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Audi RS Q3 vs BMW 330d & Merc A45

  1. A list. Buying a car should always start with a list of things you need it to do, way, way ahead of a list of things you want it to be. Some things will be more important than others, obviously. Those of us with a mob of children would find it inconvenient to have to strap toddlers to a luggage carrier on the back of a two-seat roadster, and the RSPCA gets animated if you lob a Great Dane in a top box, even if you drill air holes. So start with the basics. Budget, obviously. Insurance, certainly. But it takes a bit more than that these days, given the number of cars on offer. Oh sure, you can set yourself a maximum, graze eBay and buy a Ferrari for 20 grand, but you’ll end up with a pretty ornament for the drive, bijou oil puddles and likely a thick sheaf of papers from a divorce lawyer. Real life gets in the way.

    Words: Tom Ford
    Pictures: Lee Brimble

    This feature was originally published in the December 2013 issue of Top Gear magazine

  2. Which brings us here. A healthy 40ish grand to spend on a practical car. It needs to be a five-seater, rapid but not flash, entertaining and capable of handling some bad weather in confidence, so all-wheel-drive. We live in the UK, and may as well be honest about it. Which throws up a decent set of options.

  3. First, and most obviously, you could go down the tried-and-tested route and buy a BMW 330d Touring. Safe bet, bases well and truly covered. And these days, a mere £2,000 extra - the price of an upgraded stereo/nav or wheel option - gets you the xDrive AWD version, for a total just under £40k. A good baseline, this: 0-62mph in around five and a half seconds, and the kind of real-world punch from that straight-six, 3.0-litre turbodiesel and eight-speed auto that makes overtaking a cinch. It might have ‘only’ 258bhp, but a whopping 413lb ft of torque can make up for a decent herd of noisy horses.

  4. But the BMW is the kind of safe bet you see on lots of other people’s driveways, and the only way that you can tell it’s the four-wheel-drive variant is a discreet ‘xDrive’ badge on the boot. It’s also a diesel, so the mid-fifties miles per gallon comes at the expense of any real aural accompaniment, unless a muted, rough-throated thrum is your thing. So what about something a bit more obviously fun? Well, the Mercedes-Benz A45 AMG fits the bill almost to a tee: about 38 grand (though you can option these through the roof - the one we have here hovers around the £50k mark), five seats, a hatchback boot, drive to all four wheels. It also comes with the world’s most powerful production 2.0-litre, four-cylinder engine, and nobody can argue with 355bhp from 1,991cc, even if it does require a hefty turbo. Quick too, posting a 0-62mph time of just 4.6 seconds, making lots of delicious Group B-ish noises as it does so. And it has launch control. Which is always cool.

  5. But there’s a problem. The trouble with the A45 and the 330d is that they sit at opposite poles of the world we’ve created for ourselves. Which is where the Audi comes in. For those of you unfamiliar with the RS Q3, it’s a sportified, mid-sized SUV. So AWD, with a 305bhp five-cylinder turbo petrol engine up front, enough for 62mph from rest in five and a half seconds. Think now-defunct RS3 or TT RS with a suspension lift. As with all the others, it has five seats and practical space, though weighs in as the most expensive in terms of basic price: £43,000 without options. So which is best? Time to find some inclement weather and decent roads to find out. Which at this time of year means heading west… quite a long way west.

    A couple of hundred miles later, and mid Wales in October is bathed in unseasonably glorious sunshine. Typical. But before I can get my teeth into a decent-weather rant, a cloud tumbles over the valley like a homicidal duvet and brings 60mph winds and heat-seeking rain. Twelve minutes later, sunshine. Then rain. Then sun. Repeat at irregular intervals until even the sheep look confused and grumpy. Personally, a total git; for the purposes of this test, perfect.

  6. The BMW is immediately lovely, if I’m honest. Slightly lumpy ride from the big alloys (especially if you play with the various suspension and map modes other than Comfort, namely the versions marked Sport and Sport+) but it’s otherwise taut and level, honest and familiar. The engine is big-hearted and surprisingly willing to rev to 5,000rpm, the 8spd always butlerish with the appropriate ratio. It has got enough of them, after all. The steering is slightly heavier and less immediate than the rear-drive version, a touch gloopier, but the real surprise comes when you find that you can simply flatten the throttle midway around a wet roundabout and fire out the other side without fuss. The xDrive system is slightly rear-biased 40/60, so there’s a lot of familiar BMW-ness about the middle part of a corner, but as soon as you get on the throttle, xDrive can shuttle 99 per cent of the diesel’s power and torque to either axle and tap ABS to keep things pointing in the right direction. As long as you have throttle actually depressed, the xDrive 330d feels pretty much foolproof. Given how most of us drive in the real world - not power-sliding at every available opportunity - a couple of grand seems like an old-fashioned bargain.

  7. The A45 is unsurprisingly a more aggressive proposition. At first, it feels similar in ride to the BMW, but lighter, keener to change direction and noticeably quicker to accelerate, with at least 20mph of the cumulative speed down to the gruff exhaust note and chuckling pop-bang overrun. Not exactly sonorous, just the noisy murder of air and fuel - but lively and exciting nonetheless. It corners flat and clean with a slight tendency to understeer when you push it, and it only starts to feel four-wheel drive when the front begins to wash wide - unsurprising when you find out that the AWD system is heavily front-biased in most driving, only shifting a maximum of 50 per cent of the engine’s grunt rearwards when the front wheels have detected slip. In fact, on the road it feels more like a well-sorted front-driver than AWD, but there’s not much wrong with that. There is one major gripe, though: the seven-speed ‘box can be annoyingly reticent to change down, even when you have the space in the rev range to do so - which makes for some interesting gurning coming into long, loaded-up Welsh mountainside corners.

