2015 Audi RS Q3 Review

Rating: 7.0
$81,510 Mrlp
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Audi has upped the power and spec on its high-performance small SUV, the RS Q3. But have the changes improved the breed...
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It's getting towards three years since the Audi RS Q3 bowed on the world stage and nearly two since it landed in local showrooms as, at $81,900, the most affordable RennSport model the Aussie peso could buy.

Excited? You bet. Because at the time nobody had melded rally-inspired, turbocharged, all-wheel-driven passenger car goodness – the cornerstone of Audi heritage – with the juggernaut popularity of the small SUV. Brilliant, right?

At launch, we scored the RS Q3 a handy if middling seven out of 10, left wondering if it “deserved the RS badge” while, not inconsequently, questioning its "ambitious price tag."

Perhaps the idea was broken, the duality of pint-sized family friendliness and go-fast abilities simply an unhappy union. Well, the Mercedes-Benz GLA45 AMG (now called Mercedes-AMG GLA45) followed quickly in the RS Q3’s tyre tracks to market, leading to a CarAdvice shootout in November 2014, where Affalterbach’s machine (with a score of 8.5/10) took a “convincing victory” over its counterpart from Ingolstadt (which scored a lowly 6.5/10).

If you’ve got petrol running through your veins, but have a small family, an inner-city lifestyle and a single car space, a small high-performance SUV is the ideal foil. And the AMG GLA45 proved it. An idea, then, no less ridiculous than plying performance through a hatchback, large sedan or ute filter. It’s just that the RS Q3 seemed to be missing the mark.

Enter the RS Q3’s early life update: a sharper and more masculine appearance (in line with the Q3’s adoption of Audi’s latest-look single-frame grille treatment), a hike in output and performance and a modest drop in list price (by $390, now $81,510 before on-roads). All of which suggests, then, a formal response to questions of RennSport's credentials and value of a device that is, with the $78,900 RS3 Sportback on deck, no longer the most affordable of Audi’s most sporting breed.

Our test car, however, clocks in a $94,740 (before on-road costs). While cost options don’t include the facelift’s ‘frowning’ xenon plus headlight and LED running light update and the upscale move from 19- to 20-inch wheels, our RS Q3 is loaded with extras, including a $6490 RS Performance package that includes LED headlights and tail-lights and ‘dynamic’ rear indicators; specific brake calipers; sports seats with diamond stitched Nappa leather; an alternative 20-inch rim design; Bose surround sound; carbon-look inlays and load-through functionality in the rear seating. Then there’s metallic paint ($1495), ‘extended matt aluminium’ styling highlights ($1500), a panoramic sunroof ($2795) and rear privacy glass ($950) as fitted standard on many regular SUVs less than half this price point.

As only the seats and calipers contribute to performance and driving enjoyment, we’d be hesitant to tick many option boxes ourselves. Notable by absence is the suspension damper control, which costs an extra $2490 and perhaps should be standard on a small vehicle that, as tested, hits six figures on road.

No premium for extra herbs, though. The turbocharged 2.5-litre five-cylinder lifts from 228kW to 250kW of power between 5300-6700rpm. Meanwhile, the new peak torque figure of 450Nm, clocking on at just 1600rpm and holding firm until maximum power arrives, is a 30Nm boost on old.

Plied through a proprietary seven-speed dual-clutch transmission – a specific powertrain pairing also common in RS3 and last-gen TT RS – and a quattro all-paw system utilising an electronically controlled multiple-clutch differential, the 2.5’s newfound poke drops acceleration from the old 5.2 seconds to 100km/h to a more RennSport-suited 4.8sec.

Accusations that Audi perhaps held back on the original RS Q3’s potency bears evidence right here, the suggestion being this new tune more comprehensively fulfils the original brief. That is, until you weigh in the on-paper credentials of the RS Q3's RS3 stablemate: that the slightly more affordable hatch produces a superior 270kW and 465Nm – all-but-same engine, remember – and carries a half-second quicker 0-100km/h claim (just 4.3sec) suggests that not only was the old 228kW RS Q3 heavily nobbled, it still isn’t quite dialled up to full volume.

Semantics, perhaps, but this is key countering the SUV’s biggest critique: is it RS enough? Or, to this point, is it RS enough when Audi’s pulled back its reins, even if by a relatively measly 20kW and 15Nm?

The light makeover outside adds a little more purpose to the styling. Audi has, though, persisted with a ridiculously faux-off-road ride height for a model– sat on 20s with broad, low-profile 255/35 Pirelli P Zero tyres – conspicuously ill-suited for beaten path travel.

Similarly, the interior treatment is a slightly inharmonious duet of hardcore performance and humble SUV trappings. Those racy, lumbar-adjustable, heated front buckets are superb: full focused in shape, slightly relaxed in bolster, devoid of that too-low positioning that lacks under-thigh support so prevalent in so many other Audis. The driver controls, the height of the flat-bottom paddleshifter-equipped wheel, the well placed dead pedal and all-round visibility are great by SUV standards, though fine ergonomics get a markdown for a highly set brake pedal.

Elsewhere, here’s a smattering of top-rung fairy dust – the rims of the Bose speakers light up, for instance – though much of the cabin, particularly plastics, are usual Q3 parts bin fare. Most of the RS effect feels a bit bolted on rather than built in, but this is neither exclusive to this particular Audi or, for that matter, German performance cars in general.

