Audi RS3

Powerful 4WD flagship is set to shake up the class.

German giant Audi has a strong track record when it comes to high-performance heroes. Ever since it turned the sports car sector on its head with the pioneering Quattro coupé in 198o, the brand has lead the way with a series of turbocharged, four-wheel-drive flagships.

*Watch our video review of the Audi RS3*

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The latest addition to the line-up is the RS3, which looks set to be one of the hottest hatchbacks ever. Based on the practical A3 Sportback, it combines the thumping 335bhp turbocharged 2.5-litre five-cylinder engine from the TTRS with the firm’s famed all-wheel drive system.

However, unlike the aggressively styled 1 Series, the RS3 features a more low-key look. The biggest clues to its racy flagship status are the subtly flared wheelarches, deeper front air dam, large tailgate spoiler and chunky 19-inch alloy wheels.

As with other S and RS Audis, it gets trademark silver door mirror housings. And buyers wanting to attract a little more attention can opt for a customised paint finish, for a huge £2,450 extra.

Sadly, none of these changes can disguise the slightly dated lines of the current A3, which made its debut in 2003.

It’s a similar story inside, where the RS3 is clearly starting to show its age. There’s nothing wrong with the excellent fit and finish, while all the materials have a high-quality look and feel. But the design and layout of the dash is behind the times. Some owners will also find the high-set driving position is at odds with the car’s racy status.

At least you get plenty of standard kit to distract you from the old-fashioned interior. You’d expect leather seat trim and climate control, but Audi has also thrown in sat-nav and heated chairs – specify these extras on the 1M, and they add a hefty £2,275 to the price tag.

The RS3 also beats its rival in terms of versatility, thanks to its useful five-door hatchback layout. And although the 302-litre load bay is the smallest here, folding the rear bench flat liberates a healthy 1,032 litres of space.

Unlike its rivals in this test, the Sportback is also a genuine five-seater, while its upright bodywork means rear occupants get a decent amount of head and legroom.

If the Audi’s practicality is impressive, then its straight-line pace is jaw-dropping. The combination of four-wheel-drive traction, a rapid-fire twin-clutch gearbox and launch control meant it turned in a supercar-humbling display at the track. 

The Sportback blasted from 0-60mph in only 4.4 seconds – that’s a full three-tenths faster than the 1M. But it’s the ease with which it delivers this figure that’s truly impressive. Simply engage Sport mode on the S tronic transmission, hold the car on the brakes with your left foot and floor the throttle.

The hi-tech electronics determine the correct engine revs, so when you release the pedal, the Audi leaps off the line with neck-snapping violence. Better still, it will repeat this feat time after time without fuss. 

In the real world, this scorching pace from a standing start isn’t especially relevant, but the combination of unbreakable traction and knock-out punch is always reassuring when you’re pulling out

of wet junctions or overtaking on rain-soaked single carriageways – situations that have the 1M’s traction control system working overtime.

So, the Audi is devastatingly fast, but can it combine this with driving fun on a twisting back road? The initial impressions are certainly promising. Prod the Sport button on the dash, and throttle response is sharpened, plus a valve opens in the exhaust system to create a deeper and more menacing soundtrack.

As you’d expect, the RS3 has huge reserves of grip, while the compact dimensions and direct steering mean it feels extremely agile. However, the major controls lack the perfect weighting and communicative feedback of those in the 1 Series. 

This feeling is exaggerated by the S tronic twin-clutch box. 

It delivers slick shifts in auto mode and via the steering wheel-mounted paddles, but it’s not as satisfying to use as the 1M’s traditional manual.

Still, we have no complaints about the RS3’s characterful five-cylinder powerplant, which mixes punchy delivery with a spine-tingling soundtrack. As the 2.5-litre unit revs to its red line, the off-beat howl from the exhausts is reminiscent of Audi’s legendary Group B rally cars from the Eighties.

The five-door is also the most comfortable long-distance companion, despite a firm ride. Road noise is well insulated, and the slick box serves up smooth automatic shifts. 

On top of all this, the Audi has price on its side. It weighsin at £39,930, yet comes better equipped than the more costly 1 Series Coupé. But will this be enough to earn victory against such a talented opponent?

Details

Chart position: 2WHY: Audi’s ruthlessly fast RS stable has a thoroughbred new addition. The RS3 matches incredible all-wheel-drive traction with explosive turbocharged five-cylinder power.

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