‘BMW Service Inclusive Basic’ package available starting at $1950, covering scheduled servicing from three-years/40,000km to five-years/80,000km.
After three years the 45 TFSI Sport quattro is expected to be worth about 61 percent of its value, behind the 63 percent forecast for the xDrive30i.
One area where Audi has long lorded it over rivals is in cabin beauty and quality, but our BMW upends that and even leaves the Q5 wanting in a couple of areas.
Making a mockery of their medium-size stationing, both SUVs are properly large inside, with ample room front and rear for a quartet of six-footers – as long as the trio out back are more Keira Knightley-sized than Newcastle Knights-like.
They’re remarkably similar in presentation too: doors open up wide for unencumbered entry/egress into solidly-made cabins; lofty seating includes big bolsters up front to keep you nestled in tightly and comfortably; and the driving positions simply cannot be faulted, such is their adjustability.
Deep windows affording excellent views out, ample ventilation and more storage than you’ll probably ever need – be it via the big door bins or deep centre console – further underline the fine engineering going on. Both also include rear access to USB ports and fresh air outlets, as well as considerately-sited phone charging.
As mentioned earlier, even the equipment levels more-or-less align, as if they’re watching over each other’s’ shoulder. Surely the cheapo rear-armrest-sited cupholder arrangement that blights both cabins is proof.
If they were spying, Audi might be in for a shock. The X3’s dashboard is a modern masterpiece of presentation, melding the classic driver-angled display with sophisticated touchscreen tech.
Still, unlike its rival, BMW has resisted the urge to throw out its time-honed iDrive multimedia controller, which operates intuitively after 20 years of continuous evolution.
The gear lever is perfectly positioned and with the tip-shift function set up in the correct pull-upshift/push-downshift pattern. Our only disappointments are the messy electronic instrumentation – oh how we long for the elegant analogue dials of old – and surprisingly low-rent lower-lying plastics.
The latter also applies to the Q5, and it, too, brings digital instrumentation that isn’t as pleasing to the eye as before, but at least they mimic Audi markings of old, instead of looking like they’re shared with Honda’s current Civic.
And the brand-spanking multimedia set-up is largely touchscreen-operated, but the clarity, logic and speed of response doesn’t make that a problem.
Frankly, the 45 TFSI quattro Sport’s interior looks… a little plain in this company. Yes, the upper dash feels expensively executed, with pleasing detailing evident in the textured trim and materials deployed, but the BMW’s seem somehow swankier and more uptown overall. The M Sport also lends a more athletic ambience that’s in keeping with the marque’s reputation.
Further back, each provides family summer holiday levels of cargo capacity – the Q5 ranging from 520 litres to 1520L with the 40/20/40 backrest folded. The X3’s is even more cavernous, extending from 550L to 1600L, and with a spring-loaded remote fold-down backrest function to boot.
In our Audi, the lever merely released them loose, but they wouldn’t drop. Both offer floor rails with fastening points and tensioning straps to better secure loads.
Speaking of security, shared active safety tech include AEB with pedestrian detection, blind-spot monitor, lane keep warning and assist, Rear Cross-Traffic Alert, approaching traffic warning when turning right, hill descent control, parking sensors, tyre pressure monitor, driver attention monitor, reverse camera, auto headlights and rain-sensing wipers.
Adaptive cruise control with stop/go capability, semi-autonomous parking, stability control, traction control, anti-lock brake, electronic brake-force distribution and brake assist are also present.
Both are fitted with eight airbags. The X3 also adds Front Cross-Traffic Alert and run-flat tyres to its armoury, while the Q5 includes an excellent exit warning system to alert disembarking occupants of passing cyclists and vehicles.
Both Germans were tested by Euro NCAP in 2017 and received the full five-star rating. To nobody’s surprise whatsoever, even their scores are practically identical, with the Audi achieving marginally better child-occupant protection and pedestrian impact ratings than the BMW.