  8. The RS Q3, on the other hand, is more than a bit odd. The ride is bobbly and frenetic. Not crashy but overly stiff, probably to counteract the high centre of gravity. There’s little communication through the steering, and the front-biased quattro feels like it just makes the car want to understeer. Lob it at a dry corner, and it’s remarkably flat and stable, but there’s so little enthusiasm in the way it goes quickly that after a four-hour stint I’m struggling to see the point of it. Really struggling. The best part is undoubtedly the engine, which thrums away contentedly, pushing out slightly more torque than outright power (310lb ft vs 305bhp). There’s no lack of punch, but a nagging caveat that bounces along like an infuriating hymn the entire time you drive the RS Q3: it does very well going fast for a small SUV. At which point, you start to question why you’d want this kind of vehicle, because it’s a compromise of the worst kind: not satisfyingly sporty or at all comfortable, and the strong engine just tends to highlight the deficiencies.

  9. Still, maybe the RS Q3 will show up better if we throw some really slippery stuff at it. In fact, even in the streaming wet, all three of these cars are approaching illegality before you can really appreciate the subtleties of their state-of-the-art powertrains. In the absence of snow, we handily end up at the mouth of the Sweet Lamb Rally Complex. Funny that. Now, committed rallyists will know the Sweet Lamb name from a plethora of rallies. It nestles along and inside a fold of gorgeous Welsh valley near Llangurig in Powys. It’s not an off-road type of place, but a testing facility for rally cars, so we’re not talking about three feet of mud and axle-twisters, but slippery road sections and tracks. Somewhere to highlight the benefits of four-wheel drive without posing any danger to undercarriages. Saying that, several of the faster sections of Sweet Lamb feature views over unfenced and otherwise unbounded 150ft drops. Which pose quite a danger to pretty much everything.

  10. Back in the BMW, and when faced with the genuinely low grip, it feels finessed and clever. Switch the various stability and traction control systems off, and it gently oversteers at first, seamless transfer then pulling the front axle back into line, no matter what the speed. It’s supremely safe, but not joyless, and if you were learning how to drive on snow or ice, I reckon a 330d xDrive on winter tyres would be gently epic and genuinely unstoppable. It’s also extremely confidence-inspiring - even with the big drops giving a certain nervousness at the controls, the BMW does the same thing every time, helps, makes you look good. And it makes you question - should you want a 4x4 BMW - the need for the X3 or X5. A 3- or 5-Series Touring with xDrive makes a hell of a lot of sense: better efficiency, handling and looks, none of the traction deficit unless you need to haul over big lumps. There’s just one problem: BMW only offers xDrive in 1-Series five-door and 3-Series (as well as the SUV variants). So that larger niche is protected. For now.

  11. The Merc is more of a surprise. Yes, the lazy gearbox is an itch you can’t quite scratch, and it annoys more than it should, but bung it into a corner and the shorter wheelbase and - relatively - light weight mean that the A45 actually gets quite frisky. The rear wheels come into play quite aggressively if you’re being hard with the throttle and can punt the little car sideways in quite a satisfying manner. But you have to stay on top of the A45 and work hard. It’s a bit like one of the quick Evos or Subarus used to be, except with a much better cabin… and less turbo lag. But after a slightly unconvincing start, it’s very hard not to warm to the A45. On the road, in the wet, this would be a proper little supercar-baiter, and it sounds brilliant chewing up through the greens and browns of a Welsh hillside, popping and farting on upchanges. The more you drive it in varying conditions, the more you like it.

  12. The RS Q3 is the opposite. The more I drive this car, the less it makes sense. It’s got four-wheel drive, but on a properly low-mu surface will basically understeer like a bent shopping trolley unless you bung it so hard it feels like it’s in danger of tipping over. The road-biased performance tyres don’t grip convincingly unless on tarmac, and it rides like a skateboard on granite speed bumps through potholes. It’s also got an interior that feels little different to a standard high-spec Q3. But more than that, it’s just no fun. It feels cynical and more than a bit pointless. After all, Audi itself makes better cars. An S3 Sportback makes just under 300bhp, hits 62mph in 4.9, does over 40mpg and costs £32,740 - ten grand less. You can get a better-riding, more comprehensible 211bhp TFSI S line Q3 for similar money. Which means the RS Q3 comes last in this group, and by some margin. Audi calls the RS Q3 the RS brand’s ‘all-rounder’, but it’s more jack of all trades and master of none.

  13. Which leaves the BMW and the Mercedes-Benz. The xDrive system on a car like the 330d Touring is, for me, a bit of a no-brainer. Extra security, at a reasonable cost, an addition that makes an already beautifully capable and rounded car even better. If you need space, pace and distance-munching ability to cruise to a ski chalet, then there are few cars to beat it - especially as it is still reasonable fun when you get to the mountain passes.

  14. It’s not a walkover for the A45, mind. A decision between two such different cars has never been closer. The Mercedes is expensive, and the gearbox is annoying. But in the right conditions, on the right day, it’s a proper joy of a thing. Which leads me to a rather specific conclusion: if you chug lots of motorway miles with kids in tow, then go for the BMW. If you want something a bit feisty for shorter blasts, then the A45 is for you. As long as neither is the RS Q3, you’ll be happy.

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