Once upon a time, a hot hatch was a hot hatch. You knew where you stood; the bodyshell of a humble hatchback, with a potent engine, maybe taken from a larger stablemate, thrust into its prow. Sprinkle in some suspension magic to match, bolt on some bigger brakes, et voila. But today, not all hot hatches are hot hatches. This one, for example, masquerades as an SUV.
It’s called the Audi SQ2, and it doesn’t take a Nobel prize winner to work out that that means it’s based on the Q2 small SUV. This Q2, however, has the engine from the high-performance Audi S3. In that regard, it follows the traditional hot hatch formula pretty faithfully. So can it also serve up traditional thrills, too?
Pretty good fun to drive
Cramped rear seats and average boot
Expensive to buy or lease
Specification could be better
So, that engine, then. It’s broadly the same EA888 unit that’s powered the vast majority of front-wheel-drive Volkswagen Group performance cars for the best part of 20 years; these days you’ll find it, in updated form, in not only the S3, but also the Volkswagen Golf, T-Roc and Tiguan R, the Cupra Leon, Ateca and Formentor, and the Skoda Octavia and Kodiaq vRS.
In the SQ2 it produces 296bhp, enough (combined with the standard four-wheel drive) to allow it to bolt to 62mph in 4.9 seconds, which makes it faster to that benchmark than rivals such as the Ford Puma ST and even the potent Hyundai Kona N.
Of course, it is also quite a bit more expensive than either of those – £5,000-odd more than the Hyundai and a whopping £10,000 or so more than the Puma ST Performance Pack. Oh, and the Audi’s price is also about £1,000 more than that of the Cupra Ateca, a car with which the SQ2 shares a powertrain, but which is quite a bit larger – and therefore roomier.
And the SQ2’s high price follows through to its lease and finance rates. That’s a bit of a surprise, because it suggests the finance companies aren’t too certain that the SQ2’s resale values will hold up as well as you might expect of an Audi. Indeed, based on our sample of finance websites, the SQ2’s monthly payments look quite a bit higher than those of any of the rivals mentioned above.
What’s more, while the SQ2 is not badly equipped, it lacks a couple of bits of key equipment you might expect in a top-of-the-range car like this. You get cruise control, for example, but it isn’t adaptive, and while you get leather and faux-suede seats, they aren’t heated.
If you want these extras, you can upgrade to the full-fat SQ2 Vorsprung, which gets pretty much every option box ticked as standard – though this, as you might expect, raises the price commensurately, to more than £47,000. That’s a huge amount of money to spend on a car that’s still smaller than a Golf, so you’re probably better off sticking with the standard SQ2 and adding the bits you want from the options list.
It’s less of a clamber, more of an easy slide into the SQ2’s driver’s seat – this, after all, is hardly the highest-riding crossover around, and in fact the seating position isn’t a great deal taller than that of a family hatchback. It could hardly be called spacious inside, either; even in the front seats, the cockpit closes in on you and the black roof lining enhances the feeling of claustrophobia.
In the back seats, leg and elbow room are both in short supply, the latter because the space is actually quite narrow and the outer seats set quite far apart in order to make the middle seat even vaguely usable. There’s still a high hump in the middle of the floor for its occupant to contend with, though; try to sit three adults abreast here and you’re liable to hear more than a few grumbles.
The seats don’t perform any clever tricks, such as you’ll find in rival compact SUVs, and while Vorsprung models get 40:20:40 split seats which fold down individually, the entry-level SQ2 only gets a 60:40 split, which seems unnecessarily stingy. The boot itself isn’t exactly tiny, but neither is it up to the standards of the SQ2’s rivals.
The dashboard is good, though; built from the sort of high-end materials you’d expect to find in an Audi, and with a smart design that apes the TT sports coupe’s, right down to the big bullseye vents with tactile knurled cuffs that rotate to open or close the vent.
Previous generation touchscreen is a bonus
The separate climate control panel and pop-up infotainment screen are both very last-generation Audi, but that’s not such a bad thing; the former gets physical buttons instead of the de rigeur touch-sensitive controls, which makes it much easier to use, while the older software used on the infotainment screen is free of the bugs and glitches that have affected Audi’s latest-generation touchscreen system. It’s also operated using a central rotary controller, which makes it easier and less distracting to use on the move.
This is important, because operating a touchscreen while in motion would be quite tricky in the SQ2; the stiff suspension never stops reminding you of its sporting bent, jostling you over even the smallest lumps in the road and transmitting the texture of coarser road surfaces through to your buttocks.
Yet while the ride is firm it’s well controlled and never gives in to outright crashiness, so that while you’ll still swerve around potholes and drain covers for the sake of comfort you won’t wince if you do happen to let the wheels fall into one. Besides, viewed through the lens of a hot hatch, a stiff ride is somewhat to be expected; the SQ2’s is no worse than some other current performance hatchbacks.
