David MottonSee other Blog articles filed in ‘Tow cars’ written by David Motton
The firm body control and grippy tyres which stick a grin on Jeremy Clarkson's face are just what you need when trying to keep a caravan on a tight leash. Combine a sporty drive with four-wheel drive and you have a recipe for swift and stress-free towing. Do Audi's two high-performance SUVs have the potential to keep car enthusiasts and caravanners happy?
Audi RS Q3
We know from the 2013 Tow Car Awards just how well the Q3 tows, but the RS Q3 is a very different proposition from the 2.0-litre diesel we tested back in the spring. For one thing, it's the first Audi SUV to be given the 'RS' badge, which the company reserves for its quickest and most driver-focused models. For another, instead of the diesel's 175bhp, the RS Q3 has 306bhp.
The five-cylinder turbocharged petrol engine makes a distinctive gruff and gung-ho note, and delivers belligerent performance. Top-end power is supported by barrel-chested muscle through the middle of the rev range. The S-tronic transmission usually changes gear quickly and smoothly, although shifts are felt more with the gearbox in 'sport' mode.
Vivid straight-line performance is matched to agile handling: the RS corners like a hot hatch on stilts. At times the extra ride height compared with a hatchback actually works to the RS Q3 driver's advantage, giving a better view of the road ahead. There's plenty of grip, light and accurate steering, and a willingness to change direction in a hurry which you don't associate with an SUV.
Every RS Q3 comes with Audi's Drive Select system, which allows the driver some say in how the suspension and other systems behave. In 'comfort' the RS does a remarkable job of combining a supple ride with iron-fisted control over dips and crests. Switch to 'dynamic' mode and there's more weight to the steering and a firmer edge to the suspension set up, while 'auto' uses the car's sensors to decide if the driver is in the mood to press on or dawdle. In truth, the RS is so good to drive in 'comfort' we'd be tempted to leave the car in this mode most of the time.
Drive the car gently and there's very little to make the RS any harder to live with than any other Q3. There's a fair amount of road noise kicked up by the big wheels and tyres, but that's about it.
All this suggests the RS Q3 has the makings of a very capable tow car, although unfortunately that's not something we've had the chance to put to the test. But on our solo test drive the RS showed all the ingredients needed for a fast and stable tug, while the kerbweight of 1730kg (including 75kg for the driver) gives an 85% match figure of 1471kg. The legal towing limit is 1900kg.
However, given an official combined figure of 32.1mpg, fuel economy when towing would almost certainly be very poor. And the £43,000 price is an eye-watering amount to pay for an SUV which is no more roomy than many small hatchbacks, however good it looks or fast it goes.
A price tag the wrong side of £40k is easier to swallow with the SQ5. For £44,055 (so just over £1000 more than the RS Q3), your money buys a much bigger and more practical car, with space for adults to travel comfortably in the back and a 540-litre boot.
It's not as if the SQ5 is slower than the smaller car. In fact, Audi's own figures suggest it's quicker, shaving a tenth of a second from the Q3's 5.2 second 0-62mph time. What's more, the 3.0-litre bi-turbo diesel sounds almost as good as the five-cylinder petrol in the RS, with an ill-tempered bass-heavy note which speaks of the engine's 479lb.ft of torque.
That kind of muscle makes for effortless acceleration, and should make short work of towing any suitably matched tourer. With a kerbweight of 1995kg (including the driver), the SQ5 has an 85% match figure of 1696kg, although with a car this heavy anyone with a B licence rather than a B+E entitlement will be heavily restricted in terms of what they can tow.
Fuel economy is also much better than the RS Q3's, with an official combined figure of 41.5mpg.
But however much the SQ5 makes its smaller sibling seem impractical and overpriced, it's nothing like as much fun to drive. There's lots of grip but little finesse. Whereas the RS Q3 makes smooth progress the SQ5 stomps down the road, picking a fight with each lump and bump in the surface as it goes.
Now, if Audi could make an SUV which drives like the RS Q3 but is as practical and heavy as the SQ5 they'd have quite a car. And that's something Top Gear fans and caravanners could agree on.