Audi's decision to unveil its first high-performance SUV at next week's Beijing motor show underscores the growing importance of the massive Chinese market.
The carmaker has added its RS badge to the new compact Q3, the first time its Q5 and Q7 SUV range has worn the go-fast label. Automotive industry watchers expect the production-ready Q3 RS to be the star of the show in China.
Audi NZ boss Dean Sheed expects the standard all-wheel-drive Q3 to turn heads in this part of the world, too, although it's a more modest performer than the RS quattro concept.
The RS gets a 2.5-litre five-cylinder, direct-injection turbocharged petrol engine delivering around 270kW to all four wheels via a seven-speed twin-clutch transmission.
Drive goes to the front wheels most of the time, except when the quattro system detects loss of grip and instantly puts the rear wheels to work. Audi claims the concept can sprint from zero to 100km/h in 5.2 seconds on its way to a top speed of 270km/h.
The RS sits around 25mm lower than the standard Q3, its low-profile 20-inch alloys serving as another reminder that the concept is as much an RS model as it is an SUV. The styling treatment includes classic RS hallmarks such as the honeycomb-style grille, deeper air intakes and side sills, a pronounced rear diffuser and large, oval exhaust tailpipes.
Lightweight carbon fibre is used for the front spoiler, sections of the air intakes, door mirror housings and headlight inserts. Inside, black is the dominant colour (just like the standard Q3) mixed with dark blue Alcantara sections on the leather seats. Blue is also used in the door trims and in glass fibre inlays.
RS badges adorn the instrument cluster, the seatbacks, door sill plates and floor mats. The theme continues under the bonnet where, in a nod to motor racing, the five cylinder numbers are marked on their spark plug covers.
The Q3 RS is expected to go on sale here later next year. Meanwhile, Sheed expects to give the standard Q3 solid grounding with sales of around 150 units this year, or pretty much everything he gets from the factory.
More than 20,000 Q3s have been sold since its launch in Europe in October last year. Sheed says global demand for the Q3 is running well ahead of supply. "I believe we could sell 200 Q3s this year if we could get them. If the factory can give us more than we have been allocated, we will take them."
The Q3 quattro arrived this week, at a time when the market for compact SUVs in NZ is growing. This year, SUVs represent 24 per cent of overall new vehicle sales - but compact SUVs occupy 60 per cent of that 24 per cent.
Audi is aiming it at pretty much everyone - couples with kids, single professionals, grandparents - under an "urban" town-and-around banner. "It will have a city-metro skew," says Sheed.
It is powered by a 2-litre turbo-diesel delivering 130kW/380Nm via a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic to all four wheels. Its CO2 exhaust emissions rating is 156gr/km. A petrol model might be available here further down the line.
But SUV sales are dominated by diesels and Sheed believes diesel is the way to go with the compact Q3, even though modern, turbocharged petrol engines are delivering diesel-like torque and fuel efficiency.
Audi Australia believes its diesels will eventually become the most popular Q3 variants, too, despite its 2-litre quattro petrol model earmarked across the ditch as the highest seller initially. Audi Australia gets the petrol model because it can - it expects to sell around 3000 Q3s this year.
The Q3 starts in price at NZ$70,900, with the better equipped S-Line variant sitting at NZ$77,900. But optional equipment like satellite-navigation and the multi-mode Audi Drive Select package pushes the price up considerably.
Drive Select is a mild-hybrid package with an Efficiency mode. Once selected, it helps fuel use by disengaging drive to the wheels when the Q3 is coasting to a stop, such as easing up to traffic lights under a light brake.
The Q3 weighs 1585kg, has a maximum boot capacity of 1365 litres with the split rear seats folded down, and comes standard with 17-inch alloys. Bigger wheels are an option.
Audi launched the Q3 on a brief drive north of Auckland. It is designed to do everything the Q5 can do, but in a smaller, more affordable package, around 20cm shorter in length than the Q5 and slightly lower in height. Familiar Audi styling cues - trademark grille, headlamps and curving roofline - make the Q3 instantly recognisable. The similarities continue inside, with typical high-quality fixtures and fittings, the blackness of the interior seating and trim offset by inlaid highlights.
The Q3 is easy to get along with as soon as you sit behind the wheel. The cabin provides enough space for four adults, although headroom in the rear is a bit tight.
The driving experience shows a newcomer that's comfortable, agile and responsive, as easy to drive around the city as we expect it be on twisty country roads. Rear vision from the driver's seat could be better. Ride is firm and the MacPherson strut suspension up front and the four-link rear keep the higher ride height settled through corners.
There is nothing singularly outstanding about the Q3, but its combined performance, refinement and comfort holds all-round appeal.By Alastair Sloane Email Alastair