RS Q3 driven. Fish and chips eaten
Yorkshire once reverberated to bellowing Quattros on the RAC rally. Can the new RS Q3 rekindle that five-cylinder magic? And topple the benchmark Porsche Macan while it’s at it?
The RS Q3 devours Blakey Ridge, a hugely fast stretch of tarmac
It’s 1981. You’re standing in a forest at the side of a gravel track, supping tea decanted from a thermos into a Charles and Di mug, waiting excitedly for the marshal’s whistle. It’s RAC time and last year’s winner Henri Toivonen doesn’t disappoint, sandblasting you with rocks as he slews past in his Talbot Sunbeam Lotus. The next car is quieter, neater, less exciting. There’s no lurid oversteer, no drama, just a relentless surge forward (quite literally for some drivers, who struggled with the understeery handling). Even before Hannu Mikkola has cruised home in first place having survived a roll on the way, British rally fans getting their first look at this weapons-grade car are left in no doubt that rallying’s future is four-wheel drive.
That’s your fairytale and here’s the reality: the original 80-based Quattro’s success was comparatively fleeting. Once Audi had ironed out the reliability niggles it went on to win two WRC manufacturers’ championships, but when rival manufacturers revealed their bespoke mid-engined spaceframe Group B machines, the Quattro, which was based on an old Group 4 car evolved from a road car, struggled to keep up.
But 40 years after its unveil at the 1980 Geneva motor show the Quattro’s influence lives on. Apart from changing the course of rallying, and of performance cars, it helped reinvent staid Audi as a maker of extremely fast, sophisticated, safe enthusiast machines. And now it wants to make a whole lot more of them. Audi’s performance arm, Audi Sport, wants to double sales of its S, R and RS models by 2023. And it’s not going to do that by halving the lunch hour on the R8 line. It needs more cars, and more affordable cars, just like this RS Q3 we’re using to sniff out some great roads in North Yorkshire close to the route of the ’81 RAC.
Affordable, in this instance, is a relative term. The RS Q3 comes from the same MQB transverse layout component set as the RS3 hatch, itself not cheap, at around £46k on the road. But raising the roof raises the price. A standard RS Q3 Sportback costs £53,600. And that’s just the start. Although you do get 20-inch wheels, Virtual Cockpit digital instruments and a solid suite of safety gadgets, there are no LED matrix lights, reversing camera or wireless phone charger.
Fancy the Audi Sport Edition with a few extra bits of tinsel, like 21-inch wheels, black exterior detailing, sports exhaust and panoramic roo¡? Make that £57,950. Going all in? The Vorsprung adds adaptive dampers, adaptive cruise control, carbonfibre mirror caps and Bang & Olufsen hi-fi, but comes with a Bang & Olufsen price. A £61,500 price. The kind of price that makes you suck air through your teeth like you’ve just sat on your Dyson.
You could sacrifice that sexy rear screen rake and go for the non-Sportback RS Q3 Audi launched simultaneously. But you lose a chunk of visual drama and don’t gain much in terms of practicality – boot space measured to the load cover height is the same 530 litres for both versions, although the ordinary RS Q3 edges ahead by 125 litres if you drop the seats and load it ⊲
to the roof. And you only save £1150 buying outright, and next to diddly on a lease. Sportback it is.
If the thought of paying Cayman GTS money for a compact crossover leaves you cold, it’s hard not to thaw a little when presented with something with so much road presence. Walk past the snout on your way to climb in and that gaping honeycomb mouth looks like it might just devour you whole. Kick the turbocharged motor into life and you know that’s not all this little ball of muscle wants to eat.
Having schlepped patiently up the A1 from CAR’s Peterborough oce in search of decent roads it’ll start by devouring Blakey Ridge, a hugely fast stretch of tarmac linking Guisborough in the north with Kirkbymoorside to the south, that goads you into piling on the speed, but is ready with a few surprises that could easily see you skating off down the grassy hillside if you get things wrong. And today, just like the ’81 RAC’s special stages, we’re running without pace notes.
As the name suggests it sits on the top of open moorland, giving great visibility for miles in every direction, though not this morning, not until the fog has burned off to reveal the road I remember from my first visit almost 20 years ago. Then I was driving the new Civic Type R, whose 197bhp seemed like plenty. The RS Q3 doubles it to 395bhp, up from 335bhp in the old RS Q3, and if it doesn’t get down the road twice as quickly as the Honda, it does a good job of making you think it can.
Audi’s numbers say 4.5 seconds to 62mph, but the response is so urgent in the low- to mid-range it feels even quicker, easily pulling away from other cars on the longish straight before the Lion Inn, erupting out of the tighter corners, and without any of the old Civic’s wheel-fight thanks to the Haldex four-wheel-drive system. The top speed is 155mph, although it can be derestricted to 174mph should you be looking to specify Britain’s most pointless option.
The RS Q3’s ability to over ground obscenely quickly, and not just in a straight line, is obvious before you’ve slotted fourth gear in a mandatory twin-clutch ’box that gets most things right. This RS is fast, but not hugely fluid, biting aggressively as you twist the wheel without giving much in the way of sensation through your fingers. And the ride is disappointingly brittle, at least without those optional adaptive dampers. If you’re looking for subtlety, tactility or adjustability, you’re in the wrong place. But it’s fun to muscle through the high-speed transitions thanks to its huge grip and solid body control, and the six-piston brakes are game for any kind of abuse.
