Audi RS Q3, from cute to brute

It’s an odd move: Audi’s in-house speed shop, Quattro GmbH, ignored the Q7 and Q5 as potential recipients of its most revered performance moniker, instead choosing to unleash its particular brand of mayhem on the littlest SUV in the family. Behind the wheel of the RS Q3, however, no one is likely to dispute the decision.

Where it shines unexpectedly is in its ability to string apexes together in a blur of mass arresting and aural fury.

Times are changing at Quattro, and new boss Franciscus van Meel is keen to expand the company’s menu of high profile (and high-margin) performance models. When the hottest Q3 arrives in German showrooms in November, it will command a cool €54,600 (about $75,000) – a jump of more than €17,000 ($23,000) over the next most expensive Q3 variant.

­­You might expect the compact RS Q3, like most beefed-up SUVs, to be little more than a five-door drag racer, yet another tall wagon with a fast sprint and all the turn-in dignity of a hippo chasing a rabbit.  It is an easy assumption to make. But it is wrong.

Sure, the RS performance potion is not quite as pure and potent as it once was, but the RS Q3 is good. Very good. It is a surprise packet of power, poise and stubborn grip. It combines fury and composure in equal measure and it impresses more and more the harder it is pushed. In short, this ultimate Q3 is well-equipped to face off against Porsche’s coming Macan compact crossover.

The RS Q3’s outsized wheels and tires, along with an enormous exhaust tip, make it look like a kid with his older brother’s shoulder pads on, trying to sneak into a grown-up’s game. To be sure, there is plenty of big-boy gear on this small SUV, lead by the cracking five-cylinder, 2.5-litre, turbocharged gasoline engine from the TT RS and the hot-hatch RS3. For Q3 duty, output is down slightly, from the RS3’s 340 horsepower and 331 pound-feet of torque, to 310hp and 309lb-ft. Quattro engineers have tweaked the direct-injection engine’s power delivery for the heavier SUV, so torque now peaks 100rpm sooner, at 1500rpm (100rpm earlier) and power crests 200rpm sooner, at 5200rpm. Output is sufficient to sling the RS Q3 from standstill to 62mph in 5.2 seconds, which Audi insists is class leading, which is funny considering there aren’t really any other vehicles in its class (at least until the Macan arrives).

The engine meets a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission (unsurprisingly, no traditional manual is available), which bites down on a multi-plate clutch centre differential to spread the all-wheel drive love. The chassis is built around a MacPherson strut front suspension and a four-link rear end, abetted by electrically-assisted steering, 255-series performance tires all-around (19-inch wheels are standard, 20s are optional). Despite the RS Q3’s mechanical similarity with the RS3, don’t expect it to carry the same vigorous appetite for sling-shotting from turn-in to exit in a flat stance. It can’t. It’s too tall.

Even so, the flat-bottomed steering wheel can be heaved hard enough to frighten most passengers into awe: such stuff can be done in an SUV. And once you’ve reprogrammed your mind to accept the slightly duller steering feel and soggier reactions from the chassis, the RS Q3 spends the rest of the drive trying to charm you into accepting it.

Sure, the rock-hard RS3 Sportback will attack harder, but the RS Q3 is a manageable and acceptable distance behind it. Engage Dynamic mode and the RS Q3 becomes different car: steering is tauter with more intuitive body control, making it capable of sweeping into fast bends with disturbing alacrity, taking an instant to set on its springs before knuckling down to its joint job of building speed and delivering confidence. It is less convincing in the tighter sections, but it is still very good, with the strong brakes dumping speed and the reliable front-end biting consistently.

Where it shines unexpectedly is in its ability to string apexes together in a blur of mass arresting and aural fury. It can do it, wet or dry, like no other baby SUV can manage. Nothing else as tall will stick with it when the roads wind.

But if it can’t run with its own low-riding siblings in the twists, it easily stomps them in another critical area. It is very comfortable on broken city streets. Where the RS 3 is uncompromising, the RS Q3 has a suppleness to it that belies its badge. Even if its comfort setting leaves you with a blank steering feel in the few degrees off centre, it is still every bit as comfortable as a standard A3, not an RS3. That has the added benefit of giving more compliance on rough roads, so it generates more grip anyway.

Then there is an interior full of fruit like Quattro’s signature quilted leather seat trim and goodies from the top end of the Q3 options list, including heated seats and Audi’s slick Multi-Media Interface, which displays everything from oil-temperature and a turbo-pressure gauges to a lap timer.

The point of the RS Q3 soon reveals itself. It’s not as hard-edged as the low-riding RS models that use the same engine, but it allows you to use 90% of that RS-ness much more of the time. It’s a little charmer without really trying to be.