"Der neue Q2 in Cuba? Ja, now that is a great idea!” How the skinny lattes must have flowed at that first blue-sky marketing meeting to choose the launch location for Audi's new tiddler SUV, nine months ago.
The CIA failed to kill Fidel Castro with poisoned wetsuits and exploding cigars, but in 2008 he upped and retired as El Presidente in favour of his brother, Raul, and so began a slow process of reformation.
Last December, a brokered deal was struck between Raul Castro and US president Barack Obama to begin normalising relations and, two and a half months ago, Obama became the first US president to visit Cuba since 1928. Things are changing in Cuba, with freer travel, prisoner exchanges, liberalised capital controls and more state tolerance of property ownership and private business.
Whether that will remain the same if Donald Trump gets the presidency, who knows. Though Cuba desperately needs investment and renewal, the prospect of a fire sale to American corporate imperialists in the form of hotel, coffee and hamburger chains isn't greeted with universal joy on the island. They may be poor, but they're also fiercely proud.
So Audi has snuck in as the first carmaker to launch in the country that once threatened to nuke the US. Though Fidel was a big Mercedes-Benz fan, allowing Mercedes to open the only independent car dealer on the island, Raul, we are told, is more of an Audi aficionado. So a handful of motoring journalists braved blazing sun, soaring humidity and a blizzard of feel-good facts about this new baby, first in a segment of premium, sub-compact SUV/crossovers.
Not that the Q2 will be a Cuban, or an American, thing, for that matter.
Jim Farley, Ford of Europe president, pointed out that “the explosion in [small] crossovers in Europe is just not happening [yet] in the rest of the world”.
“The Q3 is enough in the US; we will not take the Q2 there,” says Dietmar Voggenreiter, Audi sales and marketing board member. So this is a largely European product, but it's arriving into a doubly exploding market of downsized premium cars, overlapped with premium SUVs.
Based on Volkswagen's MQB platform (that's Fabia/Golf/A3), the Q2 has its engine mounted across the frame, predominantly driving the front wheels, although four-wheel drive is optional. It's 20cm shorter than a Q3 and 13cm shorter than an A3 Sportback, but wider, with a squat design that brings to mind a box on wheels. Though the initial impression is of an A3, there's some clever design stuff, including the concave panels across the top of the doors — which visually carry the tall door panels into the side windows — and the long roof spoiler, which tricks the eye into seeing the Q2 as lower and longer than it is, as well as improving the aerodynamic performance.
The body is a slippery 0.30Cd, although the bigger Mercedes GLA trumps that with 0.29.
It's not all great — from some angles it looks like two cars stuck together — but it's technical, cogent and mostly attractive. The cabin apes that of the A3, but is simpler and somehow more plush as a result.
The seats are comfortable and the controls beautifully weighted. Interior space is greater than in the A3 despite the Q2's shorter length, and the boot is a healthy size. Rear seat backs can be split three ways for long loads, but though there’s just enough room for a couple of tall adults in there, you need some give and take from the front-seat passengers to get enough leg room.
Five engines will be offered: TFSI petrol units of 1-litre, 1.4-litre and, from 2017, a 2.0-litre with four-wheel drive. Diesel units will be 1.6-litre, and a 2-litre which comes with front or all-wheel drive.
The standard transmission for most models is a six-speed manual, but there’s the option of a newly updated seven-speed, twin-clutch gearbox, which is standard on the 2.0-litre turbodiesel.
Standard equipment on the starter SE spec includes: 16in wheels; MMI radio with a 7in TFT screen; air conditioning; and Audi’s pedestrian recognition and braking system. The most popular Sport grade adds 17in wheels, dynamic suspension, satnav, sports seats, adjustable steering and throttle sensitivity, and cruise control. The top-model S-Line, which is predicted to occupy 35 per cent of sales, adds 18in wheels, S-Line body trim, LED headlamps and a no-cost upgrade to sport suspension.
Thanks to poor Cuban diesel fuel, the only car available to drive was the 1.4-litre petrol.
It’s a delightful performer, revving freely with a good spread of power and suiting the seven-speed, twin-clutch well.
It also has a cylinder cut-out to improve fuel consumption, which is effective and effectively undetectable. Top speed is 207km/h, with 0-100km/h achieved in a brisk 8.5 seconds.
Suspension is much the same as that of the A3 with MacPherson struts at the front and a rear independent multi-link system. Low-profile Michelins crashed over vast potholes, flapped across the occasional absence of any sort of road surface and bounced over boulder-like bumps. If the ride in the front was busy, in the back it was uncomfortable.
The progressive variable-ratio steering (standard on all models) provides precise and positive feeling steering and gives feedback without simply vibrating to the tune of the road surface.
The route was never going to give much of an indication of high-speed handling but early signs are that it turns in neatly to corners, has nicely restricted body roll and feels fun to drive as well as being as smooth as you’d expect from an Audi. The Q2 also has a charm often lacking from new Audis, which tend towards the clinical.
The message is that Audi, like Cuba, is on the change, with new designs, ideas and niche models like the Q2.
Audi’s bet that the tiddler SUV market is strong enough to support a premium model is a dead cert and, at present, rivals Mercedes-Benz and BMW seems as unprepared for action as America was for the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.
Audi plans to introduce the Q2 to New Zealand in the second quarter of next year with prices and specifications closer to launch date.