Fast 4x4s are nothing new. If a vast machine powered by a huge engine – delivering searing performance along with epic fuel consumption – is what you really want there’s no end of choice. But compact 4x4s with performance appeal are harder to find: Audi has had this market niche almost to itself with the RS Q3.
The RS is separated from the rest of the Q3 range by more than £13,000 and almost 100bhp, underlining the fact that this is a very different machine to lesser Q3s. Under the bonnet sits a 2.5-litre five-cylinder turbo engine, similar to that in the Audi TT RS, delivering a broad-shouldered 306bhp at 5200rpm and 309lbft of torque at 1500rpm. Those rpm numbers are a big clue to the way this engine performs: it pulls vigorously whatever the gear or engine speed, making it very easy to extract rapid performance.
According to Audi the RS Q3 will sprint from rest to 60mph in 5.5 seconds, and given the way it leaps off the line (aided by the Quattro four-wheel drive system that diverts power to the rear wheel if the fronts spin) that’s wholly believable. The top speed is electronically limited to 155mph.
From inside, the only clue to all this urge is the gruff, off-beat burble from the five-pot engine. There’s little to mark the RS Q3’s higher status save for a few badges and different instruments (behind an unpleasantly non-round steering wheel) unless you spend even more money for the stylish carbon fibre effect trim, and you have to shell out some more if you want useful extras like satnav and electric seats. But the cabin gets the essentials right, with plenty of space and high-quality materials.
The RS Q3 handles in an easy-going sort of way. It rides well, even on the optional 20-inch wheels our test car wore, and it has enough grip and body control to make swift progress easy along a twisty road. But there isn’t enough sharpness to the chassis, or communication through the steering, to appeal much to an enthusiastic driver.
All of which makes the RS Q3 a capable machine, rather than the epicly memorable one you might hope you're buying for, realistically, the best part of £50,000. While the RS Q3 was alone in its compact performance SUV niche that might not have mattered much, but with Mercedes’ GLA45 AMG crossover and Porsche’s slightly larger Macan 4x4 on the horizon it may not be quite enough.