SUV sales may have boomed over the years, but high-performance variants remain a relatively rare breed.
Mainstream brands have largely ignored such spin-offs using their known sports badges. Volkswagen had its Touareg R but has resisted a Tiguan GTI, Ford hasn’t done a Kuga ST, and Renault has restricted its hallowed RS badge to its hot-hatches.
Subaru could break the mould with an upcoming Forester STI, otherwise the domain of super-quick SUVs has been left to the luxury brands.
Mercedes has offered AMG versions of its SUVs since 1999, and BMW took a tin-opener to the worm can when it slapped M badges on the X5 and X6.
BMW has yet to offer an X1 M (or even X3 M), so it’s the Audi RSQ3 and Mercedes-Benz GLA45 AMG that have set themselves up as the smallest and most affordable high-riding hot-rods.
The RSQ3 was released here in early 2014 as the first RS-badged Audi SUV and continues to be priced from $81,900. Mercedes’ just-launched GLA45 AMG undercuts it with a $79,430 starting sticker.
The GLA doesn’t look like your regular SUV; more like an enlarged hatchback on stilts. It’s reflected in the dimensions, too, because the Benz’s roofline peaks at 1.49 metres – 8.6cm shorter than the RSQ3’s.
There’s just 7mm splitting their lengths, with the Benz stretching a touch further at 4.41m.
The Audi is 3.7cm wider with slightly wider axles, though the GLA45 AMG ultimately has the better stance on the road – created by that lower roofline and the way the front and rear wheels are pushed further apart (by an extra 9.6cm).
The optional rear spoiler fitted to our test car also suggests the Mercedes wouldn’t look out of place on a WRC stage, though not everyone will necessarily be a fan of such an appendage.
With or without, the Mercedes-Benz GLA45 AMG has the louder exterior; the Audi follows RS form with the wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing approach. Everyone will have their preference, though our feeling is that it wouldn’t hurt the RSQ3 to stand out more than it does.
From the driver’s seat , the Benz immediately feels the sportier of the two – reflecting its exterior by feeling more like an elevated A45 AMG. (The hip point is 40mm higher in the GLA45.)
You can see more of the Benz’s bonnet, including its aggressive louvres, where in the Audi the upright seating position and shortage of bonnet visibility creates the impression of sitting on rather than in the car.
The Audi’s extra height is also felt on a winding road, where the RSQ3’s body rolls more noticeably than the AMG GLA’s and its weight transitions feel sloppier.
If you’re braking for a corner on a bumpy country road, the RSQ3 bobs about a bit and takes more settling before turning in, and from there it’s a determined understeerer that even the wide, sporty Pirelli P Zero rubber can’t prevent.
And even in Dynamic mode, the RSQ3’s steering feels overly light and remote, and it’s prone to kickback over mid-corner bumps.
Progress remains closer to the horizontal when pushing on in its rival. The Mercedes is also sharper on turn-in and its steering has more endearing heft. The GLA45 has a degree of power understeer, but while a more rearward-biased AWD system would be preferable – only a maximum of half the engine’s torque can be sent to the rear wheels via the electro-hydraulically controlled multi-disc clutch – the Mercedes is more responsive to tucking its nose in with a lift of the throttle.
The RSQ3’s quattro system employs a virtually identical set-up to the Benz, including the integration of its torque-transfering clutch into the rear axle – and it matches the Mercedes with its impressive traction out of corners.
The AMG Sports suspension that sits the GLA45 AMG lower and stiffer than regular GLAs can take a while to compose things after a big dip, though it does continue the SUV’s reputation for having more controlled suppleness than Mercedes’ other small cars, the A-Class, B-Class and CLA derived from the same platform.
And because the GLA45 AMG isn’t quite as stiff-legged as the A45 or CLA45, the ride is easier to live with on a daily basis.
It allows sharper bumps to penetrate the cabin slightly more than the RSQ3, though the GLA45 AMG will hit them then settle whereas the Audi is more softly suspended but tends to constantly jiggle.
If you want to be king of the hill in your compact high-performance SUV, the Mercedes will get you there first. It feels the quicker of the Deutschland duo, and the GLA45’s 0-100km/h claim of 4.8 seconds trumps the RSQ3’s 5.2. (Audi, however, has announced an update for its fastest Q3 it says will make it as quick as its rival.)
That will be mostly achieved from a power and torque hike to 250kW and 450Nm for the 2.5-litre five-cylinder turbo found in two other, now-defunct RS models: the TT RS and RS3.
That update is due in the second half of 2015, so for now the RSQ3 puts out 228kW and 420Nm. Hardly lacking, though it can’t match the world’s most powerful showroom four-cylinder – the GLA45 AMG’s turbocharged 2.0-litre that produces 265kW and 450Nm.
