Audi’s high-performance crossover takes on Mercedes-AMG’s hyper-hatch in a battle of racy compacts.
No, that’s not a misprint in the headline. This is indeed a comparison pitting the 2020 Audi RS Q3 compact SUV against the Mercedes-AMG A45 S hatchback rather than the more obvious GLA45 S.
Benz’s hot-rod baby SUV isn’t here until early 2021 – yet bear with us, because this is a more organic comparison than you might initially believe.
For one thing, the humble hatchback is under threat from a relentless wave of compact SUVs – especially crossovers that aim to blend five-door looks with the higher ride height and styling cues of a sports utility vehicle. Buyers are swarming to them, too.
Audi has introduced one such sloping-roofed crossover ‘Sportback’ variant for the new-generation Q3, sitting aside a more conventional SUV body style. The flagship RS Q3 is available in both forms, though could anyone argue it’s not best suited to Sportback guise?
Pricing completes a relatively natural pairing. Whereas the new $107,035 GLA45 will be priced a fair bit above the $92,900 RS Q3 Sportback, the A45 is just $2000 higher at $94,900 before on-road costs.
Game on, then.
|Audi RS Q3 Sportback||Mercedes-AMG A45 S|
|Engine||2.5-litre five-cylinder turbo petrol||2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo petrol|
|Power and torque||294kW @ 5800–7000rpm, 480Nm @ 1950–5850rpm||310kW @ 6750rpm, 500Nm @ 5000–5250rpm|
|Transmission||Seven-speed dual-clutch automatic||Eight-speed dual-clutch automatic|
|Drive type||All-wheel drive||All-wheel drive|
|Fuel claim combined (ADR)||8.9L/100km||8.9L/100km|
|Fuel use on test||11.2L/100km||11.3L/100km|
|Boot volume (rear seats up / down)||530L / 1400L||355L / 1195L|
|ANCAP safety rating||5 (tested 2018, all Q3 variants excl. RS Q3)||5 (tested 2018, all variants)|
|Warranty||3 years / unlimited km||5 years / unlimited km|
|Main competitors||Mercedes-AMG GLA45||Audi RS 3|
|Price as tested (excl. on-road costs)||$92,900 RRP / $95,750 as-tested||$94,900 RRP / $96,090 as-tested|
Price and features
Although both these vehicles will take your total spend to six figures with on-road costs, they leave little on the table when it comes to performance, safety and convenience features. Options are pleasingly/thankfully limited whether you’re shopping for the Audi or Mercedes.
Standout standard equipment for the RS Q3 include the company’s fanciest headlights (the multi-beam Matrix LED system), 21-inch alloy wheels, electronically adjustable RS sports suspension, RS sports exhaust system, 680-watt, 15-speaker Bang & Olufsen audio, and even metallic or pearl exterior paint. Adaptive dampers, a Bose audio and premium paint were among cost options on the previous RS Q3.
Paint choices include the strikingly bright Kyalami Green of our test car. The exterior includes gloss-black trim and rear privacy glass as standard. Our test car featured black Audi rings and ‘RS Q3’ badge ($700) and carbon-fibre mirror caps ($1300), which give the design an extra touch of menace along with those huge front air intakes and pronounced wheel arches.
A panoramic sunroof costs $2700 ($200 cheaper than on the regular RS Q3 as it’s a single pane rather than dual pane, owing to that sloping roof, plus a manual rather than electric shade).
You can go Alcantara mad (red or blue) in the interior for $2500. The most extravagant extra is a set of carbon-ceramic brakes at $10,600.
Our A45 S test car had just metallic paint ($1190) as an option. Buyers can add a prominent rear roof spoiler and front aero flicks with an AMG Aerodynamics Package, and AMG High Performance Seats are also available.
Big-ticket items that are standard include Mercedes' advanced Multibeam LED headlights, Burmester surround-sound audio, microfibre AMG steering wheel, 19-inch AMG matt-black alloy wheels, plus more standard driver aids than any other A-Class.
The AMG-galore features list also includes A45-specific body styling, AMG Exhaust system, Performance 4Matic all-wheel drive system exclusive to the A45, extra bodyshell stiffening, AMG high-performance braking system, and bespoke front steering knuckles and rear axle subframe.
