It used to be so simple – 4×4’s were big, clumsy goliaths, driven mostly by mums on the school run, with few redeeming qualities apart from their use as rescue vehicles during Britain’s recent mini Ice Age. Just a few years ago the Urban 4×4 (or SUV/SAV as car makers like to call them) were considered an endangered species as organisations sprung up – The Alliance Against Urban 4x4s – devoted to its demise.

But like many endangered species, the Urban 4×4 has evolved, growing smaller, lighter and less aggressive looking – gone are the bull bars and loud knobbly tyres, to be replaced by pedestrian friendly bonnets and low-resistance eco tyres.

The Urban 4×4 was not ‘really’ born bad – it’s just a little misunderstood.

Sophisticated, versatile and elegant

Audi’s new Q3, which will be launched at the Auto Shanghai 2011 on April 19, is described as “.. a versatile companion for everyday life – with an urbane character.” Clever eh?

Urbane is defined as “having the polish and suavity regarded as characteristic of sophisticated social life in major cities – reflecting elegance and sophistication, especially in expression”, whereas Urban is defined as “characteristic of or accustomed to cities, citified, pertaining to a city or town”. With the simple addition of a vowel, Audi have dodged the bullet, producing a suave and sophisticated SUV that even tree-huggers could love… (well okay, maybe that’s an overly rose-tinted aspiration)

The design of the Q3 is a cross between Q5 and A1 – Audi describe it as classic, but they would be hard pressed to find a past model that bears any resemblance to the Q3, either in form or function. Audi’s Q3 will compete with BMW’s X1 and the VW Tiguan, in an increasingly competitve sector that’s blurring the boundaries between SUV and lifestyle cross-overs such as the Nissan Juke

Perhaps the most notable feature of the Q3 is its weight. If you’re getting ready to hate Audi’s new SUV for its wasteful inefficiency, then think again – the Q3 weighs less than 1,500kg (3,307 lb) putting it almost on a par with a Toyota Prius (or 50kg lighter than an X1) and enabling the 138bhp 2WD Q3 2.0 TDI to achieve 54 mpg on the urbane-cycle.

Audi Q3 - a premium compact SUV for tree huggers

The interior of Audi’s latest model is said to be very roomy with a luggage capacity of 460 litres or up to 1,365 litres with the seats folded down. As with the exterior, customers have many opportunities to express their very own style in the interior: Audi offers a wide selection of materials and colours and customers can opt to supplement the standard specification with numerous premium-class options including adaptive xenon plus headlights, enhanced parking assist and a full range of infotainment components, spearheaded by the large MMI navigation plus – a hard drive navigation system – and the Bose surround sound system, with illuminated woofers up front.

In the near future, an online Bluetooth car phone will follow, paired with a WLAN hotspot to provide the Q3 with full Internet connectivity.

Engines and drivetrain

This new premium compact SUV by Audi will roll off the assembly line with three different four-cylinder engines: one TDI and two TFSI units. All three will combine direct injection with turbocharging, and will feature not only an energy recovery system but also a start-stop system. With power outputs ranging from 138bhp to 208bhp, the engines are said to be as efficient as they are powerful.

A basic version of the Q3 2.0 TDI, is scheduled to appear a little later in the year with the 138bhp and front-wheel drive.

Audi’s seven-speed S tronic will be mated to the all-wheel drive versions which features a new innovation – during coasting, the dual-clutch transmission disengages the clutch and allows the Q3 to roll freely – provided that the driver has selected efficiency mode in the optional Audi drive select system. This measure also boosts fuel efficiency.

Drivers can use the four modes of the optional Audi drive select to enable various systems to adjust to their individual driving style; these include engine management and the optional adaptive dampers. The chassis of the Q3 features a four-link rear suspension, electromechanical power steering, and robust braking system.

After making its debut at Auto Shanghai 2011 next week, the Audi Q3 will begin production in Martorell, Spain near Barcelona – and will go on sale across Europe from June. Its starting price will be 29,900 euros in the German market, which should equate to around £25,000 in the UK.