Aided by the lofty seating position, low beltline and deep glass areas, all-round vision ranks highly in both vehicles, backed up by large mirrors and the big-screen reverse camera with alternative view options. Both SUVs also include a pair of rear-seat Isofix anchor points and a trio of child-seat tether strap anchors.
On the subject of stoppers, considering how heavy these big medium luxo SUVs are, both brake remarkably well, while their (you’ve guessed it – nearly identical) powertrains may even be the best available in their respective ranges.
Audi first. The 183kW 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo is a terrific engine even before you take its incredible economy potential into account. Punchy from the get-go, with very little of the lag or hiccup associated with dual-clutch gearboxes, it pulls as hard as it revs, tacho swinging swiftly and effortlessly to the redline without letting up.
It simply roars along. A metallic rasp betrays the comparative paucity of capacity, but this is no bad thing, imbuing the Q5 with a zingy, eager charm.
Just as hard to fault and easy to love is Munich’s 2.0-litre turbo equivalent. With a well of low-down torque to draw upon, the supernaturally intuitive eight-speed auto deals out each ratio with unerring speed and finesse, for an even creamier and more polished experience than the spirited Audi provides.
Ever responsive to throttle inputs, the xDrive30i’s flexes its muscles forcefully and yet fluidly every single time. What a gem.
The only thing missing is the mellifluous soundtrack of a classic BMW six. That’s a trade we’re willing to endure, as this 2.0-litre turbo’s ability to accelerate so vigorously from low revs is quite an achievement. Codenamed B48, it simply elevates this particular X3 grade in the process.
Initially, the Q5 feels faster, especially in Sport mode, but both return a 0-100km/h result of 6.3 seconds, while the X3 seems to have a deeper set of lungs at the top end, borne out by the 240km/h xDrive30i pipping the 45 TFSI quattro by just 3km/h.
Don’t forget, though: it may be a little less evocative, but the Audi’s fuel economy lead is astounding.
Another one of the Q5’s superpowers is its ability to relax and reassure new drivers. Climb in. Get immediately comfortable. Push the button, and off it goes, with an ease to its urge and a serenity to its speed that will instantly endear it to many people.
That sense of feeling light on its feet extends to the steering, which is effortless enough around town (and with a slightly better turning circle than the X3), yet precise and planted out on the open road, without becoming heavy or cumbersome.
The Q5 carves through corners crisply and cleanly, with exceptional delicacy and control, even in the very heavy rainfall we encountered during our test.
In contrast, the BMW feels palpably heftier and more solidly tied down to the road, from the first turn at low speeds through to blasting up a mountain pass. But it’s also in another class with the way it goes and flows with the road.
The xDrive30i’s standard Adaptive M Suspension with its adjustable dampers provide more nuance and finesse, backed up with greater feel and feedback.
We’re not talking 3 Series sports sedan levels of handling and roadholding prowess, because ultimately the X3 is what it is – a tall SUV with a high centre of gravity – yet it is the better of the duo if you long to connect and are willing to play. It’s the sportier of the two. The BMW out-funs the Q- fünf.
Conversely, the xDrive30i pulls ahead for ride comfort compared to the 45 TFSI quattro Sport, for two reasons – an inch-smaller wheels and those adaptive dampers.
The latter in particular reduce the amount of head toss out on the open road and suspension pitter patter around town, though it isn’t quite as quiet as the Audi either. For a bit over $2K extra, Q5 buyers can option up Adaptive Air Suspension – with variable ride height for greater ground clearance. Do it.
Note that BMW fits 20-inch alloys as standard on this grade, with the 19s as per our test car a no-cost option that probably makes the ride suppler. Sneaky.
Both the new Q5 and the evergreen X3 deliver exactly what you’d expect from their makers – fast, secure, refined, comfy and enjoyable family-friendly midsized luxury SUVs, to take you to your next stage in life.
In searing Sport grades as tested, their premium is offset by matching high equipment levels, highlighting how eerily similar in execution the two German machines are.
