Audi has become expert at building a market niche and cramming it with multiple variants of the car it designed to create it – and its latest micro-niche stuffer is the Audi RSQ3.
While BMW has its M division, and Mercedes-Benz relies on AMG for go-fast hardware, Audi has quattro GmbH, and the specialist speed shop has given the Q3 a comprehensive work-over to bring an ultra-high performance version of the compact SUV.
Packing a retuned, 228kW/420Nm version of the 2.5-litre turbo five-cylinder engine found in the TTRS coupe, the Audi RSQ3 rockets from 0-100km/h in a claimed 5.5 seconds, yet Audi also says it delivers 8.8L/100km economy (for the combined cycle). (And for the record, that makes it four-tenths slower than the diesel-powered SQ5.)
The characteristically rorty in-line engine is matched with a seven-speed ‘S tronic’ dual-clutch gearbox, transferring power to all four wheels via the quattro system’s hydraulically operated, and electronically controlled, multi-plate clutch pack on the rear axle.
Suspension revisions include a specific RS damper tune and shorter springs, the latter lowering the car by 25mm. Brakes are also upgraded with big 365mm ventilated and slotted discs at the front, gripped by monster eight-piston calipers, and 310mm vented rotors at the rear. Standard rims are 19-inch alloys, with three 20-inch designs optionally available.
In typical RS fashion, external changes are relatively subtle for the Audi RSQ3, with side window trims, grille surround and roof rails finished in matt aluminium, RS door sill plates and trim strips added, as well as an RS front bumper with a quattro emblem incorporated in the front air intake. A roof spoiler, central diffuser, and an oversize, oval tailpipe differentiate the car from the rear.
Inside, the seats and door inserts are trimmed in top-shelf Nappa leather, with the front pair incorporating heating, electric adjustment and four-way lumbar control. The flat-bottom, leather RS steering wheel is fitted with alloy shift paddles and the multi-media interface is the premium touch-control version.
Instruments follow the RS colour palette, with grey faces, white numerals and red needles. The pedal set is made over with ‘alloy look’ surfaces, and the in-dash information display is upgraded to include turbo charge pressure (up to 1.0 bar), oil temperature and a lap time function.
A Performance Pack consisting of 20 inch alloy rims, diamond stitch leather trim, red brake calipers, high-end 14 speaker/465 watt Bose audio (including digital radio), and a carbonfibre interior accent package will be optionally available for around $5k (final price is yet to be announced).
The Audi RSQ3 price is locked in at $81,900 for Australia, meaning a premium of about $26k over the Q3 2.0-litre TFSI quattro when it lands in February 2014.
Several hundred kilometres through some of the most challenging and picturesque alpine passes in Austria and Italy underpinned the RSQ3’s global launch; the perfect environment for the first opportunity to assess its dynamic credentials.
From the first punch of the starter button the in-line five’s growling note makes its presence felt. The distinctive sound has been an Audi hallmark since the first quattro coupe debuted more than three decades ago, and is produced by a firing order that alternates between directly neighbouring cylinders, and those furthest apart.
A flap inside the sports exhaust system opens to amplify the highly addictive sound when the most aggressive of three settings in the ‘Drive Select’ system (auto, comfort or dynamic) is chosen. But more on that shortly…
The dual-clutch auto gearbox offers a default D shift mode, as well as a Sport setting that downshifts earlier, holds gears longer and adds a rev-matching blip of the throttle as lower ratios engage. There is some occasional hesitation and a hint of shudder under partial load in this mode, but it’s a minor niggle.
The most involving option on these dramatically twisting climbs and descents is manual mode, allowing rapid-fire, sequential changes via the wheel-mounted paddles or central shifter. Ratio changes, up or down, are sharp and crisp. It’s worth noting the S-tronic gearbox also features launch control to optimise ‘maximum attack’ standing-start acceleration.
Despite a determined focus on weight reduction, including the use of aluminium for the bonnet and tailgate panels, the Audi RSQ3 is no lightweight, tipping the scales at 1730kg; more than 100 kegs heavier than the full-size Holden Commodore Evoke. But charging through the mountains it feels nimble and composed.
The engine’s maximum torque is delivered over a broad spread from just 1500rpm all the way up to 5000rpm, and solid, shove-in-the-back acceleration is on-call throughout that range. As revs climb to the 7000rpm redline the engine’s thrumming beat builds to a roaring crescendo, with full throttle up-changes accompanied by a rasping, stuttering bark. A mechanical concerto, worth the price of admission alone.
With Dynamic mode engaged, throttle response sharpens in parallel with the engine’s rising note, and with the ESC system set to sport its intervention is delayed for maximum feel and enjoyment. For those who really have to, the ESC can be (completely) switched off.
In normal driving the quattro system sends the majority of torque to the front wheels, but as speeds and cornering loads rise drive is rapidly redistributed between front and rear axles as required, up to a maximum of around 40:60 front to rear.
The revised suspension delivers an impressive blend of handling balance and ride comfort, even over some distinctly Aussie-like bumpy backroads, while the 225/35 Pirelli P Zero rubber on the optional 20-inch alloys fitted to ‘our’ car, chips in with tenacious grip.
The big brakes are progressive, powerful and unfazed by continuous, enthusiastic use on steep descents.
You quickly find yourself forgetting this is an SUV, the fluent relationship between engine, steering and brakes providing the dynamic feel of a thoroughly well sorted, premium performance car.
The eighth and newest member of Audi’s RS performance line-up is a welcome addition, and although annual sales of 100 units (just four percent of overall Q3 volume) are expected, the Audi RSQ3 puts the heat on the likes of the BMW X1 and Range Rover Evoque to join the high-performance fight or surrender this newly established territory.