TEST DRIVE | New Audi RS3

Hands up who loves a hot hatch. Whether it’s new or old, the combination of a lively tuned engine in a lightweight compact body will never fail to produce fun. The last RS3 ’s combination of muscular styling, savage straight-line performance and excellent cabin quality made it a hit with buyers, but its monotone handling proved less popular with serious drivers.

The new RS3 retains the 5-cylinder 2.5-litre TFSI engine. An often unloved engine that was only embraced by a handful of manufacturers but Audi still insist on using it in the RS3, RS Q3 and TT RS. The Q3 is a nonsense car that should never have seen the light of day but I digress. The engine is simply wonderful in the TT RS, the Roadster version of which is a car high up on my ‘must own’ list.

In the new RS3 the engine has been revised, had weight trimmed and even more power extracted from it. Just a few short of 400bhp to be precise which is good for a 0-62mph of 4.1-seconds thanks to the launch control system and quattro (more on that later). As with every German car it will top out at 155mph but if you tick the correct option box when ordering then the limiter will be lifted to 174mph.

Taking a seat for the first time, the tone is immediately set by the chubby flat-bottomed steering wheel and lashings of Alcantara throughout. Ignition on proudly displays the fully digital instrument cluster which shows torque data as well as how much G-force you’re generating. The interior of the previous RS3 was pleasing, well-built and designed, and the new car just builds on that. It feels like a car much higher up the model range.

For night driving, the RS3 now comes with excellent LED headlights as standard. They can be upgraded to ‘matrix LED’ which I can highly recommend. It’s a system which keeps main beam on for most of the time and dims individual LEDs in the headlights so oncoming traffic doesn’t get any glare but still retaining your high beam on zones beside and between other cars. It can only be described as witchcraft but it works perfectly. Even more so when the headlights swivel round a corner before you even reach it by using data from the MMI Navigation to adjust for the corner ahead.

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The suspension has been tuned slightly, riding lower and a little harder than before which, in the RS3, isn’t necessarily a bad thing. A decedent option is ‘Audi Magnetic Ride’ whereby the oil in the dampers is packed with magnetic filings. The advantage being the speed in which the dampers can adjust and adapt to the conditions, much faster than any air system.

A necessary option however, is the sports exhaust system fitted to this car. Other cars with fancy exhausts can sound juvenile and fake but the RS3 sounds authentic and bass-heavy, producing a symphony of rumbles and crackles throughout the rev range. Believe me, the deep ‘fart’ sound from the exhaust on hard up-shifting in TFSI Audis is addictive.

While on the subject of noise and performance, launch control is a nice little party piece and when compared to performance cars from other marques, the RS3’s is flawless. In AMGs, for example, the wheels must be straight, engine temperature and systems double checked, planets aligned, say 3 Hail Marys, 7 Our Fathers etc., and even then you can only do a limited number of launches ‘per session’ and Mercedes technicians advise against it but in a hot Audi with robust DSG gearbox it’s Dynamic mode ‘On’, traction control ‘Off’, left foot hard on the brake, right foot on the loud pedal and the car will hold at 4,000rpm, itching to launch on your command. On a decent dry road with good tyres it’s thrilling and addictive.

Fast tight cornering was a problem in the previous RS3. It happily understeered and the steering was weighted heavily but this RS3 has a new and improved steering rack which, when aided by quattro, pushes the rear through corners nicely. Some other hot Audis would kill to corner as well as this one but there is an underlying sense that power and performance is taken more seriously than handling and driver involvement.

Braking performance is more than adequate thanks to the standard 370mm disks. There’s a ceramic brakes option like on the previous RS3 but unless you are a serious driver and attending trackdays, I find a tad overkill. And you’d have to be a serious driver to tick that particular option box which is almost the price of a new Dacia. Alas, Audi don’t do cheap optional extras. If you’ve ever owned a car with ceramic brakes you’ll know that when cold they screech, are grabby and difficult to judge until they’re hot. The drawbacks outweigh the benefits. Not for me, thanks.

The RS3 goes head to head with the Mercedes-AMG A45, a car with ‘only’ 376bhp and which falls short to the Audi in terms of ability and gadgets (did I mention the RS3’s wireless smartphone charging?). Plus I’d personally rather have the new SEAT Leon Cupra 300 over the Merc. The Cupra is a very capable and fun car but that’s a review for another day.

The price for all this engineering and performance isn’t cheap. The RS3 Sportback starts at £45,250. Slightly cheaper is the saloon version but if you want a fast saloon, then buy an S4. I’ve actually driven the A3 saloon and didn’t like the concept or feeling of driving a hatchbach but reminding yourself there’s a big boot sticking out when reversing. Rear passenger headroom is also compromised in the saloon.

To buy and run an RS3 means big costs. If you can overcome that first hurdle then you will be greeted with the pinnacle of hot hatches.

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