The super hot hatch league is currently one of the most highly contested in the business, and to be top dog you need to pack the most power. Audi is trumping archrivals Mercedes and BMW with its brand new Audi RS3 Sportback that, until the arrival of Volkswagen’s 395bhp Golf R400 next year, is the most powerful five-door hot hatchback you can buy. This is our first drive of the car in the UK.
With 362bhp extracted from its 2.5-litre five-cylinder turbocharged engine, the new second-generation Audi RS3 crucially beats not only the 355bhp Mercedes A45 AMG and the 322bhp BMW M135i, but also the forthcoming Focus RS which musters 320bhp from its 2.3-litre four-cylinder engine. The Audi can also hurtle from 0-62mph in 4.3 seconds – three-tenths faster than not just the A45 AMG but also the RS3’s dad, the 4.2-litre V8 R8 supercar – and, like all German performance cars, it’s limited to 155mph (Audi can de-restrict it allowing a top speed of 174mph if necessary).
This naturally translates to savage on-road performance. Plant your right foot on the throttle and thanks to the quattro four-wheel drive system, the RS3 fires up the road with ferocious speed. For even more stomach-turning acceleration and to hit 62mph in 4.3 seconds you just need to use the launch control system – turn off the ESC, select ‘Dynamic’ mode in the standard Audi Drive Select, put the S tronic gearbox into ‘Sport’, hold the brake pedal and floor the throttle. The engine will then be held at 4,000rpm – let go of the brake and the RS3 will launch forwards with just a small chirp of wheel spin from the tyres.
Audi has tweaked the seven-speed S tronic gearbox to give faster shift times and while it’s difficult to notice the cogs changing more quickly, there’s no doubt it fires through the gears slickly. And with the Dynamic mode selected, the flaps in the exhaust are opened so every change up is accompanied by a large ‘bang’, while on overrun or dropping a gear is met with a ‘crackle’ and a ‘pop’. The Jaguar F-Type-like exhaust is a perfect match for the charismatic five-cylinder engine. At low revs there’s a distinctive five-pot warble that transforms into a howl near the top of the rev range.
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The tweaks – including a longer seventh speed and more ‘coasting’ from the stop/start system – have also improved fuel consumption by 12.5 per cent over the old RS3 and reduced CO2 emissions by 12 per cent. However, the RS3 will be pricier to run than its nearest rivals to run – the Mercedes A45 AMG, for example, emits 161g/km compared to the RS3’s 189g/km and returns 40.9mpg. The RS3 manages 34.9mpg if you drive carefully and with a 32 per cent BiK rate, it’s five per cent higher than the Merc.
Die-hard Audi RS fans will also be pleased to hear the RS3 looks like the best RS models too with a subtle bodykit, trademark honeycomb grille and lightly flared arches. It can be made to look more aggressive, however, with a choice of colours for the bodywork and wheels and an aluminium-look exterior pack that emphasises the RS3’s square jaw-styled style.
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While the RS3 ranks at the top in terms of sheer performance, to be the best of the new crop of super hot hatches, straight-line pace isn’t enough – it needs to sparkle on more challenging roads. And this is where the Audi loses some of its punch.
The RS3 feels a little blunt on twisty country roads, and isn’t as engaging as the rear-wheel drive BMW M135i or even the four-wheel drive VW Golf R. The RS3 doesn’t have the most communicative steering and feels a little numb, but it is direct and quick to react to inputs. The ride is also a little too brittle for UK roads – our test car was fitted with the optional £2,495 dynamic package plus which includes magnetic ride that softens the worst potholes.
It’s a good option box to tick – especially as it also includes an RS sports exhaust system that only adds to the five pot’s aural pleasure. The RS3 also has a tendency to understeer too, despite Audi’s engineers working on the quattro four-wheel drive system (it can now send 100 per cent of the engine’s power to each axle if necessary) – but there are no complaints about the level of grip it offers, though.
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As the RS3 is based on the A3 Sportback, it’s also a practical hatchback. Boot space is 280 litres with the rear seats up and once they’re folded, there’s 1,120 litres on offer. The Mercedes A45 AMG has another 61 and 37 litres respectively, but the boot is a good shape and there’s plenty of space for rear seat passengers.
With its highly charismatic engine, prodigious straight-line pace and a comfortable, practical cabin, the RS3 makes a compelling case for itself. While the near-£40,000 asking price is steep (it’s £1,760 more expensive than the A45 AMG), nothing delivers supercar-baiting performance in such a practical, easy to live with package.