In one area, however, the Audi is in a league of its own, and that is its mild-hybrid-enhanced fuel economy – and that’s even more impressive given how stirring its four-pot turbo performance remains. For some people, that’s enough to give the 45 TFSI quattro Sport a decisive advantage.
Yet the BMW is the more involving driver’s SUV, as well as the better-riding one, with its cabin design and presentation also outpacing the Audi’s.
Which wins then? Your answer may already actually lay within: thinking back again to those earlier formative-years cars, would you have picked the Golf, Mazda6 and Territory over a Pulsar, Camry and Captiva? If the answer’s yes, yes and definitely yes, then the X3 is for you.
BMW X3 xDrive30i 1st
Pros: superb powertrain; impressive handling/ride balance; appealing dash presentation
Cons: dreary design; some cheap cabin materials; expensive options
Audi Q5 45 TFSI quattro Sport 2nd
Pros: outstanding efficiency; sparkling performance; spacious and quiet interior
Cons: not Audi’s best dash design; some cheap cabin materials; like BMW, sub-standard warranty
INTERIORS IN DETAIL
Airy and uplifting it may be, with an obsessive approach to detail and quality as well as a new (MIB 3) info and multimedia system set-up, but the Q5’s dash is starting to look dated in 2021, and even a tad austere.
Acres of space to stretch out, good vision and an excellent driving position make for a family-friendly SUV, while road and wind noise are subdued. Optional reclining and sliding rear seats are a boon, but they still didn’t feel as sumptuous as the BMW’s. Luggage capacity stretches from 520L to 1520L. Ground clearance is just 175mm.
If you can see past the slightly chaotic instrument graphics, with their annoying digitised anti-clockwise tacho, the X3’s dash is almost flawless. Superb iDrive interface beats buttonless interface every time, while the M Sport package’s overall quality and ambience edges out Audi’s – even if both Germans suffer from cheapo lower-lying plastics.
Huge cabin, firm but supportive seating, lots of storage, torrents of ventilation and plenty of light flooding in are bonuses also shared with Q5. Runflat tyres drone on the open road. Luggage capacity ranges from 550L to 1600L and ground clearance is a handy 202mm.
Audi Q5 45 TFSI Quattro Sport
Body: 5-door, 5-seat SUV
Engine 1984cc inline-4cyl, DOHC, 16v, turbo, mild hybrid
Power: 183kW @ 5000-6500rpm
Torque: 370Nm @ 1600-4300rpm
Transmission: 7-speed dual-clutch
Fuel consumption: 8.9L/100km (tested)
Tracks: 1622/1626mm (f/r)
Suspension: multi links, coil springs, anti-roll bar (f/r)
Steering: electrically assisted rack-and-pinion
Turning circle 11.7m (2.6 turns lock-to-lock)
Brakes: 350mm ventilated discs (f); 330mm ventilated discs (r)
Tyres: 255/45 R20 101W (f/r) Michelin Latitude Sport 3
Price: $76,600/As tested $78,590**
Warranty: 3yr/unlimited km. Service interval: 12 months, 15,000km. Glass’s 3-year resale: 61%. AAMI Insurance: $1170
BMW X3 xDrive30i M Sport
Body: 5-door, 5-seat SUV
Engine: 1998cc inline-4cyl, DOHC, 16v turbo
Power: 185kW @ 6500rpm
Torque: 350Nm @ 1450-4800rpm
Transmission: 8-speed automatic
Fuel consumption: 12.7L/100km (tested)
Tracks: 1610/1594mm (f/r)
Suspension: struts, A-arms, adaptive dampers, anti-roll bar (f); multi-links, coil springs, adaptive dampers, anti-roll bar (r)
Steering: electrically assisted rack-and-pinion
Brakes: 330mm ventilated discs (f/r)
Tyres: 245/50 R19 (f/r) Bridgestone Atenza RFT
Price: $76,396 /As tested $81,206**
Warranty: 3yr/unlimited km. Service interval: variable – condition based. Glass’s 3-year resale: 63%. AAMI Insurance: $1184