The level of finish throughout, though, is to Ingolstad’s typically high standard.

It makes do with fairly rudimentary MMI plus infotainment via a small seven-inch screen and dinky interface buttons in the dash fascia, if bolstered with niceties such as voice control, a DVD player, 20GB of music storage and standard-fit digital radio. The lack of USB facility – you need a specific Audi cable - continues to annoy.

Negotiate the short rear door aperture and it’s a tight fit in the second row for adults, with limited headroom (despite the concave shaped cabin ceiling) and cosy clearance in every other direction. It’s properly small-family sized, perhaps though, too limited in space. Four adults will fit, if at a pinch. Rear air vents and bottle holders in the door bins are solid features, as are the individual map lights, and dual cupholders and an oddment tray in the fold-down centre armrest. In short, it hasn’t been stripped of general convenience because if its badge.

An auto tailgate is standard for access to the 460-litre cargo space, which expands to a decent 1365L. The floor is set quite high – a pro for changing nappies, a con for outright luggage space – though it’s no allowance for the (lacking) spare wheel.

So the plus is that the RennSport treatment robs nothing of the regular Q3 range’s family-friendly utility. The flip-side is that Audi’s small-SUV breed is hardly the roomiest and most practical on the market at any price point. Ingolstadt does a fine go-fast mid-sizer in the SQ5, though it’s not available with an RS promise.

However, on the road and from behind the wheel, the RS Q3 is not merely the most all-round capable Q3, but perhaps the finest small SUV drive that very good money buys.

Where the RS hardware returns handsome dividends is in the urban cut and thrust. In default 'Comfort' drive mode it’s a leisurely and unfussed drive. Yet there’s so much five-cylinder torque on tap from the depths of rev range and the S tronic transmission is such a slick-shifting and assertive ally that any traffic gap, on-ramp merge or side street departure can be dispatched with maximum haste.

There’s an impressive degree a precision afforded by all-wheel drive and those broad 255mm tyres when negotiating the quickest path through a dense urban jungle. Steering and braking, by usually dowdy SUV measures, feel utterly supercar like. It’s a compact and accurate device, backed by more muscle than is sensibly useable around town, yet its potency is never unwieldy or unfriendly.

The slightly jacked-up ride, or perhaps the hardware that supports it, conspires to give surprisingly pleasant ride compliance, despite the fitment of low-profile 20s in a spec bereft of (optional) adjustable damper smarts. There’s no floating or thumping either in a ride-handling balance that’s quite nicely struck.

Neat, too, is its soundtrack. There’s certain bark to the five-cylinder format that’s worth part of the admission price, and in this SUV it's both unobtrusive when cruising and satisfyingly bold when on the march, complete with those joyous little rev-matching blurts during upshifting.

Head to the hills, let it off its leash and RS Q3 does start to stumble in its enthusiasm. The dynamic component unstressed in urban driving comes to the fore and out come the holes in the package.

Stick it into a corner with even moderate gusto and it understeers. Much moreso than might be reasonably expected from wide 255mm rubber. Stay out of the throttle through the middle of the corner and the front end will track a true trajectory, but sink the right boot on exit and, again, out comes that front-end ‘push’.

On the balance of a red-hot punt, a disproportionate amount of the experience demands getting out of, and gathering up, the chassis than it is digging in.

It’s nice and safe – Austrian housewives won’t be falling off Alpine passes backwards in great numbers – but it’s not much fun for the driving enthusiasts it’s so obviously pitched at. Its inherent issues mean that adding engine output, as is the case with RS Q3’s update, won’t fix – indeed, extra poke exacerbates this shortcoming. And its these same issues that were, and remain, foibles central to criticisms of the SUV’s RennSport credentials.

What’s to blame? Is it the hefty 1730kg weight? Or that such a large percentage of it seems to hang across the front axle? Is it that the slightly on-stills ride height surely, adversely fiddles with the centre of gravity. Is it that the Q3 isn’t built from the MQB tool box that form the backbone of many of Audi’s other performance steeds?

A combination of all of the above might well be the ultimate culprit. In which case, the RS Q3’s go-fast abilities appear ultimately hamstrung not by the RS art applied, but by the Q3 canvas that it’s applied to.

From day one, this hyper people mover’s RS credentials have been questioned. It does, however, have bespoke powertrain, braking and suspension hardware to fulfil the brief and, partially at least, goes part way to meeting the price point.

Now that sharper money buys a quicker – by half-a-second to 100km/h - RS-badged device in the RS3 Sportback, those criticisms will undoubtedly remain. I’d even wager that the humbler (5.0sec 0-100km/h, $61,110) S3 Sportback hatchback, bereft of military-spec RS hardware, would dispatch the RS Q3 in any environment where corners come into play.

It’s been suggested that SQ3 is perhaps a more fitting designation – a simple fix for a complicated problem. But to alter the nameplate without removing the bespoke RS addenda – much of which contribute greatly to the car’s pluses – is to break the RennSport formula.

Conversely, you simply won’t make the Audi RS Q3 a fitter device by adding more power, larger tyres or bigger brakes. As this new version proves.

Click on the Photos tab for more 2015 Audi RS Q3 images by Mitchell Oke.