Audi RS3 review
The new Audi RS3 is a real brute of a hot hatch, with an incredible 362bhp 2.5-litre engine under the bonnet
When it comes to brute force, the Audi RS 3 is the hot hatch of choice. What’s phenomenal is that you get so much power wrapped up in a practical five-door hatchback package, and it really is a car designed to be used every day.
Like many fast Audi models, the RS 3 prioritises uflapple all-weather performance above any flamboyant fun when you're driving at the limit, but as a means of getting from A to B extremely quickly it'll 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, which means economy and CO2 emissions are more than acceptable given the enormous performance on offer. Even so, models such as the Ford Focus RS undercut it on price and running costs.
Now in its second generation, the Audi RS 3 Sportback combines a sonorous 2.5-litre turbocharged five-cylinder engine with quattro four-wheel drive, offering supercar-rivalling acceleration in a practical five-door hatchback body.
Billed by Audi at its launch in 2014 as the most powerful hot hatch in series-production (although it now has to give best to the Mercedes-AMG A45 in this respect), it’s also the most powerful five-cylinder engine in Audi’s RS history. The first-generation RS 3 Sportback made do with a slightly more modest 335bhp back in 2011, whereas the latest car packs a mighty 362bhp.
Audi also says the second generation RS 3 is lighter by some 55kgs, in spite of deploying more safety features and equipment, and as a result the quoted power-to-weight ratio is an impressive 238bhp per ton.
Other advances include a seven-speed DSG gearbox with faster shift times, and a quattro system that also reacts faster as it splits the available power between all four wheels - Audi claims that in extreme situations the Haldex controlled transmission can send up to 100 percent of the engine's torque to the rear axle.
The RS 3 Sportback is now one of seven models currently offered by quattro GmbH, the performance subsidiary responsible for giving birth to Audi’s most extreme models. The rest of the RS family are the RS Q3, RS 4 Avant, RS 5 Coupe and Cabriolet, RS 6 Avant and RS 7 Sportback.
All cars come with the same luxuriously appointed spec. The list of goodies includes RS body styling parts, 19-inch alloy wheels, 25mm-lowered sports suspension, Audi Drive Select with auto, comfort and dynamic modes, Nappa leather heated sports seats, climate control, brushed metal pedals, LED head- and tail-lights, and front and rear parking sensors, plus sat-nav, DAB digital radio, Bluetooth and a 5.8-inch colour display. Adaptive damping is a £1,495 option.
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Rivals to the RS 3 Sportback include the 376bhp Mercedes-AMG A45, the 345bhp four-wheel drive Focus RS and the 365bhp BMW M2 – each hero cars in their own right to aficionados of the respective brands. All three German cars are similarly priced, while the Ford undercuts them all by at least £10,000.
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.
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 the dynamic mode via the drive select button opens up flaps in the optional sports exhaust (£1,495) and all hell breaks loose. The RS 3 rewards you with explosions on the overrun, burps on gear upshifts and a 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. But if you start chucking it around corners it has a tendency to understeer as you approach the limit. Upgrade to the optional two-tone 19-inch alloys and you actually get wider tyres at the front than the rear, which helps boost front end grip a little. Yet with that heavy five-cylinder engine hanging over the axle and four-wheel drive system that's calibrated for ultimate traction over agilty, the RS 3 will eventually run wide in a corner. However, you have to be driving to end it all before you exceed the Audi's sky-high limits.
For accomplished drivers the rear-wheel-drive BMW M2 will be more fun, while the Ford Focus RS proves that four-wheel drive machines can boast all-weather security while also being agile and engaging to drive.
The turbocharged 2.5-litre five-cylinder engine stuffed under the bonnet gives the Audi RS 3 electrifying performance.
With 362bhp and 465Nm at your disposal, and maximum torque arriving at just 1,650rpm and sustained all the way to 5,500rpm, there’s massive performance on tap whenever you need it.
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Aided by four-wheel drive which maximises traction off the line, the RS 3 will rocket to 62mph in a claimed 4.3 seconds, while we recorded a remarkable 0-60mph time of 3.8 seconds. The top speed is electronically limited to 155mph, although if you fork out an eye-watering £2,495 for the Dynamic Pack Plus, Audi will tweak the limiter giving you a maximum of 174mph instead.
Unfortunately there’s no manual gearbox option, but those meaty torque figures do mean the RS 3 is quite happy letting the seven-speed twin-clutch gearbox change gear seamlessly. Trickling around town in a higher gear is relaxing as any other A3 in the range. Pick up the pace and the gearbox responds crisply to the wheel-mounted paddles. particularly the downchanges which elicit hilarious cracks and bangs from the exhaust.
MPG, CO2 and running costs
While other performance cars are ‘downsizing’ engine capacity and numbers of cylinders, Audi has stuck with the more characterful – and iconic to the brand - 2.5-litre turbocharged five-cylinder engine. This has inevitable consequences for the RS 3's fuel economy and efficiency.
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, while the Mercedes-AMG A45 has an official figure of 161g/km.
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Of course, the figures recorded on an official test cycle and the realities of everyday driving are two very different things. In the worst-case scenario, taking your car to a track day would likely see a return of less than 10mpg, whereas if you take things very easily and you might see this figure rise to the low 30s. Expect something in-between and you won’t be disappointed – and remember that’s still pretty good for a car with the RS 3’s sizzling performance.
The RS 3 Sportback is not cheap to insure, but that’s only to be expected. The Audi gets a group 40 rating, which is a couple of groups lower than the Mercedes-AMG A45, while the BMW M235i is group 39. A Thatcham category 1 alarm and immobiliser is fitted as standard, but many of the exterior panels are unique to the RS3, pushing up the price.
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-AMG A45.