You don’t buy an AMG or RS model for an audio system or some fancy trim, of course. You buy them for performance. And there’s something special under the bonnet of these particular comparison cars.
The RS Q3 again features a turbocharged 2.5-litre five-cylinder engine that harks back to hero performance Audis such as the 1980s Ur Quattro and 1990s RS2.
An aluminium crankcase contributes the most to a 26kg drop in the engine’s weight from the last RS Q3, while there are also aluminium pistons. Power and torque bump up from 270kW and 465Nm to 294kW and 480Nm.
Mighty figures for a little family SUV, yet the A45 S owner can boast even higher outputs from the world’s most powerful production four-cylinder. AMG’s 2.0-litre – hand-built individually at Mercedes-AMG HQ in Affalterbach – produces an astonishing 310kW and 500Nm.
This gives the A45 S a clear power-to-weight advantage, with the Mercedes’s 1560kg kerb weight expectedly undercutting the 1700kg of the RS Q3.
In sprint times, Mercedes claims 3.9 seconds for the A45 S’s 0–100km/h acceleration and Audi quotes 4.5 seconds for the RS Q3.
We couldn’t match either figure with our GPS-based timed performance runs, registering 4.2 seconds for the A45 S and 5.1 seconds for the RS Q3. These times were achieved using launch-control systems and taking the best result from several runs.
For another perspective in the RS Q3’s case, the $100,800 Porsche Macan S has a quoted 0–100km/h time of 5.3 seconds (or 5.1sec with optional launch control).
So, the RS Q3 still feels very quick – it just can’t live with the A45’s rapidity either off the line or when on the move.
The A45’s throttle response is terrific regardless of mode, the Mercedes feeling alert even in Comfort without being twitchy. Becoming progressively maniacal as revs climb, the ‘M139’ 2.0-litre just gets better and better the harder you work it.
It revs so quickly that, if you’re using the paddle levers, it’s easy to find yourself bouncing off the rev limiter in lower gears.
And with the A45’s exhaust popping, crackling and blurting away in Sport Plus mode, this is a car that puts a huge grin on the driver’s face. And this delivered not by a supercar, but a hatchback that doesn’t look out of place in a Woollies car park.
The RS Q3’s five-cylinder has unfortunately lost most of its theatrical exhaust noises after Audi installed a petrol particulate filter to ensure it complied with new European emissions regulations. It’s the same story in the RS 3 and TT RS models.
Thankfully, the engine retains its signature warble – created by its non-sequential firing order and uneven number of cylinders – which can be enjoyed whether you’re on light, medium or full throttle, if naturally at its best with the latter approach.
In general driving, it sounds the more charismatic engine here. The warble can be amplified via the speakers by putting the RS exhaust system into Dynamic, though it sounds so artificial we much preferred the standard setting.
For the most spirited driving, the RS Q3 needs to be driven via the steering-wheel-mounted paddle levers – and with the drivetrain in its most aggressive setting – to feel truly responsive and effortless.
If left in drive, there can be a noticeable pause between pressing the accelerator strongly and the engine responding accordingly. It’s improved but not completely eradicated if you put the gearbox in Sport.
Gearshifts are undoubtedly quick from both dual-clutch gearboxes – seven speeds in the Audi and eight speeds in the Mercedes – and the A45 isn’t quite perfect, either. As a result of the short gearing and an inbuilt lockout designed to prevent the engine revving within 100–200rpm of its redline, shifting down from third to second gear under hard braking for hairpins can require a second pull of the paddle a moment later.
Crucially, the second request happens quickly enough to ensure no momentum is lost – and a case of learning to downshift a fraction later than you might naturally do to get the road speed down just a touch more.
Both vehicles come with variable drive modes that are part of the key to making the RS Q3 and A45 easy to live with every day.
Mercedes provides the best set-up with a rotary dial plus toggle switches on the steering wheel: the dial switches the car’s settings between Comfort, Sport, Sport Plus and Race; the toggles allow specific adjustment of the damping and stability-control system. Alternatively, the driver can change settings via switches on the centre console.
