TEST DRIVE: Audi RS Q3 Sportback — Five Cylinder Symphony



The people over at the Audi Sport division might’ve been late to the game when it came to certain cars, compared to their rivals from BMW M and Mercedes-AMG but that wasn’t the case with the Audi RS Q3 or the Sportback version. As a matter of fact, the RS version of the Q3 came out with the first generation of the car, signaling to a certain confidence that the company had in its own product.


At the moment, there are only two RS models in the entire SUV line-up of the German car maker: the RS Q3 (and its Sportback version) and the RS Q8. That’s yet another sign that the smaller SUV is considered of great importance in the grand scheme of things. But is the RS Q3 Sportback any good in reality? That’s what we set off to find out.


The Sportback name used by Audi defines cars that have a bit of a different roof profile. They are the alternative to the coupe-like naming scheme used by manufacturers like BMW and Mercedes-Benz. Some might actually say that Audi is doing a better job at it too, since the “coupe” name is being used all too lightly these days, on cars with four doors and barely sloping rooflines.


As quick as Audi was to make a performance version of the Q3, the people from Ingolstadt were a bit late to the game with the Sportback version, as it was only launched in its second generation. That means they left the likes of BMW’s X2 M35i and Mercedes-Benz’s GLA35 AMG unchallenged for quite some time. Not anymore though. Along with the first generation Q3 Sportback, Audi went all out and launched an RS version as well, one that uses a very familiar recipe.


The recipe is basically the same since the original RS Q3 was launched back in 2013. It uses an updated version of the 2.5 liter straight-five powerplant to deliver 400 horsepower and 354 lb-ft of torque. That’s a big jump from the original 310 horsepower of the first RS Q3. It still retains its transverse mounting, of course, which means the quattro all-wheel drive system isn’t exactly on par with what we know from the Ingolstadt-based manufacturer. But more on that later on.


In terms of design, the new RS Q3 Sportback doesn’t exactly strike you as a very special car from the moment you look at it. Compared to some of its brothers, like the RS Q8, for example, it is much more mundane and only if you look closer you might notice a thing or two.


Up front, the design is borderline identical to a regular Q3. The Singleframe dominates the front fascia, with its massive size, everything in it being blacked out. There’s an RS badge hidden somewhere inside it, but that’s about it. The side air intakes are where the RS model has the upper hand, as they are bigger on the high-performance version and have a practical side to them as well, feeding air into some big radiators behind them. Keeping things cool under the hood is a full-time job.


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Even more differences can be spotted from the side. As standard, the RS Q3 comes on 20” wheels which are already pretty big for a car this size. Our tester though, was wearing 21” wheels, filling up the massive fenders in the process. Right behind them you’ll notice red brake calipers, which are an option but do look very, very cool.


‘Round the back we’re looking at a different rear bumper, housing a big diffuser in between the massive, oval exhaust tips that actually house four smaller, uneven tailpipes inside. Heck, at least they are real to some extent, unlike what you’d see on regular Q3 models. This is also where you’ll notice the sloping shape of the roof, giving the car the chance to rise up to the Sportback moniker.


Inside the cabin the usual Audi Sport tricks have been applied as well. Compared to a regular Q3 you’ll immediately notice the upgraded seats, with a honeycomb pattern on the middle and the RS badging up top. The headrests are not adjustable and the seat itself can be a perceived as a bit hard at times, but that’s to be understood on a high-performance car. There are other touches here and there too. The dashboard has a nice Alcantara strip on it, the steering wheel is a bit on the thinner side of things for me, but is wrapped in perforated leather and has a flat bottom, as you would expect in an RS model.


The infotainment system is just like any other MMI system of the most recent generation, simple to use and straightforward, while the HVAC controls are still physical buttons, unlike in some other Audi models today. For that, we are thankful. One difference you might spot though, is the instrument cluster. It’s still digital and as sharp as ever but, on RS models, it has a different set of graphics, meant to emphasize the performance it had hiding under its belt.

One problem you’ll find inside the RS Q3 Sportback though, and any other Q3 Sportback as well, will be limited room in the back for taller people. It’s understandable, if you ask me, as this car wasn’t necessarily designed to carry four or five fully grown adults all the time. It’s a bit cramped in there, especially if you’re over 6-ft, with limited head and knee room. The Mercedes-Benz GLA definitely offers more room, while the BMW X2 is probably worse off.


But that’s for the people who actually care about their passengers. The trouble is, when it comes to the RS version, all you’ll actually care about will be the driving bit. Hence, the most desired seat in the cabin is the one right in front of the steering wheel.


Turn the engine on and a special sound greets you, one that’s a bit different from most cars on the road today. The inline-five has been a tradition in Ingolstadt, ever since the 1980s. It is refreshing to see a company staying true to its heritage and fighting to keep that layout intact, despite all the laws governing just how big our engines should be. It’s a well-balanced mill too, with a specific sound that did remind me of the 5.0 liter V10 from the old E60-generation BMW M5. Even for Audi fans, that’s a grand compliment.

