RS has become a valuable sub-brand for Audi. The badge was originally limited to those super-saloons and estates whose performance and engineering were worthy, but as buyer habits have changed and the choice of models has ballooned, the famous letters have found their way onto the flagship variants of all sorts of body styles.
The RS Q3 Sportback ‘coupe-crossover’ is one of them. It’s one of Audi’s smaller SUVs, though it doesn’t really feel it thanks to a widened track and thick doors that, as with a lot of modern cars, seem to place its outer extremes quite far away. Its unremarkable 4506mm length, 1851mm width and 1602mm height dispute the feeling of bulk that comes when you hop in.
It’s a busy, angular design as per Audi’s current trends for its schpordy models; the front end is all grilles and blades waiting to chop through the air with high-riding, turbocharged brutality. We like the vaguely box-type wheel arches but not the plastic trim extensions, which cheapen the end look. In better news, the rear doors are styled into the body pretty neatly. I certainly don’t think the five doors look awkward on it.
This particular car has had rather a lot of options added, it has to be said. From the £110 black mirror housings and the £295 black Audi grille badge, to the £995 black 21-inch alloys and £4795 ceramic brakes with red-painted calipers, a standard RS Q3 will probably look quite tame alongside this one. Is this a good or bad thing? The options list means you can decide yourself. Just brace for spend: this one has exactly £13,005 of add-ons and some of these really should be standard in a £51,605 list price, like £80 folding door mirrors.
Among the extras is a £250 tyre-pressure monitoring system that also keeps tabs on tyre temperatures. We’re struggling to find a practical real-world use for the information, but hey, it’s quite cool to have. The £850 Matrix LED headlights, on the other hand, are a triumph of technology. On full beam with no oncoming traffic the spread of illumination isn’t as even as in some rival systems, but the individual beam channels react quickly to lights ahead and do an impressive job of highlighting everywhere they can except for other cars, and they don’t get fooled by road sign reflections.
Under the bonnet is the same 2480cc, turbocharged, undersquare five-cylinder engine that serves in all the 3-level RS cars. It’s happy to rev to 7000rpm and makes for one hell of a centrepiece. With all settings in one of the adaptive chassis’ un-dynamic modes the unusual powerplant picks up with a chunky off-beat warble in the mid-range before the RS Q3 really catapults towards the horizon to the sound of what might best be described as a 20-foot wasp. There’s more lag than you might expect, but I like it on this engine. It’s part of a show that makes its 395bhp and 354lb ft feel like even more.
There’s an angry, sharp pitch to the blown inline-five that reminds me of the R8’s howling 5.2-litre V10, at least in temperament. It’s addictive and unique, so it’s a shame that activating the £1000 sports exhaust overlays a bombastic, rude, loud, but considerably less tuneful soundtrack. Interestingly there are now two customisable RS driving modes, accessed via slightly cheap-feeling clicks from a steering wheel button. After playing around a bit, I left RS1 as everything turned up to RS-spec, and RS2 as everything except the exhaust.
As time with this car passes you realise that it’s happier performing dramatic 4.5-second 0-62mph launches and making lots of noise than it is with carving up back-roads. The ride on the £995 RS Sport Suspension Plus is both controlled and comfortable almost all of the time, but the steering disappoints. It’s a bad mixture of very fast and too light; you just can’t stop over-steering into apexes, which means you have to correct at least twice mid-corner and often makes you look (and feel) like a chump. It also proved very hard to adapt to. It’s not Audi’s best work.
Nor is the gearbox. Frequently hesitant when you ask it for a fast pick-up, it leaves you languishing as that gap you’d targeted starts to pass you by, at which point the drivetrain hits with all the force of Thor’s hammer. It’s jerky, dim-witted and slow on the uptake, and it makes no sense when compared to how smooth and silky the seven-speed S-tronic unit is in normal driving. It’s quick enough to kick down when needed, happy to stay in-gear when possible, and generally an easy companion to get along with.
Let’s stay on the good news trail with the cabin impressions. There’s a welcoming rightness about the layout, the look and the feel. Black Nappa leather with red accents is always a big box ticked for me, at least, and the comfy but supportively firm seats are multi-way adjustable to taste. The same goes for the digital dashboard – set it up how you like it. It’s so close to a being brilliant interior full of effective tech.
The only – but massive – spanner in the works is the chronic under-supply of reach adjustment. With my seat where I want it for the sake of my legs, I pretty much have to call a taxi to get back to where the wheel is. For a while I was totally convinced something must be blocking the column, such is the scale of the shortfall.
The RS Q3 and its foibles sum up where Audi is at with the RS brand. Where else can you still get a 7000rpm engine this charismatic in a car of this class size? Hats off to Audi for that. The hot Q3 is a vastly more interesting option than any comparable fast SUV and it’s thanks to that five-pot. There’s a premium and dynamic interior ambience, impressive comfort (on the optional springs) and a decent wedge of practicality.
However, too many areas have dug for bold and instead struck brash. Then there are the engineering complaints: the steering, the gearbox lag and the tune of the sports exhaust. There’s good news somewhere here for petrolheads who want the SUV image, but it needs to be coaxed out with another try. Slightly slower, more feelsome steering and a smarter transmission would transform the car from a pretender into an authentic RS SUV.