As with most Audis, the RS Q3 features a Driver Select button on the dash (and again on the ‘wrong’ side for the driver). However, pressing this also accesses a page on the centre infotainment display where the driver can tailor two RS settings – which can then be cycled through, including Normal mode, via an RS button on the steering wheel.
When in their Comfort modes, both cars can be driven at slow speeds without the drivetrains feeling like they’re straining at the leash, the driver able to simply enjoy the flexibility of the engines and the smoothness and decisiveness of the gearboxes.
These are also dual-clutch gearboxes that avoid jerkiness when parking or rolling back when starting on a hill.
Few buyers will spend $100,000 on a car and fret about fuel consumption – or putting in the 98RON premium fuel recommended for both engines.
For the record, though, the A45 S and RS Q3’s indicated fuel use was virtually inseparable – identical at 13.7 litres per 100km after the most intensive part of testing, and finishing on 11.3L/100km (Mercedes) and 11.2L/100km (Audi) after an hour of freeway driving.
That trend is in keeping with official consumption figures, where this pair quote the same 8.9L/100km.
On the road
It’s not being harsh to say the original RS Q3 disappointed – a case of an entertaining engine lacking a good chassis to make the most of it. The handling was too soft and too understeery, and its steering was inert and remote.
Driving the second-generation version, then, is a bit of a ‘hallelujah’ experience, because the RS Q3 is now far more enjoyable to drive – and therefore worthier of the RS badge.
With the suspension at its firmest – with our chosen ‘RS 2’ customised setting placing engine, gearbox, suspension and exhaust all into max attack (Dynamic modes) – body roll is well contained in corners and there’s relative agility (for an SUV) through S-bends.
And while the steering doesn’t score high marks for communication, it’s now better weighted while offering the accuracy that completes a picture of predictable handling.
The brakes are also worthy of special mention. They offer terrific bite and modulation, combining with bountiful grip from the 255mm-wide Continental SportContact 6 tyres to further enhance driver confidence.
In our performance testing, the RS Q3 pulled up nearly two metres shorter than the 140kg-lighter A45 – 34.5 v 36.4 metres. Impressive.
For the most intensely enthusiast driver, however, the RS Q3 continues the evidence that – purely on physics – SUVs can’t ultimately be as involving as a well-sorted performance hatch, sedan or coupe.
There’s still more management of body weight on a twisty road compared with the A45 hatch, including more dive under brakes. The Audi’s higher driving seat also disrupts the car-driver bond, placing them further away from the road surface.
The latest A45 is also an improvement on its predecessor. The original AMG hatch wasn’t fundamentally flawed like the old RS Q3, but its dynamics were certainly somewhat one-dimensional.
The new A45 now not only has the phenomenal roadholding, but has the fun element of mid-corner throttle adjustability added in. There’s quicker steering than found in Audi’s hot crossover, the AMG’s front-end response so sharp it makes the RS Q3’s turn-in feel relatively slow.
For those owners who will take their A45 S to the track, there’s a Race mode that maximises all areas of performance – and even a Drift mode, where more torque is sent to the outer rear wheel if you’re in the mood for some sideways shenanigans.
Despite the A45’s weaponised mechanicals, it’s surprisingly easy to live with around town. In Comfort, the suspension can be noisy, but forms a sufficient barrier between the driver and sharp bumps or potholes. It rides well on the freeway, too.
The Mercedes-AMG’s main vice is excessive tyre noise on open roads – somehow even louder than the A35’s boisterous rubber.
The RS Q3 delivers unexpected tranquillity on country roads and freeways, with the limited road and wind noise leaving the owner to enjoy the mellifluous tones of that five-cylinder.
And the Audi’s greater suppleness completes a great grand-touring package – and the clear pick here for longer journeys.
For a performance SUV, the RS Q3’s urban ride is quite acceptable in Comfort mode – almost commendable considering the 21-inch wheels and sporty rubber. It felt bumpier around town with a family of four onboard, though, and – if my experience is anything to go by – there’s no guarantee a non-petrolhead partner will share your enthusiasm for purchasing this Audi.
