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Is Audi's rapid compact SUV a hit or a mismatch of different genres - and how does it stack up to rivals like the Mercedes-AMG GLA 45?

Quattro GmbH’s (now Audi Sport) quest to build a nominal range-topper for each and every one of Audi’s product lines continues apace.

With saloons, estates, coupés and cabriolets conquered, the industrious tuner has turned its attention to the Q-branded SUVs.

The Audi RS Q3 is undoubtedly the quickest compact SUV around

Rather than meet its rivals head on in the mid and large-size SUV segments, the bigwigs at Neckarsulm – compelled, no doubt, by Audi’s conveyor belt of product introductions and the growth of the market – have launched a compact SUV first in the 335bhp Audi RS Q3, and, remarkably, found itself leading the charge.

With the BMW X1 currently unmolested by M division, and no Range Rover Evoque Sport in the running, there was nothing on the same rapidity scale as the Audi, until Mercedes-Benz rolled around with its Mercedes-Benz A-Class-inspired Mercedes-Benz GLA crossover which was handed over to AMG to create a 375bhp beast.

Aside from the functional concept created to preview the RS Q3, Quattro GmbH has not previously recreated one of Audi’s SUVs in its own image, even though the Audi SQ5 and Audi SQ7 both have some of Audi Sport's expertise.

The propulsive oddity that was the Q7 V12 TDI had been proposed as a suitable candidate for an RS badge, but the idea was apparently dismissed again almost as quickly.

Nevertheless, the division has a legacy of success with thick-set hardware of niche appeal. Its first road car was, after all, not the sinewy R8, but the decidedly boxy RS2.

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By transplanting the 2.5-litre, five-cylinder engine from the Audi RS3 – no great trick, given the shared bridgework – Audi has delivered a petrol powerhouse in an oil-burning sanctum.

All evidence suggests that the market will swell sufficiently to ingest such a model, but does that qualify it as trendsetter or unnecessary trade-off? Let’s find out.

 

DESIGN & STYLING

Audi RS Q3 19in alloys
Standard wheels are 19-inch items, but there are two 20-inch options; these are the optional 'Rotor' wheels

If it’s hard to make a compact SUV look elegant when you have a grille the size of Audi’s to graft on to its nose.

It’s harder still to make one look aggressive without veering into caricature. The RS Q3 treads a pretty fine line, but most commentators we showed it to reckoned the balance was about right: sporty but without comedy bulges.

The in-line engine is mounted sideways and more space is given over to feeding and cooling it

What’s of more interest to us, though, and we suspect you, too, is what lies beneath the RS Q3’s amplified haunches. We’re delighted to see the TT RS’s 2.5-litre five-pot given another outing.

The Volkswagen Group’s compact platforms don’t allow for the fitment of Audi’s more traditional RS multi-cylinder units, but if Audi thinks an overblown four-pot won’t quite do for a car with an RS badge, we’re only too happy to agree.

Here, it has 335bhp and 331lb ft of torque. If you know that bhp and lb ft are always equal at 5250rpm, you’ll realise that those figures should make it a broadly muscular powerplant. Powerful it may of been but the 375bhp GLA 45 has upped the game further, not to be outdone Audi Sport responded with the RS Q3 Performance which upped its power to 362bhp.

The engine is mated as standard to a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic gearbox with a fairly long final ratio to help the RS Q3 achieve a CO2 output of 206g/km.

It drives through the Haldex four-wheel drive system that you get on smaller Audi and other Volkswagen Group cars. It’s permanent but naturally leads to front-biased handling. There’s no torque vectoring or sports differential at the rear.

Suspension is by MacPherson struts at the front, with a four-link set-up at the rear and coil springs and conventional passive dampers all round. We’ve often found that fast Audis run out of brakes quite quickly on a circuit, but the RS Q3 has ventilated discs front and rear, 365mm in diameter at the front, and the discs also have ‘wave technology’.

‘Wavy’ brake discs are now a relatively common sight on motorcycles and mountain bikes (they first arrived on dirt bikes more than a decade ago because they dissipated grime more easily than round discs), but they’re a more recent arrival on cars.

The theory is straightforward. For a given diameter, putting waves in the outer edge of the disc reduces weight but retains the same circumference around the edge, maintaining good heat dissipation. That the pads overlap the missing segments and are exposed to air frequently helps this, too.