There is some momentary lag when initially applying throttle from standstill, and the four-pot can sound more docile than a rumbling AMG V8 when cruising around town, though get more active with your right foot and the 2.0-litre becomes a delightfully maniacal engine.
Almost all the aural entertainment comes from the standard AMG exhaust. Apart from an enjoyably subtle chirrup from the turbo wastegate when you lift off the gas, the GLA45’s notable noises are the theatrical pops and crackles.
The Audi RSQ3 will also throw exhaust pops into the mix on hard-throttle upshifts, and it also delivers the better-sounding engine note.
Thank Audi for persevering with five-cylinders now that Volvo has abandoned the uneven engine layout. While the engine could be more vocal, the trademark five-cylinder warble is still one to savour. Repeatedly.
Both engines are mated to the same transmission type: seven-speed dual-clutchers. It’s even-stevens here, because while the Audi’s S-tronic has the quicker shifts, the Benz’s AMG Speedshift DCT provides smoother progress in commuting traffic and generally around town.
Sports modes are also available – pulling the gearlever back in the Audi or pressing a console button in the Benz. The RSQ3 is a bit more decisive on downshifts, though you’ll want to use the paddles in both on a twisty section to ensure the SUVs are at their most responsive.
Our testing backs official numbers that the Mercedes is the more economical SUV.
Based on laboratory figures, it has a 1.2-litres-per-100-kilometre advantage – 7.6 v 8.8L/100km. Our results – based on a testing session with plenty of emphasis on enthusiastic driving – saw the Benz use 13.2L/100km to the Audi’s 15.6L/100km.
If you’re more concerned about how much luggage you can use for a trip away, the Mercedes is ahead again with 421 litres versus the Audi’s 356L. Both will fit a decent-sized pram, with the GLA allowing some extra room for packing in extra things.
The Mercedes’ tailgate is also automatic where the Audi’s can only be opened and closed manually.
Seatbacks fold in both to greatly expand cargo space
Inside, few potential purchasers are likely to be disappointed by the cabins on display.
Matching the exterior approaches, it’s the Benz interior that looks the sportier with its large section of plastic-encased carbonfibre across the dash, (exchangeable) red seatbelts, red stitching and leather/alcantara steering wheel.
The Audi again feels a bit too understated inside for an RS model, though it has the edge here on presentation details.
MMI continues to have the preferred graphic and menu set-up to Comand, though here the Benz has the ergonomic advantage as its rotary controller falls easier to hand on the centre console. The Audi’s moves to the centre stack on the Q3 compared with most other models in the company’s range.
Its higher driving position will be preferred by those who want that typical SUV characteristic, and the Audi has advantages for rear seat passengers – more head clearance, more toe room, slightly more knee space, better under-thigh support from the bench, and better visibility thanks to the taller glasshouse.
The Mercedes-Benz GLA45 AMG, however, doesn’t just offer more bang for your buck in the performance sense. In addition to giving buyers nearly $2500 in savings over the Audi, it also serves up considerably more equipment.
The RS Performance Package sounds like a strange option name for an actual RS model, though the $5250 outlay (fitted to our test car) is necessary if the Audi is to match the GLA45 in some key areas: a 14-speaker Bose audio (versus the Benz’s standard Harman Kardon surround sound system), Nappa leather sports seats with diamond stitching (against the Benz’s Recaro-supplied AMG bucket-style performance seats), digital radio, red calipers, and 20-inch alloy wheels.
A $2490 Assistance Package is also needed to catch up with the GLA45 AMG’s inclusive blind spot monitor, lane keep assist, adaptive headlights and auto high beam.
And there’s more. Metallic paint, panoramic sunroof, auto tailgate and tinted rear glass are also only standard on the Mercedes; they’re $1495, $3250, $1170 and $910 options respectively on the RSQ3.
It sounds like a pulverizing in terms of value; in simple financial terms, the Audi RSQ3 will cost you more than $96,000 all up (before on-roads) if you want to ensure a GLA45-driving neighbour can’t brag about all their extra features.
So despite Mercedes’ other compact models losing out to their Audi counterparts in previous CarAdvice comparisons (A3 Sportback beating A-Class and A3 sedan beating CLA), this all wraps up a convincing victory for the flagship GLA here.
The RSQ3 is not without its appeal, though it seems equipped more like an S model and it feels underdone dynamically.
If you can cope without the traditional SUV seating height (or even looks), the Mercedes-Benz GLA45 AMG otherwise delivers on the expectations of a higher-riding performance luxury vehicle. And compared with the other AMG compacts, it's more practical and its ride is easier to live with.
Perhaps the only issue for the Benz is that, like the RSQ3, there’s a certain other, bigger German SUV listed under P not much further up the pricing chain.
Click the photos tab for more images by Tom Fraser.