The A45 has the tighter turning circle, though the RS Q3 shouldn’t require too many three-point turns.
Sections of Alcantara, a carbon-fibre dash panel, a racy-looking, RS-badged steering wheel and beautifully soft Nappa-leather RS sports seats all help to distinguish the inside of the RS Q3 from a regular Q3.
In most respects it continues Audi’s reputation for interiors with high levels of perceived quality. If we were to be picky, the upper door cards are quite hard to the touch and the hard-plastic centre console is a bit of a letdown at this pricepoint.
There’s lovely tactility to the cabin’s various buttons and switches, though, and the touchscreen and digital instrument display look undoubtedly sophisticated.
Electrically adjustable bolstering would have been a bonus for the RS seats, though they offer decent support for cornering while also catering to a broad range of body shapes. There is electric lumbar support and also a heating function. You could happily spend hours in these seats.
Mercedes has stepped up its interior quality for its compact models, and the A-Class impresses in this respect even in base A200 form. And higher-quality materials seem more consistent across the A45’s cabin compared with the RS Q3, while its various function buttons and switches match the Audi’s tactility.
As good as Audi’s displays are, Mercedes’s dual, integrated infotainment and driver screens look another generation ahead with their stunningly sharp and vibrant screens.
As we’ve said in previous A-Class reviews, the MBUX infotainment system – as well as the highly customisable driver display – will just take most owners weeks to learn, such is the multi-layered functionality.
And whereas Audi’s infotainment display is controlled via touch only, the Mercedes screen can be manipulated by touchscreen, steering wheel buttons or a touchpad with shortcut buttons (arguably not great for any indecisive owners!).
A45 S owners may prefer to stick with the standard Titanium Pearl Grey and Black Lugano leather seats with yellow stitching and borders, as this creates a clearer differentiation to an A35's cabin. Our A45 was fitted with the no-cost-option red and black Lugano leather that is standard on the A35.
The steering wheel design is also the same, though for a touch of race-car-style embellishment, the A45’s rim is wrapped in microfibre.
Other cabin extras over the cheaper AMG hatch are a Burmester surround-sound system and AMG Track Pace – a “virtual race engineer” menu embedded in the MBUX system, which accesses features for track driving such as g-force meter, engine data and lap timer. With the ability to log various vehicle parameters, drivers can analyse their lap (and even sector) times in detail just like Lewis Hamilton (kind of).
(On a small note, our test car suffered from a badly creaking dual display, though this is the first time we’ve experienced this issue in one of Mercedes’s compact models.)
For those buyers looking to pair performance with practicality, the RS Q3 delivers a big advantage.
Despite having the shorter wheelbase here – 2.68 v 2.73 metres – the Audi crossover is notably more generous with its rear accommodation. My 6ft 1in co-tester Justin sat behind his driving position comfortably in the RS Q3, whereas the A45’s second row forced him to splay his legs (and had tighter ingress/egress).
With my smaller, 5ft 8in frame seated behind my driving set-up, my knees were still fairly close to the A45’s seatbacks.
There’s more head room in the RS Q3, too, though that’s more expected considering its taller body.
The A45 at least ticks off important items such as rear ventilation, seatback storage pouches, centre armrest and dual USB-C ports.
The RS Q3 matches those while adding a 12-volt socket, handy side storage trays for the outboard seats, plus 60/40 sliding function for the rear bench that allows owners to change priorities between luggage space and rear leg room.
And although the A45 has reasonable boot space – quoted at 355L – the RS Q3’s cargo area is noticeably larger (quoted at 530L) with a bigger aperture once the tailgate is opened.
Both vehicles go with 40-20-40 seat-folding configurations, with seatbacks going fully flat in both cases. Repair kits rather than spare wheels are also shared.
Audi is one of the last manufacturers to remain on a three-year warranty offering, whereas Mercedes-Benz backs its products with five years – the new industry average.
Both brands offer multi-year service plans with upfront payments. Maintaining the RS Q3 annually with Audi costs $2320 for three years or $3420 for five years, compared with $3000 and $4300 over the respective periods for the A45 S.