The decrease in the total amount of metal (obviously, given the weight reduction) means wavy brakes generally run hotter, but Audi claims improved cooling means they fade more slowly. We also suspect Audi likes the look of them.

They’re more expensive to produce than round discs, mind, while bike experts say the pads wear quicker and that they’re noisier than round discs.

INTERIOR

Audi RS Q3 driver's seat
Forward visibility is good but rear visibility is only average

We lauded the Q3’s interior quality when it originally came out, and it has required few enhancements to appear worthy of this model’s much-inflated price.

Most notably, the cloth upholstery has been replaced by Nappa leather and the standard model’s circular steering wheel has given way to the flat-bottomed version common to all RS models.

Standard kit includes dual-zone climate, heated seats and Bluetooth connectivity

Similarly, the dials now come in a lighter-backed format, the paddles grow some much-needed size and the golf ball of a gearknob gets some pleasant dimples to go with its usual heft. There’s also a new engine starter button, which can be forgiven for eating up some of the centre stack cubbyhole space, given that it is connected to the car’s finest feature.

There are some other notable enhancements of the RS Q3 besides these, but they cannot be characterised without acknowledging Audi's niggardly insistence that, even in an extravagantly priced halo model, you pay extra for them.

As for the standard equipment on the RS Q3 there is a wealth of exterior details such as an aggressive body kit, chrome plated exhaust system, LED headlight, parking sensors, and electronic locking differential and stability control system as standard. While inside there is heated front sports seats, climate control and Audi's MMI infotainment system complete with a 6.5in infotainment system, Bluetooth, USB connectivity, DAB radio and sat nav.

For those looking for a little more exclusivity, then the RS Q3 Performance may be more up your street, and adds bigger alloys, cruise control, interior LED lighting, leather and Alcantara upholstery and a titanium styling pack.

The RS’s other significant deficiency is an unavoidable carry-over. A compact crossover this may well be, but that knowledge will not help comfort the knees of taller occupants of the rear seats or, indeed, their brows, which will be closer to the swept roofline than anyone would want in a car with such sporting intent.

Smaller legs remain well catered for, though. The boot is acceptably commodious, at 460 litres, and comes with a load-through facility and reversible floor mat – if you’re prepared to cough up for them.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

Five-cylinder Audi RS Q3 engine
Five-cylinder engine produces 306bhp and 310lb ft

Undboutedly, Audi started in the right place when it chose to plonk the five-cylinder turbo from the RS3 and TT RS in its new-breed fast 4x4.

The engine is docile and smooth one moment, and then it just gives and gives the moment you flatten the accelerator pedal, almost irrespective of the chosen gear or operating crank speed.

The seven-speed gearbox could shift more intuitively

There is 331lb ft of torque available from just 1500rpm up to 5200rpm, at which point exactly the 335bhp of peak power chimes in and stays present until 6700rpm, while the RS Q3 Performance has peak figures of 362bhp and 343lb ft.

That makes for quite incredible flexibility of performance – not to mention the kind of power and torque graph that you could eat your dinner off – and explains how this relatively small and cheap option can easily outsprint more expensive and powerful mega-4x4s such as the Porsche Cayenne GTS and BMW X5 M50d. However the standard car is slightly slower than Mercedes-AMG GLA 45, but the slightly less powerful Performance model is capable of the same 0-62mph time as the Mercedes-AMG.

It could even level-peg a Range Rover Sport Supercharged – a car twice the Audi’s price – up to illegal speeds.

When munching its way through the intermediate gears, the RS Q3 feels quicker than even our 5.0sec 0-60mph clocking would suggest. Audi’s just-discontinued full-fat RS3 is only three-tenths quicker from 30-70mph. An X5 M50d is fully seven-tenths slower. Keep your foot in it and the RS Q3 will eventually pin itself against an electronic 155mph limiter.

Throttle response is just soft enough at very low revs to remind you that you’re driving something turbocharged, but it is very good indeed the rest of the time, allowing you to be unerringly precise with the accelerator and mete out exactly as much tractive force as you need. The five-cylinder soundtrack is every bit as rousing as it is in the TT RS and was in the RS3, and has very little whooshing turbo interference.

The dual-clutch gearbox is the only part of the puzzle that doesn’t merit unequivocal praise. It’s excellent at full-bore shifts and launch control starts. It’s quite smooth and unobtrusive when you’re in ‘D’ and in no particular hurry.

