SINCE I FIRST DROVE it more than three years ago, I’ve harboured a soft spot for the Audi Q3. Yes it’s an SUV, which I’d normally think would disqualify it from inclusion on any list of enthusiast-friendly automobiles. But its relatively modest footprint, combined with handling and performance that I’d normally associate with a properly sorted saloon, immediately separate this tallish five-door from the ranks of corpulent urban tractors whose monstrous height, girth and weight seem anathema to genuine motoring pleasure.
That this agreeable family workhorse (a workhorse, though, that in characteristic Audi fashion is beautifully finished and meticulously put together) is already the recipient of a midlife facelift comes as something of a surprise, as it seems no time ago that I was bowling a metallicorange 2.0 TFSI quattro along the highways of eastern China during the car’s international media launch. Yet the Q3 has nonetheless been comprehensively massaged, with new engine options, and headand taillights (xenon-plus units are standard at the front, with LEDs now available at both ends of the car), sculpted grille and lower air intakes in line with the brand’s recently tweaked design vocabulary, and a revised range of trim lines and packages.
At the bottom end of the range now sit two economy-oriented, front-drive “ultra” models powered by either a 1.4-litre petrol or a 2-litre diesel engine, and with a six-speed manual gearbox as standard. Both motors produce a useful 148bhp, though the oil-burner naturally provides way more grunt, at 350Nm. As is customary with such premium brands, however, Audi is unlikely to make these entry-level offerings available to Asian customers, who will instead be lavished with the full treatment: permanent quattro all-wheel drive; seven-speed, dual-clutch transmission; and a pair of 2-litre TFSI petrol engines that respectively punch out 177bhp/320Nm and 217bhp/350Nm.
On a test route that starts and finishes at Munich airport, and features both frenetic stretches of autobahn and peaceful country byways, I’m first assigned a 2.0 TFSI quattro that’s powered by the more powerful of the latter two motors. Handsomely turned out in a vivid blue – a shade that, perhaps in deference to Audi’s vast operations in the mainland, is dubbed “Hainan” – it’s nimble, fairly swift, quiet and luxuriously appointed, and the ride is decently comfortable (though that could partly be down to the snooker-table-smooth Bavarian tarmac).
Being fully optioned, the test vehicle boasts Drive Select dynamic handling and adaptive damping systems, from which I settle on Dynamic mode: as well as sharper throttle response and longer gearshift intervals, this provides weight to the otherwise over-light steering. In fact, this refreshed machine seems much as I remember earlier Q3s to be: practical, pleasant to drive, easy to live with and as worthy an ownership proposition as it always has been.
What I’m really itching to get my hands on, though, is the RS Q3, Audi’s high-performance baby SUV that, though launched in Europe a couple of years back, hasn’t officially been available in Asia till now. And fortunately as I return the blue car to the test centre there’s a bright-red RS 2.5 TFSI quattro standing ready to be driven away.
Naturally the RS is a little more butch than standard Q3s: 20-inch alloys shod with ultra-low-profile rubber fill the wheel arches; the redesigned front intakes and bumper, rear diffuser and roof spoiler are all subtly aggressive; and there’s a fat oval tailpipe as a further clue to the car’s increased potency. The look is convincingly muscular, yet sufficiently restrained to sidestep absurdity.
It’s the engine, however, that’s key to this compact crossover’s appeal – and those who’ve driven an Audi TT RS will know just what a brilliant motor it is. The turbocharged, 20-valve, five-cylinder, 2.5-litre harks back to the marque’s 1980s glory days in international rallying, when in the hands of Hannu Mikkola, Stig Blomqvist, Walter Röhrl and Michèle Mouton the original Quattro coupe was virtually untouchable. Thanks to the recent ministrations of Audi’s engine boffins, it now achieves a power output of 335bhp and 450Nm of torque. Mated to the familiar seven-speed, dual-clutch gearbox (though this, too, has received software upgrades that ensure faster, smoother changes), this superb power unit helps thrust this chubby little missile to 100km/h from zero in just 4.8 seconds and onwards to a governed maximum speed of 250.
Not only does it sound great – the deep, fivepot growl is reason alone to floor the accelerator, and clever exhaust tuning means there’s a badboy crackle on the overrun – but the abundance of twist from as low as 1,600rpm also means the engine offers boundless in-gear urge. Even when holding sixth or seventh you can revel in the linear power delivery (the torque curve is almost flat) and the near-absence of turbo lag, while entering a high-speed traffic stream from an autobahn on-ramp is an absolute cinch – you simply push the throttle and go.
Once in the fast lane there’s not much that can catch you; it’s only discretion (or more accurately the huge semi-trailer truck that I’m rapidly approaching from behind) that has me easing off once I hit 220km/h. So yes, since you ask, the RS Q3 is unfeasibly and even unnecessarily quick for an SUV, but it’s also enormous fun.
As with the regular Q3, Dynamic mode seems to be almost everyone’s preferred setting on the RS’s extra-cost Drive Select system, as it tightens the car’s responses and adds heft to the helm with few sacrifices to refinement. That’s especially the case when adaptive suspension is also specified, which substantially reduces body roll, though it still must be said that, as with many electro-mechanical set-ups, there’s insufficient feedback from the wheel. Absolutely no quibbles about the quattro all-wheel drive, though, which excels as always and grips tenaciously.
The interior is everything you’d expect from an Audi, though further embellished with diamond-stitched leather on the seats, racy carbon-fibre inserts on the fascia, door caps and console, and RS badging on the leather wrapped gear selector. It’s roomy enough, too, and I dare say it’s practical and with rear seats flattened can carry all manner of loads, though as I doubt that’s why anyone buys one of these I can’t pretend I spend any time checking.
Which I suppose does beg the question as to why anyone would want a niche car such as this, when Audi’s imminent RS3 has even more horsepower from what’s essentially the same cracking engine, is lower, lighter, faster and handles even better. And it’s even more potent than a Mercedes A 45 AMG, the current gold standard of super-hot hatches.
I’ll leave you to ponder that, while simply adding that RS Q3s are flying out of the factory just as fast as Audi can build them, and that there’s something deliciously wicked about cars that can do things they really shouldn’t be able to. Just like now, for instance, as I’m accelerating on to the autobahn for a final blast back towards Munich. The engine snarls, the little red SUV rockets into the traffic flow, and there’s a big grin spreading across my face.
Is there’s anything else I’d rather be doing right now? Hell no.