Alternatively, A45 owners can opt for capped-price servicing. The first and second annual services cost $700 and $850, respectively, though a third service costing $2200 makes the three-year service plan cheaper for those planning longer ownership.
Whereas the original RS Q3 disappointed (we scored it a lowly 6.5 out of 10 in a 2014 comparison with the GLA45), the 2020 version does a far more convincing job of a fast and sporty SUV. It looks sportier, too, especially in Sportback guise.
It’s much more convincing going around corners in terms of steering and chassis balance, and the five-cylinder – while losing some exhaust theatrics and not always as responsive as it should be – remains an enjoyably charismatic engine. And if the RS Q3’s design and performance are priorities, the ride is certainly liveable.
For those former or existing RS 3 buyers looking to trade up – quite literally – for a compact performance vehicle with more practicality, the RS Q3 should prove sufficiently convincing.
However, at this end of the performance scale – and with AMG and RS badges in play – driver involvement takes on greater emphasis.
And whereas the RS Q3 left our testers nodding at its commendable dynamics, the A45 S at times had us laughing out loud – proving to be a car that just gets better, and more thrilling, the harder you drive it.
The manic-revving 2.0-litre engine almost alone justifies the A45’s steep price tag, while the chassis provides the driver with more adjustability and entertainment than the first A45.
It’s a racy hatch that’s equipped for track days – and almost demands to be driven on a track if an owner is to truly exploit the A45’s dizzying speeds and capability.
And if it’s not practical enough… Well, just wait for the GLA45.
Co-tester points: Justin Narayan
I scoffed a little when I realised we were putting a four-cylinder up against the likes of Audi's five-pot masterclass. Not much else comes close in terms of both the theatre and sheer savagery this magical odd-cylinder marvel provides.
If anything, it wouldn't be a pedestrian-spec four-cylinder motor that would ultimately dethrone it.
Oh dear. How wrong I had this.
The A45 S features an engine that undoubtedly makes the Audi five-banger feel old-fashioned. It outguns the RS Q3 in both on-the-roll and off-the-mark situations. It even revs cleaner, too. I have no idea how those black-magic practitioners over in Affalterbach managed to make such an engine, but the proof is in the pudding.
What's most disconcerting is its ability to build torque from such low RPM, despite being just a 2.0-litre four. It’s on from pretty much anywhere on the tacho, responding rapidly to input. It never runs out of puff either, singing right up to the redline with ease. After doing back-to-backs with the pair, you begin to realise how doughy the five-cylinder feels when it’s tasked with 100 per cent throttle. I was quite amazed.
The AMG’s four-cylinder doesn’t sound bad. However, it just can’t compare to the melodic rally-themed tune that emits from both the front and rear of the RS Q3. Even at lower speeds, the Audi still sounds tuneful, enough so to keep you happy, and never second-guessing that there’s a slice of Group B heritage powering your vehicle.
As for the chassis, things are different. The Audi feels more relaxed, and thus more malleable, than the Benz. This calm demeanour is further complemented by how much quieter it is inside – especially so when covering ground at speed on the highway. In terms of a performance vehicle that doubles as a regular everyday driver, the Audi is the better all-rounder here.
The A45 S is just on 24/7. The steering is overly hyperactive, feeling always darty as a consequence, and the tyre noise that rumbles throughout the cabin is borderline unbearable. Some will like that it's always ready to party, others will not.
If you’re after outright pace and performance, no question, take the Benz. But in all honesty, in order to truly unlock its performance, you’d need to go to a racetrack. You can’t even begin to scratch the surface of its ability on public roads. Well, you can, but you’ll likely be front-page news. Not something that anyone would recommend.
There comes a time where technology begins to overpower tradition, and this is just one of those cases. Usually, I’d throw some leeway the Audi’s way, solely because that engine truly makes the package feel special. We’re talking about performance cars here – desirable ones that double as irrational ones. So, one has to consider their emotive qualities with fair light.
However, the AMG A45 S is just too good. It overrides any love affair for the power plant found in the Audi. I hate to say it, but the typical, regular four-cylinder choice wins here. It has truly undergone a step-change with this car.
Internal combustion is not completely over, it seems.