New DS 4 vs Audi Q3 vs Cupra Formentor

With names like E-Tense, TFSIe and eHybrid, these SUVs are eager to promote their electrification and efficiency. But which one’s the boss?...

New DS 4 vs Audi Q3 vs Cupra Formentor fronts

The contenders

NEW DS 4 E-Tense 225 Performance Line+

List price £39,950
Target price £39,114

This striking cross between a coupé and an SUV promises a luxurious driving experience and outstanding fuel economy for a lower price than its rivals here

Audi Q3 45 TFSIe S line

List price £42,835
Target price £41,256

The Q3 may be the most conventional of our contenders, but it’s already well known for being good to drive and having a smart-looking and practical interior

Cupra Formentor eHybrid 245 VZ2

List price £42,185
Target price £42,185

The sharp-looking Formentor shares its plug-in hybrid tech with the Audi Q3 and ought to be the sportiest of our trio to drive, coming from Seat’s go-faster arm

Former US president Barack Obama once said, “A good compromise is like a good sentence, or a good piece of music. Everybody can recognise it. They say, ‘Huh. It works. It makes sense’.” Obama made this quote in reference to his legendary statesmanship, but we reckon it’s just as relevant to the subject of this test: plug-in hybrids.

New DS 4 front cornering

You see, a plug-in hybrid is all about flexibility, because while an increasing number of us would love to make the jump from a combustion-engined car straight to a fully electric one, such cars aren’t always compatible with our everyday needs. We worry about range and the inadequacies of the public charging network, especially when it comes to covering long distances.

But what if you could drive to your office, gym or supermarket on electric power – benefiting the planet and your pocket – and then call upon a petrol engine for longer trips? Well, a plug-in hybrid fulfils both of these demands; in other words, it’s a compromise that makes sense. Thankfully, more and more car makers are embracing this approach, and the latest to the table is French brand DS Automobiles.

Since splitting from Citroën and becoming a brand in its own right, DS has set its sights on taking on the premium players at their own game – and the DS 4 is the latest model in its growing arsenal. With concept car lines, a striking interior, a fast charging rate (we’ll explain more about this later) and a competitive price tag, it’s well positioned to take on the established premium alternatives.

Well, we say ‘established’. Our second contender comes from a brand you might not have heard of: Cupra. The performance arm of Seat, its latest SUV is the striking Cupra Formentor, which, like the DS 4, is something of a mash-up between a hatchback, a coupé and an SUV. It’s available with a wide selection of pure petrol engines, but here we’re testing the range-topping plug-in hybrid version.

Audi Q3 front cornering

As for our third protagonist, the Audi Q3, it has been available as a plug-in hybrid for a little over a year. It shares the same 1.4-litre petrol engine and electric motor as the Formentor and promises greater practicality, but is it flawed in other areas? Let’s find out.


Performance, ride, handling, refinement

Plug-in hybrids have built a reputation for being sprightly, due to the fact that they’re powered by both a traditional petrol or diesel engine and a compact electric motor. So it should come as little surprise that, with total outputs of 242bhp, the Q3 and Formentor are properly punchy.

From a standstill, the Formentor takes just 6.5sec to reach 60mph, with the Q3 just two-tenths behind. A few years ago, that kind of performance would have been the preserve of hot hatches and powerful executive saloons, but now your frugal family SUV can be just as rapid. That’s progress.

Cupra Formentor front cornering

The DS 4 is the laggard of the group, but these things are relative. It may produce ‘just’ 222bhp, but it is still able to get from 0-60mph in 7.7sec. And while its eight-speed automatic gearbox is slower than its rivals’ six-speed autos to shuffle down the gears when you ask for a burst of power, once up and running it’s plenty quick enough. For example, 50-70mph takes 3.6sec – just a tenth down on the Formentor – so joining a motorway or overtaking a slower car is no sweat.

The tables are turned when it comes to ride comfort, though, with the softly sprung DS 4 having an uncanny ability to soak up potholes and bumps (a forward-facing camera primes its standard adaptive suspension for upcoming abrasions). Without a doubt, it’s one of the comfiest cars in its class.

Although the Formentor can’t match the DS 4 in this respect, its standard adaptive suspension allows you to soften things off for a reasonably supple ride. It’s certainly more compliant than the Q3, which never feels particularly settled and has a tendency to thump over larger abrasions.

The pay-off for the Q3’s firm ride is that it feels more agile than the Formentor. That might come as a surprise, given that the Formentor is billed as the most driver-focused member of this group, but the Q3 has tighter body control, more accurate steering and more grip than its Spanish counterpart.

New DS 4 vs Audi Q3 vs Cupra Formentor rears

Meanwhile, try to hustle the DS 4 down a twisty road and you’ll find that the overly light steering doesn’t inspire much confidence, while there’s a fair bit of body lean in corners. The DS 4 is at its best when driven in a relaxed manner.

Of course, you might be more curious about real-world battery range than on-the-limit handling. Well, there isn’t a huge amount between our contenders, with the Formentor managing 25 miles in our test before having to call upon its petrol engine and the DS 4 and Q3 topping out at 24 and 22 miles respectively. And once the batteries are fully depleted and you’re relying on petrol power alone, the Formentor is the most efficient, averaging an impressive 45.3mpg on our mixed test route. The Q3 is next best (40.4mpg), with the DS 4 averaging a slightly disappointing 38.6mpg.

While you’ll find the Q3 and Formentor easy to drive smoothly whether you’re in electric mode or the engine is running, the DS 4 requires you to put in extra effort to avoid jerkiness, due to its inconsistent brakes and the way the electric motor interacts with the gearbox. However, it gains some points back for being much quieter than the Q3 and Formentor at a cruise; the former suffers from significant amounts of road noise, while the latter’s engine is rather coarse when it kicks in.

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