What we traditionally regard as mainstream car brands seem to be on an eternal quest to push themselves more upmarket.
The likes of Ford and Vauxhall, who dominate the best-seller lists feel the need to add a premium sheen to their models, chasing the likes of Audi, BMW and Mercedes. And they’re getting better. Materials and build quality are definitely much better than you’d once expect.
But a brief comparison between such “premium” mainstream and the real premium brands reveals there’s still quite a gap.
Take the Audi Q2, for example. I drove this compact SUV straight after climbing out of the top-of-the-range Ford Puma Vignale. The Puma’s a similar size and among the best of the mainstream models, with all the gadgets under the sun and quilted leather upholstery. However a short time with the Audi revealed a feeling of quality and solidity that the Ford (and others like it) simply lack.
Whether it’s the interior materials, the solidity of the main touch points, the refinement or the quality of the interfaces - physical and virtual - the Q2 shows why Audi and its ilk command a premium price over “regular” brands.
And it certainly does command a premium. While the entry level Q2 costs £23,000, around the same as a basic Puma, our higher-powered S Line test car started at £30,000 - conveniently close to that Puma Vignale. However, our car was fitted with £10,000 of options, most of which were standard equipment on that pesky Puma - things like heated seats, dual-zone climate control, adaptive cruise control and 19-inch alloys.
So, you’re definitely paying more but you can feel where the money, or at least some of it, is being spent.
That interior, for example. The Q2 was recently refreshed and the update brought some upgraded materials, better adjustment on the seats and a new look to small touches like air vents and gear selector. These are all minor adjustments but enhance the built-to-last sensation which the Q2 has always possessed.
The most obvious interior change is the addition of the 12.3-inch virtual cockpit seen in other Audi models, which places configurable screens for driving, media and navigation right in front of the driver.
Away from that, the Q2 is mostly unchanged, which is both a blessing and a curse. It’s good news from a design point of view - the interior remains sharply styled, with slightly oversized features that mirror its “big is better” exterior touches. It also means the Q2 is user-friendly, with a clean layout, knurled controls for key functions and a simple rotary controller for the 8.3-inch infotainment screen. However, that screen and operating system, despite improved connectivity, are now clearly a step behind newer models in the Audi family and the centre console has a couple of ergonomic missteps.
The interior gets plus points for the comfortable sports seats and good driving position but loses a little for rear space which, like all B-SUVs, is really only sufficient for child passengers.
Along with the interior upgrades, the exterior has been gently refreshed with new wheel designs, a revised grille, air intakes and new standard-fit LED headlights. There are also now slits in the leading edge of the bonnet, that serve to differentiate higher-spec models from lesser ones with a nod to the famous Audi Sport quattro of the 1980s.
That’s part of Audi’s desire for the Q2 to be seen as “sporty and agile” and it certainly feels more lively than its larger stablemates. The steering is surprisingly sharp and the body well controlled without compromising ride comfort, which is a cut above many others in the segment. It could, however, do without the sport drive mode which brings clearly artificial added weight to the steering and a nasty “sporty” piped engine noise.
Without it, engine noise is generally fairly subdued but heavy acceleration brings out a distinctly unsporting booming from the turbocharged 1.5-litre four-pot. Our test car’s petrol engine, paired with the optional seven-speed automatic gearbox, sits in the middle of the range, between a 109bhp 1.0-litre and an 187bhp 2.0-litre. There are also 114bhp or 148bhp diesels.
The middle powered petrol feels like a sensible match for the Q2. It’s quick enough for everyday use, with welcome amounts of low-down torque, and it is refined under most circumstances.The transmission is generally pretty smooth but can feel a little hesitant at times - a perennial issue with the VW Group’s DSG gearboxes. Cylinder deactivation technology features to help attain an official economy of 45mpg but allow for around 40 in the real world.
Overall, the revised Q2 is a prime example of the difference between the true premium players and the aspirational mainstream. Built quality, road manners and design are all a cut above the norm but come at a significantly higher cost.
Audi Q2 35 TFSI S Line
Price: £30,420 (£40,025 as tested); Engine: 1.5-litre, four-cylinder, turbo, petrol; Power: 148bhp; Torque: 184lb ftTransmission: Seven-speed DSG automatic; Top speed: 135mph; 0-62mph: 8.6 seconds; Economy: 44.8mpg; CO2 emissions: 144g/km