In urban driving, the smooth, quick-shifting automatic gearbox and light steering make the SQ2 easy to get along with. What’s more, when you need the power it’s ready and waiting for you; the engine’s low-end torque means the gearbox rarely has to shift down, so if you do need to go for a gap, you just prod the throttle and, with a mellifluous parp, the engine delivers a lovely glob of grunt just when you need it to.
Around town, however, the SQ2 always feels as though it’s saying “Come on, come on, let’s go and have some fun.” So you head into the countryside to indulge it, like a puppy that’s just waiting for the moment it gets to the park, and when you do let it loose you can practically feel its joy.
The firm suspension set-up, for starters, comes into its own as the pace quickens and the corners tighten, keeping the body locked down well enough that you never really feel any detriment as a result of its extra height compared with a hatchback.
The steering is relatively light on feedback and feel, but its action is direct and the nose is unshakeable, too, meaning you end up with plenty of confidence in the front end regardless, and the SQ2 bites eagerly as you enter each bend.
It isn’t quite as agile or as playful as a Puma ST – very few cars are – but there’s still enough movement in the chassis to allow you to sense what the car is up to, and to adjust your line with the accelerator.
Should you bowl into a corner a bit more quickly than is prudent, its immense grip and traction mean the SQ2 simply shrugs its shoulders, hugs the apex closer as you add an extra half-turn of steering lock, and fires you out the other side regardless.
That useful low-down shove swells into the same sort of relentless, unceasing power delivery we’ve come to expect from the more rapid VW Group petrol cars, but there’s still enough tingly excitement at the top end to reward you for holding each gear to the last, the engine gaining an angrier, harder-edged note as the revs rise.
It’s just a bit of a shame the gearbox won’t let you do so, though. If you really hold out for the red line, the SQ2 decides enough’s enough and changes up for you. It’s the same if you change down just a little too early for its liking; all of which means that, even in manual mode with the most sporty set-up selected, the SQ2 still doesn’t quite give you as much control as a manual gearbox
The Telegraph verdict
With that exception, though, there’s more than a hint of the hot hatches of 20 or 30 years ago in the SQ2; cheeky little cars that felt a bit rough, even uncouth at times, but went about their business with a cheeky grin and a wink that made them endearing nonetheless.
Yes, it’s bouncy and cramped, and even a touch on the noisy side, but the SQ2 makes up for all this with a driving experience that’s immediately engaging. Not just for an SUV, either; it’s good enough to rank toward the top end of the modern hot hatch league table.
The problem is, you pay for the privilege. When you look at what else you can get for the price of the SQ2, it becomes harder to justify its lack of space or its less generous equipment list, especially when a Puma ST is even more engaging and so much less costly, either to buy or to lease.
But if you really must have a crossover with a premium badge, and you want it to have plenty of vim, then the smart, slick, and surprisingly charming SQ2 is a solid bet.
Telegraph rating: Four stars out of five
On test: Audi SQ2
Body style: five-door SUV
On sale: now
How much? £40,450 on the road (range from £40,450)
How fast? 155mph, 0-62mph in 4.9sec
How economical? 34.0mpg (WLTP Combined)
Engine & gearbox: 1,984cc four-cylinder petrol engine, seven-speed automatic gearbox, four-wheel drive
Electric powertrain: N/A
Electric range: N/A
Maximum power/torque: 296bhp/295lb ft
CO2 emissions: 188g/km
VED: £895 first year, £490 next five years, then £155
Warranty: 3 years / 60,000 miles (unlimited mileage first two years)
Spare wheel as standard: No (optional extra)
Ford Puma ST Performance Pack
197bhp, 41.5mpg, £30,545 on the road
The Puma aces the Audi in many ways, with a more fluent, more involving driving experience and a more playful chassis setup. It’s also roomier inside, and that clever under-floor locker in the boot is still a unique, and very neat, touch. On the downside, you miss out on four-wheel drive, and it isn’t as fast, but then it isn’t exactly slow either – and with this Performance Pack model you get an excellent limited-slip diff.
Hyundai Kona N Performance
276bhp, 33.2mpg, £35,395 on the road
The Kona N is closer in spirit to the SQ2 than the Puma, and closer in price too, though it’s still £5,000 less. You don’t get four-wheel drive, but again, there’s a limited-slip diff, and of course, Hyundai’s excellent five-year warranty too. On paper, then, it’s a tempting alternative. How good is it in the flesh, though? Well, we’ll tell you when we get hold of one in January.
Cupra Ateca VZ1
296bhp, 31.3mpg, £39,525 on the road
It speaks volumes about the SQ2’s price premium that this entry-level Cupra Ateca is bigger, roomier, and slightly better equipped, yet it’s also cheaper despite coming with the very same powertrain. It shares the SQ2’s rather firm ride, though, and while it’s undoubtedly fast, it isn’t quite as agile or as involving to drive, so the payoff isn’t as worthwhile.
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