First Drive: Audi RS 3 Sportback

How much is enough?

If you’re old enough to remember, the Ford Escort XR3i, at the time the ultimate hot hatch, had an engine producing 105bhp. Fast forward 30 years or so and any sporty version of a family car worth its salt has around three times that much horsepower. Hyundai’s i30 N has around 275bhp, the Honda Civic Type R has 316bhp, while the latest Ford Focus RS packs 345bhp under the bonnet.

And then Audi turned up with the RS 3, it’s 2.5-litre petrol engine good for almost 400bhp. In a family hatchback.

It takes the engine from the ferocious Audi TT RS and drops it into a more practical bodyshell. Activate the launch control system and it will almost literally rocket from zero to everything-is-going-blurry in just 4.1 seconds. Leave your foot in place and it’ll carry on accelerating all the way to 178mph.

If that sounds a little over the top, then you’re probably right. However, the RS 3 does it in a beautifully linear way. There’s no sudden surge of power as turbos kick in, and no big drop as the revs rise too high. It just keeps delivering a constant wave of power, the gearbox swapping through its seven ratios to ensure you’re always dealing with peak power. And it does that while making a truly antisocial noise.

It’s not all about drag racing performance though, as the RS 3 has been thoroughly reworked to make it more entertaining when things get bendy. There’s been some weight reduction at the front end (there’s aluminium, magnesium and other materials in use to cut the mass) which makes turn in sharper and improves overall agility. That’s aided by a Quattro four-wheel-drive system that’s been retuned to promote a smile rather than boring, neutral handling. From half to all of the power can be fed to the rear wheels, which could lead to lurid power slides and clouds of tyre smoke. Friends in Oman confirm that it’s possible to go everywhere sideways on their sand-covered dusty roads. Out in Rutland, there’s so much grip available that there was never a hint of even a squeak from the tyres at a junction.

There is a special Sport mode that turns the computers off, at least until things get too serious, but even then there’s little you can do to provoke the RS 3 into misbehaving. Forget the sporty handling then, as a surfeit of grip means it corners like David Beckham and stops like David de Gea. In normal use on public roads, you’ll simply never find the limit of its abilities.

It makes 400 horsepower seem quite useable and, perhaps disappointingly, completely normal.

That’s compounded by the utterly normal nature of the rest of the car, although that’s probably a good thing. There are five seats, although nobody will want to use the middle seat in the rear. All the other have plenty of space, and there’s room for a couple of child seats to be attached. The boot is reasonably accommodating, but fold the rear seats down and it’s positively enormous. The dashboard design is delightful, with classic round, chrome surrounded air vents and an excellent infotainment system perched on top. The instruments have been replaced with a 12.3-inch digital screen, displaying sat-nav instructions, music details, or, if you’re feeling traditional, a speedometer and rev counter. It’s all put together with a level of fit and finish unrivalled in the market. The Nappa leather seats are supportive and stylish, and there’s a DAB radio, Bluetooth and plenty of other toys to play with.

Externally, the clues that this is the RS version of the A3 are lower suspension, bigger wheels under flared wheel arches, a unique grille and some massive chrome tailpipes. It’s a long way off the conspicuous performance adornments that the likes of that old XR3i had.

Perhaps I’ve not grown up, as I miss the drama that a performance model of an everyday car provided, but that’s not Audi’s way. The German brand want to make the fastest cars they can, but without sacrificing usability.

With the RS 3 they’ve produced a car with maniacal performance levels, but squeezed it into a family car you could use everyday, which is combination that should keep everybody happy. It’s an everyday car that costs close to £45,000 though, which is an awful lot when many of its rivals have prices that start with a three.

Model Tested: Audi RS 3 Sportback 2.5 TFSI quattro S tronic
Price: £44,725
Range: £20,365 – £45,675
Top speed: 174 mph
0-62 mph: 4.1 seconds
Power: 400 PS (395 bhp)
Torque: 480 Nm (354 ft lb)
Monthly PCP*: £611
Official fuel economy: 34.0 mpg
Road test economy: N/A
CO2 Emissions: 189 g/km
Car Tax: £450
Insurance group: 46E
* Monthly PCP estimate based on 20% deposit, 36 month term, 5% APR, final payment of 40%.

Phil Huff

Phil is a motoring writer for print and web, failed racing driver, car hoarder and banger rally competitor. Nominated for the Headline Auto Rising Star award and a MGMW member, Phil freelances for outlets as diverse as Diesel Car magazine, DAD.info and Cambridge Magazine, amongst many others. He also maintains a fleet of unloved motors, but spends most of his time driving an old Corvette.

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