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The induction noise is intoxicating and you can’t get enough, while the exhaust is a bit tamed but still makes a decent amount of rumble. On overrun, when you take your foot off the gas, you might also hear a couple of pops and bangs but not to the extent we’ve seen in the past. OPF exhaust particulate filters are likely the cause of said subdued pops. 


Set off and the car is as tame as you would expect it to. As a matter of fact, driving the RS Q3 Sportback doesn’t feel a lot different from a regular Q3, especially around town. That’s saying a lot, especially about the adaptive suspension. Remember, this tester was running on 21” wheels, which are absolutely huge for a car this size. To put things into perspective, the much bigger Audi RS Q8 can be had with a maximum of 23” wheels. 


And yet, the ride was refined, comfortable and quiet around town and on busy, pothole filled streets. Everything was muffled out in the Comfort driving mode and you really couldn’t tell that this was a high-performance model judging by the way it handled. Therefore, if you’re looking to buy an RS Q3 Sportback, make sure you tick the box in front of the adaptive suspension when configuring it as it makes a huge difference in the grand scheme of things. 


The steering was light and heavily assisted, the sound system from Bang & Olufsen muffled out any noise from the ongoing traffic and the gearbox switched gears without interrupting your pace in any way. One pesky issue I noticed was the limited visibility in the back. That’s to be expected on a Sportback model though, with its sloping roofline and small rear window.


However, that’s the relaxed mode, the one you’ll be using when doing mundane tasks like going shopping or driving the kids to school. Switch the car into RS mode and things take a different turn altogether.


Just like on other RS models, the people from Audi Sport gave the Q3 the same treatment and options in terms of customizing its behavior. For one thing, you’ll find a button on the steering wheel labeled ‘RS’. This allows you to switch from a normal driving mode, say Comfort or Auto, to the most hardcore settings you can choose in a heartbeat. There are two programmable setups available for this button; RS1 and RS2; which can store your favorite settings . You can set up one of them to be the comfy choice (keeping the dampers in the softest setting and the likes) and you can set up the other to be hardcore (everything taken to max). What surprised me was that there was a setting for the quattro system as well included in there, one that changed the way I looked at this car before.

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Due to its front-wheel drive setup, the Quattro system of this car will send power to the front axle most of the time. However, you can send up to 85% of the available torque to the rear as well, if you choose the ‘Dynamic’ setting in the MMI system. And that makes a huge difference.


At first, driving the RS Q3 Sportback, I considered it to be a flat, uninspiring experience. It definitely accelerated fast in a straight line but in a series of twisty roads it seemed to understeer a lot. Then, I discovered this magical setting and the whole behavior of the car changed. In Dynamic mode, the quattro system truly sends a lot more torque to the rear, making the RS Q3 Sportback feel planted and playful when going hard on the go-fast pedal out of a corner. Making that rear end wiggle is a joy. Combine that with the glorious sound and linear power delivery from the straight-five engine under the hood and you’ll instantly get a massive grin on your face.


There is one caveat though and that would be the DSG gearbox. It’s fine when going hard in a straight line or trying to find the fastest speeds possible. And the RS Q3 is fast, with a 0-100 km/h (62 mph) sprint of 4.5 seconds. However, when you’re on the track, downshifting might be a bit of an issue, as the gearbox feels hesitant at times. Furthermore, you’d think that sticking it in manual mode would solve that problem and it does to some extent. However, even when using the paddles to shift the car doesn’t offer complete control, especially on downshifts. This was probably done to protect the drivetrain but it does take away some of the pleasure. The same can be said about the steering rack. It’s an electrically assisted one with a variable ratio and it reacts slower as the speed piles on. All good in that regard but there’s little to no feedback coming through the steering wheel from the road ahead.


In the end, while some may think the RS Q3 Sportback shouldn’t exist, I’m here to tell you that I understand why Audi put it in production. It’s a very satisfying ride for most of the time and brings a higher ground clearance for everyday driving. It also offers all the attributes people want from an SUV, like a taller seating position and easier access and I get why it is a good choice. In today’s automotive world, it makes sense.


However, its main issue is that there’s a new Audi RS3 on the way, which will be cheaper and drive far better due to its lower center of gravity, new trick differential, and rear-biased all-wheel drive system. If we’re talking about RS models, the driving experience should be all that matters and, in that regard, the sedan or the hatch make a lot more sense. Even so, there’s definitely a market out there for SUVs and the RS Q3 Sportback will happily provide where its brothers fall short.

Nico DeMattia

I've been in love with cars since I was a kid, specifically German cars. Now I get to drive them talk about them on the internet.