Laudable Audi-ble newbie

Join the crowd, Audi.

In this case, the Audi Q3 joins a host of small-but-tall front- and/or all-wheel-drive wagons that populate the bottom rung of the premium-automobile ladder.

Others in this league include the BMW X1, Lincoln MKC, Mercedes-Benz GLA and Lexus NX. Of this quartet, only the X1 has been around for more than a year, which shows just how rapidly this emerging segment has formed up.

The Q3 will join the A3 sedan and the A3 Cabriolet (convertible) in early 2015. The A3 e-tron plug-in gas-electric hybrid is expected to further expand the lineup by mid-year.

Of course, the Q3 isn’t Audi’s first shot at bringing a junior-sized wagon to market. The previous-generation A3 that was retired in 2013 was a wagon-only model for North America.

However the “Q” offshoot is somewhat taller and a bit longer and wider than the old A3 and has some additional room behind the back seat.

It would be nice if the rear seat could fold into a completely flat-load floor (the seat back sticks up a bit when collapsed), but when the need arises you still get sufficient room for stowing plenty of bulky stuff.

The Q3 arguably qualifies as the best looking of Audi’s Q family that includes the large Q7 and mid-size Q5. The Q3’s simple-yet-neatly-balanced appearance has just the right body-to-window glass ratio and a liftgate that’s angled in a way that avoids the overtly boxy appearance of some competitors.

Similarly the interior eschews the overwrought styling approach (as do all Audi products) and instead sticks to simple, well-tailored shapes for the dashboard, center control stack and floor console.

The Q3 borrows its basic architecture from Volkswagen’s Tiguan model, which makes sense since both brands are part of the same corporate family.

Standard with the Q3, as it is with numerous Audi (and VW) vehicles, is a turbocharged 2.0-liter, four-cylinder engine that makes 200 horsepower and 207-pound-feet of torque.

It’s a slightly detuned offshoot of the engine that powers the larger Q5 and makes the same power as the Tiguan. The engine is matched with a six-speed automatic transmission controlled with available paddle shifters.

That combination, along with front-wheel-drive that’s standard for the base Premium Plus trim designation yields ratings of 20 mpg in the city and 29 on the highway. It also produces zero-to-60-mph bursts of 7.8 seconds, which is a decent, but not radically quick march.

Audi’s Quattro all-wheel-drive system is optional in the Q3 Premium Plus, but is standard with the Prestige. As with competing systems, Quattro is not designed for venturing too far off the beaten path, but it does do an excellent job dealing with rutted back trails and snowy and icy conditions.

On dry pavement, the AWD is continually directing torque to all four wheels in varying degrees, such as when accelerating from rest and when negotiating twisty roads.

At $33,400, including destination charges, the Premium Plus is no stripped-down unit.

It includes dual-zone climate control, panoramic sunroof, rain-sensing windshield wipers and heated 12-way power front seats with leather.

As well as AWD, the Q3 Prestige adds a navigation system, power tailgate, premium 14-speaker Bose-brand sound system, power-adjustable and folding outside mirrors and park assist that uses a rearview camera in concert with audible front- and rear-distance warning. There are also a few stand-alone options to consider, including a 12-way power driver’s seat, 19-inch wheels, walnut interior trim and Audi Drive Select.

The latter lets you adjust the steering and throttle responses between Comfort (relaxed), Dynamic (sporty) and Auto modes (a combination of the first two).

The A3’s arrival places Audi in the thick of the luxury-compact wagon field and gives buyers on a budget a clear option when considering either a traditional sedan or something a bit more on the practical side.

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