Audi RS Q3 review: Ultra-hot hatch or 'soft-roader' with warp drive?

THE amount of choice for new car buyers now borders on bewildering.

Once it was pretty straight forward: big car, medium car, small car, wagon, sports car, and a few others. Now there are SUVs of all sizes, hot hatches, off-roaders, soft-roaders, not to mention the odd beast (the BMW X6 springs to mind) which crosses so many boundaries it defies simple description.

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The Audi RS Q3 is either an ultra hot hatch masquerading as a city SUV, or a soft-roader with a warp drive - after more than 100km in it on a variety of road conditions, we're still not entirely sure.

The start point for the RS Q3 is the Audi Q3, which is a fancy, bite-sized SUV suited to mums and dads dropping junior to school during the week and taking the clan for more accessible parts of the bush on the weekend.

Someone (and we truly appreciate the sentiment) asked the question: how good would this be if we put in a mighty turbocharged engine, some whopping great brakes, sports tuned suspension and all the other great kit we can grab from Audi's RS high performance division on it? The answer to this question is the RS Q3. 

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Usually we would compare and contrast with what the obvious rivals have to offer as an alternative. After a quick scan through everything else available, we came up with nuthin'. We are on our own here.

Looking at the RS Q3 as a performance hatch for a moment, the package is impressive. The turbocharged 2.5-litre five-cylinder petrol engine is rated at 228kW peak power and 420Nm of torque. Not only does it offer plenty of squirt, but it sounds terrific too, especially when the transmission shifter is slotted into S for Sport, which also opens up the exhaust. The transmission is a S-tronic dual clutch-style seven-speed automatic.

Reflecting its RS status, the ride is naturally stiffer than most SUVs to deliver a surest possible footing on the bitumen but its not so extreme to be unpleasant on gravel or roads with plenty of potholes. The ride height is higher than most performance machines but body roll is less than for your usual SUV too. If someone wanted a genuine hot hatch but lived on a road that was less than hot hatch-friendly then the RS Q makes plenty of sense. 

And on the road or in the mud, it is cracking good fun. 

The RS Q3 is also very practical for an RS car. It has more room than most performance cars and its seats easier to get in and out of than most dedicated sports machines. 

Then there is the interior itself. Put simply, Audi has the benchmark in interior design for more than a decade and the RS Q3's cabin is a very inviting place to be. The flat bottom steering wheel and the bright red illuminated instruments and controls leave no doubt about the intention.

For all its overt sportiness, though, the exterior treatment is quite mild. The RS Q3 is a "sleeper", with the only hint at its credentials being bright red brake calipers and subtle styling changes. 

Maybe it is a trifle too subtle. We reckon the biggest hurdle for would-be buyers is climbing in for a drive in the first place. In order to desire something it helps to know it's out there. 

The RS Q3 requires a leap of faith. But those who are willing to make that leap are in for a thrill. 

Your local dealer is: Audi Centre Ballarat 5339 9333.

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SPECIFICATIONS

Audi RSQ3 

ENGINE: Turbocharged 2.5-litre inline five cylinder 

POWER: 228kW at 5200-6400 revs

TORQUE: 420Nm at 1500-5200 revs

TRANSMISSION: seven speed dual-clutch automatic

DRIVE: all-wheel-drive

FUEL: premium petrol, 8.8-l/100km (ADR 81/02)

BRAKES: ventilated disc brakes front and rear, with stability control, ABS and brake assist

FEATURES: leather upholstery, satellite navigation, Bluetooth connectivity, engine stop-start mode, Xenon plus headlights with LED daytime running lights, dual-zone climate control, 

ANCAP SAFETY RATING: five stars

PRICE AS TESTED: $99,990 (including performance package, assistance package, sunroof and other extras)

OTHERS TO CONSIDER:

AUDI SQ5: from $89,400

BMW 328i GT: from $77,000

MERCEDES-BENZ A45 AMG: from $74,900

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