When it comes to brute force, the Audi RS3 is the hot hatch of choice. Now in its second generation, it combines a sonorous 2.5-litre turbocharged five-cylinder engine with quattro four-wheel drive for a supercar-esque 0-62mph time of 4.3 seconds.
Rivals include the 355bhp Mercedes A45 AMG and new 320bhp four-wheel drive Focus RS. What’s phenomenal is that you get all that power wrapped up in a practical five-door hatchback package, so it really is a car designed to be used everyday. Like most fast Audis the RS3 prioritises immense grip and secure handling above any flamboyant fun at the limit, but as a means of getting from A to B extremely quickly it will shame most cars twice its price.
Although this five-cylinder engine has been around for a while Audi has worked hard to extract all the efficiency it can, so economy and CO2 emissions of 34.9mpg and 189g/km are more than acceptable, given the enormous performance on offer.
Our choice: Audi RS3 Sportback
Engines, performance and drive
A launch control function lets you feel the full force of the RS3’s acceleration. Activate it and the way all four tyres dig in and slingshot you up the road quite literally takes your breath away.
With 362bhp and 465Nm at your disposal, and maximum torque arriving at just 1,650rpm, there’s massive performance on tap whenever you need it. It also means the RS3 is quite happy letting the super-smooth seven-speed twin-clutch gearbox (unfortunately there’s no manual option) swaps cogs seamlessly, and trickling around town in a higher gear is relaxing as any other A3 in the range.
Refinement is excellent on smooth surfaces, although the standard RS sports suspension can feel a little harsh when the surface breaks up – we’d recommend forking out for the optional adaptive dampers. But being civilized isn’t what the RS3 is about.
Selecting Dynamic mode via the drive select button opens up flaps in the optional sports exhaust (£1,495) and all hell breaks loose with explosions on the overrun, burps on upshifts and an offbeat snarling soundtrack when you’re on the throttle.
The variable ratio steering system is fast and direct, and body control impeccable when you keep things smooth and simple. Start chucking it around though and like its predecessor it has a tendency to understeer as you approach the limit.
For accomplished drivers the BMW M135i will be more fun, but for everyone else the RS3 is far quicker point to point.
MPG, CO2 and running costs
By sticking with the more characterful 2.5-litre turbocharged five-cylinder enfine, Audi has made some sacrifices in terms of fuel economy.
Even so, the RS3 is 12 per cent cleaner than its predecessor, with claimed economy and emissions of 34.9mpg and 189g/km. By comparison, the 296bhp four-wheel drive VW Golf R with a DSG gearbox returns 40.9mpg and 159g/km.
In addition to relatively good fuel economy, the RS3 has the strongest residual value compared to all its main competitors, retaining 54 per cent of its value after three years, compared to 47 per cent for the Mercedes A45 AMG and BMW M135i.
Interior, design and technology
Audi’s RS models are usually designed to fly under the radar compared to more showy machinery like the Focus RS, and the new RS3 sticks to the brief. On top of the obvious badging, the single frame grille is filled with a gloss black honeycomb mesh with bigger air intakes either side. LED headlights with LED daytime running lights are standard, too.
RS3-specific 19-inch alloys are crammed into the flared wheel arches, while matt aluminium wing mirrors, a roof spoiler and two gaping oval exhausts finish off the subtly pumped-up look. Customers can choose from eight different colours, including two new shades introduced on this car – Nardo Grey and Catalunya Red. The standard A3 Sportback’s interior is a great place to start, and the RS3 turns things up a notch with a pair of gorgeous wingback sport seats, finished in quilted leather.
A flat-bottomed steering wheel trimmed in Alcantara feels fantastic in your palms, while the instrument cluster is upgraded with a digital boost meter for the turbo. Standard kit includes the retractable screen for displaying the sat-nav, rear parking camera and infotainment functions.
Practicality, comfort and boot space
Not many cars of the RS3’s performance caliber can offer such a practical layout with five seats, five doors and a big boot. Compared to the three-door A3, Audi has added an extra 35mm to the wheelbase which frees up some welcome legroom in the rear – even six-footers will be comfortable back there. The long wheelbase also boosts bootspace by 50-litres compared to the three-door, for a total of 380 litres.
Drop the rear seats and the usable loading area jumps to 1,220 litres. Deep door bins and lots of cubby holes and cupholders make the most of the interior space. The firmer suspension makes the RS3 that little bit more tiresome on long journey and over poor surfaces, but with its surfeit of power and quiet cabin when cruising the RS3 is well suited to long trips. Just beware that you’ll be stopping to top up with fuel fairly often.
Reliability and Safety
Audi is famed for the quality of its components, and the RS3 should be no different. We used the launch control several times back to back and the gearbox felt like it was happy to do it all day. Because the RS3 is based on the VW Group’s modular MQB platform (which saves 55kg compared to its predecessor), it uses a large number of common components already proven throughout the VW, Audi, Skoda and SEAT ranges.
If you plan to use your RS3 on track (which we wouldn’t particularly recommend), or to drive it particularly hard, often, then it might be worth ordering the optional carbon-ceramic brakes for their longer lifespan and fade-free stopping power. Also note that tyres will need replacing more often.
The Audi A3 scored a full five-star rating in the Euro NCAP crash tests, and there's a whole raft of safety systems to help prevent accidents. These include a lane departure warning system, and a 'Pre-Sense' program that tightens up the seat belts and closes the windows if the car enters a skid.
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