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?

- Words Chris Chilton

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 o„ce 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

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 ?? Pho­tog­ra­phy Alex Tap­ley ??
Pho­tog­ra­phy Alex Tap­ley
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 ??  ?? Hon­ey­comb grille eats flot­sam, jet­sam and B-roads for break­fast
Hon­ey­comb grille eats flot­sam, jet­sam and B-roads for break­fast
 ??  ?? Touch­screen re­sponds best to firm press, throt­tle to a gen­tler one
Touch­screen re­sponds best to firm press, throt­tle to a gen­tler one
 ??  ?? Au­then­tic ür-Qu­at­tro un­der­steer in Scar­bor­ough’s ‘sim­u­la­tor’
Au­then­tic ür-Qu­at­tro un­der­steer in Scar­bor­ough’s ‘sim­u­la­tor’
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 ??  ?? ‘You wish your Audi Q3s grilles were big­ger? Your wish is granted’
Tog­glable in­stru­ments in­clude Knight Rider-es­que mode
‘You wish your Audi Q3s grilles were big­ger? Your wish is granted’ Tog­glable in­stru­ments in­clude Knight Rider-es­que mode
 ??  ?? The sound of seag­ulls, lap­ping wa­ter and gi­ant, fu­ri­ously tick­ing ex­hausts
The sound of seag­ulls, lap­ping wa­ter and gi­ant, fu­ri­ously tick­ing ex­hausts
 ??  ?? Porsche Ma­can roomier than RS Q3 in­side, cel­e­brates with gi­ant touch­screen
Porsche Ma­can roomier than RS Q3 in­side, cel­e­brates with gi­ant touch­screen
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 ??  ?? Blue cor­ner sounds an­grier, feels more ur­gent; green cor­ner rides bet­ter, han­dles more in­ci­sively
Blue cor­ner sounds an­grier, feels more ur­gent; green cor­ner rides bet­ter, han­dles more in­ci­sively
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 ??  ?? Sport­back spec sinks roofline to match win­ter sun
Sport­back spec sinks roofline to match win­ter sun
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