Status SUVs—at a price

Can prestige come in a small package?

Published: April 08, 2015 06:00 AM

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Sport and utility. Despite their do-everything, go-anywhere promise, SUVs generally live on the street, carrying briefcases and gym bags more often than slogging expeditionary gear to a far-off destination. So it’s no surprise that luxury compact SUVs are a hot commodity. These status-worthy models offer the latest technology, competitive fuel economy, and all-wheel drive for security in inclement weather, and yet they are as agile and maneuverable as any hatchback. And the premium badge heralds your arrival at the ski lodge or country club. Still, these new tall hatchbacks require premium fuel, have cramped rear seats, don’t offer much cargo space, and carry a big price premium over mainstream models. Does a prestige logo actually bring more than a feeling that you’re above the hoi polloi? We bought and tested the two newest German models to find out.

Audi Q3: Ready for twisty roads and ugly weather

The Q3 delivers leather seats, sunroof, and a great driving experience.

Many luxury brands are marketing high-riding hatchbacks and wagons as SUVs, but Audi’s entry actually delivers. The Q3’s design lets you sit higher, with a commanding driving position that the swept-back BMW X1 and Mercedes-Benz GLA lack. And let’s face it, where your posterior is planted relative to other drivers is a prime reason folks buy SUVs.

With the Q3’s tall doors, you can easily hop in and out. But things get tight once you’re behind the wheel. Front-seat occupants are likely to bump elbows­—think of a coach-class fight over the center armrest. Taller drivers may feel their knee and hip cramping by the too-close, asymmetrical relationship of the dead pedal to the driver’s seat.

Once underway, the Q3 is rewarding to drive. The suspension soaks up ruts and potholes well despite its underlying firmness. A quiet cabin and supportive seats make even a long commute pleasant. The Q3’s nimble and crisp handling makes those narrow, fast two-lane parkways a joy.

The 2.0-liter four-cylinder turbo sends its 200 hp through a six-speed automatic. Getting the Q3 to 60 mph feels faster than the 8.4 seconds it takes; however, its 22-mpg overall fuel economy is not stellar. But come winter, its all-wheel drive will help keep you from spinning your wheels. The Quattro system makes navigating deep slushy snow almost routine.

Front-drive Q3s start at $32,500, and our Premium Plus Quattro set us back a hefty $40,125. That price gives you a mostly well-finished interior laid out with German precision, even if there’s some hard plastic here and there.

Leather seats and a panoramic sunroof are standard, but some expected features are missing. It has no USB ports—just a proprietary media connector. A power liftgate costs $400, and the backup camera is part of a $1,400 option package.

Don’t be misled by the Q3’s seemingly low price of entry; you’ll still have to cough up some cash for the true Audi boutique experience.

Read our complete Audi Q3 road test.

Trim Premium Plus Quattro
Engine 200-hp, 2.0-liter turbocharged 4-cyl.
Fuel 22 mpg
Price $32,500-$38,500

Mercedes-Benz GLA: Deluxe in name only

The GLA is a head-turner, but it doesn't deliver the luxury goods.

The GLA’s $31,300 base price might seem temptingly low, but it has the feel of buying a Rolex and finding out the expected second hand is an extra-cost item.

In fact, luxury-car basics such as dual-zone climate control, heated seats, and a sunroof are optional. Even with a restrained hand on the options list, the GLA’s price can easily pass $40,000. Ours cost $42,210.

We understand the appeal for luxury in a small package and the draw of Mercedes’ cachet. But if you’re expecting real Mercedes qualities—such as a hushed cabin, plush ride, and a solid feel—you’ll be very disappointed. In fact, it’s difficult to see the GLA’s superiority over the similarly sized Mazda3 or Subaru Impreza.

The GLA’s sleek silhouette attracts lots of looks but creates major limitations. We were taken aback by the cramped though nicely finished interior. Even average-height drivers found head room skimpy. The rear seat is laughably small, and you’re out of luck if you want to carry serious luggage behind it.

And though the GLA’s flash makes you visible to others, you’ll have trouble seeing out. The must-have rear-view camera costs an additional $450. And we wouldn’t consider getting a GLA without the $550 blind-spot monitoring system. Some controls are confusing: It’s easy to mistake the column-mounted shifter for a wiper stalk and swat it when it rains, putting the car in neutral. We were also irked at how low in the dash the climate controls are mounted.

Not all is dire. The low-slung GLA handles well, being more like a hatchback than an SUV. In all-wheel-drive form, the GLA is stable, with strong thrust from the 2.0-liter, four-cylinder turbo engine. We got 26 mpg overall, which is quite good for the segment.

Still, this engine and the seven-speed dual-clutch automatic are an unrefined package. Despite a quick 6.9-second 0-to-60-mph sprint, the powertrain often feels half asleep, particularly when the engine is off the turbo boost, and the transmission takes its time finding the right gear.

As a pricey bauble, the GLA works. But after the shine dulls on the three-pointed hood ornament, you’ll realize it doesn’t deliver the luxury experience you thought you were getting.

Read our complete Mercedes-Benz GLA road test.

Trim GLA250
Engine 208-hp, 2.0-liter turbocharged 4-cyl.
Fuel 26 mpg
Price $33,300-$48,300

What price compact luxury?

A compact crossover SUV may seem like an enticing entry point to a luxury brand. Without being too expensive, those vehicles make a grand entrance, carry a decent list of features, and, ooh la la, that badge. But certain compact luxury SUVs can be a poor value. For instance, a loaded-up mainstream crossover—such as the Honda CR-V (reviewed below)—gives you more bang for the buck. Conversely, for those who can afford the entry luxury price, spending a few grand more up front, or a few dollars more on a monthly lease, can upgrade you to a midsized luxury SUV that will have more room, a better driving experience, and higher-quality features and materials. The Mercedes GLA we purchased set us back 42 grand all tarted up. But the nicer and larger GLK (shown) rings in at about $47,000. In that case, spending more may be the wiser choice.

Honda CR-V: Practical and versatile—warts and all

Photo: Honda

In the battle for small-SUV supremacy, the latest salvo comes from Honda, but it doesn’t hit the bull’s-eye. The CR-V’s midlife freshening brings not only a new powertrain but also some degradation in ride comfort and user-friendliness.

The direct-injected four-cylinder engine and new continuously variable transmission returned 24 mpg overall, just 1 mpg better than last year’s model. Although the rubber-band revving of the CVT is well-masked, under hard acceleration the CVT shows its true stretchy nature—with harshly amplified engine noise.

Honda recalibrated the suspension to be more responsive and planted. But that comes at the cost of ride comfort, which used to be among the best in class. The cabin is marginally quieter and better isolated from road roar. Winter playtime proved the all-wheel-drive system to be capable in deep slush.

The freshening brought more features to the widely sold EX trim level, such as a power driver’s seat, heated front seats, and the LaneWatch blind-spot camera. The new Touring trim gets you a power tailgate.

Other virtues remain, such as generous rear-seat room and cargo space, as well as a handy rear-seat folding mechanism.

The newfangled infotainment systemis one of the worst we’ve seen. Unless you get the base LX, the CR-V does away with knobs, instead using unintuitive menus and tiny buttons or onscreen icons.

On the safety front, the CR-V offers features not normally seen in this class, such as forward-collision warning with automatic braking, lane-departure warning, and lane-keep assist—but only on high-end versions.

Despite the transmission quirks, stiff ride, and confusing controls, the CR-V’s practicality and affordability still stand.

Read our complete Honda CR-V road test.

Editor's Note:

This article also appeared in the May 2015 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.

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