Beware the expensive options list though. Audi reckons the average buyer adds 20 per cent to the already hefty list price of the RS 3 by adding extra kit, but spending more up front exposes you to a much bigger hit at resale time.
Interior, design and technology
Audi’s RS models are usually designed to fly under the radar compared to more showy machinery such as the Focus RS, and the new RS 3 sticks to the brief – although fans of fast Audis will spot one a mile off.
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.
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RS 3-specific 19-inch alloy wheels 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, although all the colours except Nardo Grey are rather cheekily offered as £550 cost options.
In fact Audi will paint your RS 3 any colour from the entire Audi paint range, but that becomes a £2,025 cost option. Custom colours will set you back £2,525, but - unless you’re blessed with extremely good taste - beware you don’t do something that will see you punished again come resale time...
If you are dabbling in the options list, the Dynamic Package Plus may be hard to resist. It delivers not only the Audi Magnetic Ride active damping and the fruity RS Sports exhaust system, but also removes the 155mph speed limiter, giving you the potential to crack 174mph - and all for a fiver less than £2,500. Crucially, this upgrade also entitles you to half a day of driver training at the brand's Experience centre at the Silverstone race circuit in Northamptonshire.
The standard A3 Sportback’s interior is already a pleasant place to spend time, and the RS 3 version 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 inside includes the retractable screen for displaying the sat-nav, rear parking camera and infotainment functions.
Sat-nav, stereo and infotainment
While the RS 3 comes with a 5.8-inch colour screen as standard, you can upgrade to the infotainment system with the £1,145 Technology Package. That comes with a high-resolution seven-inch screen, a hard drive-based navigation system with 3-D mapping, voice control and dynamic route guidance. For an extra £300 it will be connected to the internet as well, giving you access to emails and Google mapping services, as well turning your car into a Wi-Fi hot-spot.
The £1,150 Comfort and Sound Package brings cruise control, upgraded interior lighting and a Bang & Olufsen sound system with 14 speakers and 705 Watts output.
Practicality, comfort and boot space
Few cars at the RS 3’s level of performance offer such a practical layout, with five seats, five doors and a versatile hatchback layout - although the boot capacity of 280-litres is 100-litres less than the standard A3 Sportback.
Inside, deep door bins and lots of cubby holes and cupholders make the most of the available space. There's also a large glovebox and a deep lidded compartment between the front seats.
The Audi’s wingback sports seats don’t just look fabulous, they’re comfortable and supportive too, with a driving position that’s adjustable for all shapes and sizes.
As with most high performance machinery, the firmer suspension naturally makes the RS 3 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 nonetheless well suited to long road trips. Just beware that you’ll be stopping to top up with fuel fairly often, as the standard A3 fuel tank is a fairly modest 55 litres.
The RS 3 Sportback is 4,343mm long and 1,966mm wide, which makes it less than 2cms shorter than the Mercedes-AMG A45, but more than 5cms narrower.
The Merc is 1,417mm tall, which is less than 1cm higher than the Audi.
Leg room, head room & passenger space
Audi has added an extra 35mm to the RS 3's wheelbase (the distance between front and rear axles) over the three-door A3, which frees up some welcome legroom in the rear – even six-footers will be comfortable back there.
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While the car is a full five-seater, two rear passengers will be much more comfortable than three because shoulder-room will otherwise be severely limited.
There are standard ISOFIX child seat mounts on the front passenger seat and the two outer rear seats.
This is where the Audi's practicality credentials take a hiding. The standard A3 Sportback boasts a usful 380-litre capacity, but the RS 3 can only accommodate 280-litres, which is smaller than some superminis. This reduction is a result of the need surrender underfloor space for the four-wheel drive system's back axle and the battery (the large five-cylinder engine means there's not enough space under the bonnet).
Drop the rear seats and the usable loading area jumps to 1,220 litres – which is more than the Mercedes-AMG A45 can offer. There’s a decently low loading lip too, while the Sportback’s estate car-like lines help to maximise practicality.
Reliability and Safety
Audi is famed for the quality of its components, and the RS 3 should be no different. We used the launch control several times back-to-back in our test, and the gearbox felt like it was happy to do it all day.
Because the RS 3 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.
As a result, the A3 range has performed very well in our 2016 Driver Power satisfaction survey, with the third-generation model (on which the RS 3 is based) coming in a creditable 47th overall out of 200 cars. However, there's still work for Audi to do, with the brand languishing 21st out of 32 in the manufacturers poll.
If you plan to use your RS3 on track (which we wouldn’t particularly recommend, but which might prove hard to resist), or to frequently drive it hard, then it might be worth ordering the optional carbon-ceramic brakes for their longer lifespan and fade-free stopping power. However, it's likely the front tyres will be torn to shreds long before the standard cast iron discs start to wilt.
The Audi A3 three-door hatchback which is identical to the Sportback in most meaningful ways, scored a full five-star rating in the Euro NCAP crash tests, including an excellent 95 per cent for adult occupant safety and 87 per cent for child safety.
There's a whole raft of safety systems available to help prevent accidents, including a lane departure warning system, adaptive cruise control and a 'pre-sense' program that tightens up the seat belts and closes the windows if the car enters a skid. The downside is that some of the more advanced tech is on the options list.
The RS 3 comes with Audi’s regular three-year/60,000 mile warranty, but you can extend it to four years/75,000 miles or five years/90,000 miles for £245 or £545. The Mercedes-AMG A45 has a three-year warranty, but with the significant added reassurance of unlimited mileage.
Audi’s flexible service regime for high-mileage drivers could mean you only need an oil change every two years or 19,000 miles. An oil condition sensor on the car determines the service interval for you.
If you do less than 10,000 miles a year Audi recommends an annual oil change with a full inspection service at two years/19,000 miles.