But is it really £54,000 good? Or £62k, remember, if you go for the Vorsprung. The disconnect between the relative sizes of car and price throws up a red flag that immediately has you checking what else you might get for the money.
Like BMW’s X3 M40i, the upcoming Mercedes-AMG GLA, and, our favourite, the Porsche Macan. Audi references the 435bhp Macan Turbo in comparisons. It gets to 62mph in the same 4.5 seconds the Audi needs, but at £68,530 is considerably pricier to buy, and around £120 more per month to lease. But what about the Macan S we’ve brought along to stress-test the RS? At £49,300 it’s cheaper than a standard RS Q3, costs almost exactly the same to lease and, because it’s based on the same platform as the Q3’s big brother, the Q5, it’s noticeably bigger inside (though strangely, the boot is fractionally smaller). A recent facelift changed almost nothing at the Macan’s front, but added the new corporate conjoined rear lights, a handsome wide-format touchscreen media system in the console, and a new 349bhp twin-turbo V6 under the still-gorgeous clamshell bonnet.
Hmm – 349bhp? More metal and less muscle inevitably means the Porsche is slower than the Audi. It needs 5.1 seconds to reach 62mph, or 5.3 seconds if you’re too tight to pay for the optional Sport Chrono package, which includes ⊲
If you’re looking for subtlety, tactility or adjustability, you’re in the wrong place. But it’s fun to muscle around
The Porsche has an authenticity the RS Q3 somehow lacks; real feel that engages at any speed
launch control and an analogue timer. The performance disparity is most obvious at lower speeds where a stab of gas hurls the Audi forward with a keenness the Porsche can’t hope to match.
At higher engine speeds the Porsche works harder, rewarding revs with a satisfying kick in the back, always encouraging you to wind it right out. That makes it feel more sporting, or it should. But it’s a surprisingly tuneless engine, which is pretty awkward when you’re up against something as characterful as Audi’s inline five. By pure chance I drove an original Quattro for another project just days before grabbing the keys to this RS Q3 (a 10-valve WR, for you ür geeks). And even that didn’t sound anything like as good as this, despite the RS Q3 being stymied by a sound-sapping particulate filter.
But the Porsche has an authenticity to it the RS Q3 somehow lacks. It has much better steering feel; real feel that connects you and engages you, whatever the number on the speedo. It turns into corners smoothly and with more balance and rides vastly better. Every time we pull out of a tight junction in the Audi we feel the inside front wheel scrabble for grip before the centre differential sends torque to the back tyres. In theory the RS Q3 can send up to 85 per cent of its 354lb ft to the rear wheels and the system can react to things like steering wheel angle to shuttle torque rearward to kill understeer when you roll into a corner. But the overall feel is still front-wheel-drive.
We’re not saying that front-wheel-drive cars can’t be fun. We love a great front-driver – and a well set-up four-wheeldrive hatch like the old Golf R can be just as entertaining. But the RS Q3 feels like an expensive high-rise hot hatch, and the Macan, which also shares a platform with the Q5, let’s not forget, manages to feel like a proper grown-up GT in a pair of platform shoes.
Back in the RS Q3, having waved bye to the Porsche, we head east along the A170 through Pickering and Thornton Dale to Scarborough. The road is smoother, the Audi a little happier. Us, too. And now we’ve dialled back the pace there’s time to take in the cabin. The low-set centre console makes the front feel roomier than it is, and though the touchscreen interface looks smart and works well, we still miss the MMI control wheel. But, what’s this? Old fashioned rotary controls for temperature and fan speed? They look slightly incongruous, but work well. Less so, the back seats. Space is decent up front, but headroom in particular is tight in the rear.
Much like the gap left by a stranded lorry as we roll into ⊲
Scarborough, a town of two bays and characterised by two distinct cliff-top landmarks: the Grand Hotel and a medieval castle that was probably grand when new. The Audi’s compact dimensions and punchy engine make light work of the town’s hills and twists, but the turning circle could be better. For a car destined to spend most of its life in town, that’s a definite drawback.
I haven’t been here for years, but from the look of things I still know it well. Back when the Audi was making waves on the RAC I was splashing in the icy waves next to the South Bay Pool, buying Star Wars figures from Wray’s toy shop and being dragged along to Alan Ayckbourn plays at the Stephen Joseph Theatre when I’d much rather watch motorbikes tear up Oliver’s Mount. Sorry Alan, but I was only seven.
My grandparents are long gone, and so is the pool, which was denied listed status in the early 2000s and demolished. But I see the same hybrid of the South Bay’s elegant Victoriana and the slightly trashy, British seaside glitz off the foreshore I remember as a kid. I see echoes in the RS Q3, too, in the restrained elegance of Audi’s materials and the basic silhouette, set against the brash shoutiness of the RS transformation.
The RS Q3 isn’t the best-value small, fast family car by a long stretch. And it’s not the best to drive. It’s too expensive for what can feel like a jumped-up hot hatch. But we can still see the appeal. For us, that appeal comes largely down to that fivecylinder motor slung across the nose. It gives the RS Q3 some real character and a point of differentiation from its rivals, plus a great soundtrack and enough pace to help offset the Macan’s vastly better chassis. Enjoy it while you can – because, like freezing your nuts off in open-air North Sea Victorian pools or wandering where you like to get the best spot on the RAC, it won’t be around forever.
The RS Q3’s too expensive for what can feel like a jumped-up hot hatch – but we still see the appeal