But it loses its way somewhere between those two positions of strength, delaying manual ratio changes occasionally, kicking down quite reluctantly at times and generally lacking the polish of ZF’s excellent eight-speed auto ’box and AMG’s seven-speed semi-auto.

RIDE & HANDLING

The composed Audi RS Q3
The RS Q3 benefits from good body control, hardy brakes and plenty of punch

If Quattro GmbH had resolved, by fair means or foul, to give the RS Q3 the lateral grip, steering response and roll control of an RS3 hatchback – and in a car with a relatively compact footprint, it must have been tempting – there would have been a big price to pay.

Thankfully, the outfit recognised the importance of finding the sweet middle ground with this car – of adding sporting purpose without adversely affecting the everyday usability that characterises all good SUVs. And we’ve driven plenty of fast SUVs lately that missed that mark.

The 4x4 system needs to be more predictable in low-grip conditions, or just lockable 50/50

The RS Q3, like so many Audi RS models, is an easy car to drive quickly. The various Audi Drive Select modes – Auto, Comfort and Dynamic – don’t affect the basic suspension tune.

After all, there are no adaptive dampers here. But the passive ones make for a dynamic compromise that suits most journeys, not allowing excessive or sudden body movements, yet not so stiff that the ride quality suffers out of all proportion.

Audi's RS Q3 is fairly firm, but it isn’t so firm that it fails to settle on the motorway or is without the required compliance to soak up a badly surfaced back road. It produces some road roar – particularly on the optional 20-inch alloy wheels – but not an intrusive amount.

Unfortunately for Audi, that leaves the car teetering on the edge of the nondescript when you come to characterise its handling. Nothing that happens, either when you tip the car into a corner or squirt it out again and over a crest, lingers for long in your memory or enlivens your senses.

The steering is neither communicative nor incisive – even on its weightiest setting. The chassis isn’t unwilling to change tack, but it doesn’t feel particularly grippy, interactive or entertaining, either..

Several of the entries in our all-time top 10 wet lap times at MIRA belong to Audis from Quattro GmbH. But the RS Q3 didn’t add to that glorious haul. In the wet, this car is actually no quicker than a well sorted family hatchback.

Fitted with optional 20-inch wheels, the RS Q3 just didn’t have much lateral grip in the wet. Nor does it have the sophisticated drivetrain hardware to drive securely and precisely through corners just beyond the limit of grip, such as you find in the likes of the RS4 Avant and the Audi RS5.

Probe beyond the fringes of its comfort zone with the ESP switched out and, first, it’ll understeer before rolling into quite sudden oversteer. And once it is sliding, the Haldex 4x4 system never quite makes it clear what you should do to wrestle back control. Sometimes power straightens things out, but sometimes it just makes things worse.

Stability is more assured in the dry, but it comes at the expense of more than a hint of old-school Audi power-on understeer.

In the process of applying sporting dynamics to a 4x4, it seems that Audi has sanitised them a little here. Which isn’t the most surprising news to report from a go-faster department that doesn’t always produce the most exciting performance cars

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Audi RS Q3
Audi’s junior SUV gets the RS treatment, and an interesting car results

The RS Q3's CO2 emissions of 206g/km do entail some fairly hefty road tax bills, but given the performance on tap and the application of four-wheel drive, the tax burden is bearable.

The overall fuel economy figure we returned – of 26.7mpg – was on the poor side of average, but by no more than we would expect.

I can't say I liked the ageing old-A3-related switchgear on the Q3. On a £40k Q3, you wonder if the whole fascia wouldn't be a disappointment

It’s tough to find true residual value comparators to the RS Q3, but performance SUVs will remain a limited used niche whose values will be helped by supply being short.

Most petrol SUVs tend to have forecasted residuals some 15 per cent lower than the RS Q3s, making it a match – in terms of value retained – for rival diesels.

 

VERDICT

3.5 star Audi RS Q3
Fast and usable, but a shade too ordinary to drive

The Audi RS Q3 is one of eight Quattro-developed RS models that you can currently buy. That it doesn’t feel like a model too many is partly because of the rarity of go-faster 4x4s of this size, but it’s also credit to Audi’s execution of the concept.

It has at its heart that fusion of qualities which has driven every Audi RS since the original RS2: performance blended with everyday-use luxury, refinement and space.

It’s throwing punches, no question. But the turbocharged RS Q3 is in need of cleverer footwork.

So this is an effective and true RS, but not such an impressive performance 4x4 in the broader sense.

 

Audi RS Q3 2012-2016 First drives