The RS3 returns, conveniently, at the same time as BMW’s M140i hot hatch bows out with a replacement on the way - trading that delightful turbocharged straight six for a smaller, less powerful four-pot. So it now has the largest-capacity engine in the class, and that's something we’re not expecting any forthcoming models to usurp for the foreseeable future.
Having such a USP is essential for a car like the RS3. Without it, not only would it be accused of lacking character, but it would also leave us wondering why you wouldn’t make do with a Volkswagen Golf R and £12,000 in change. With it, it’s a dominating part of the driving experience - in a magnificent way.
The noise the engine makes simply cannot be replicated by any of today’s artificial sound generators. Ranging from a guttural, unbalanced burble to a warbling crescendo, it’s a truly distinctive soundtrack. Get your cliché warning bell ringing: on the rural Scottish test route, it really did conjure up the feeling of joining Messrs Röhrl, Mikkola and Blomqvist with their Quattro A1 at WRC 1984.
The sports exhausts adds to the aural drama, although there are fewer of the characteristic pops and bangs than we remember; Audi claims this is a direct result of incoming stricter EU-wide car noise regulations. Regardless, it’s far more emotive than the often artificially enhanced turbocharged fours of most rivals.
The engine remains just as eye-popping in terms of its relentless accelerative ability. Whatever the revs, the response is seamless: once past a hint of lag, the combination of a near-instant 354lb ft of torque with a snappily shifting dual-clutch automatic gearbox means the RS3 just picks up and fires itself down the road in a manner that leaves your brain struggling to comprehend that you’re in a five-door hatchback. The only thing missing, perhaps, is a greater build-up of power in the upper echelons of the rev range, down to the motor’s flat torque curve.
Just as remarkable is its ability to settle down and play the smooth operator when called upon. Pull it out of the racier driving modes and it becomes docile, even refined, with a smooth low-rev delivery and well thought-out gear ratios. The RS3 also has a less busy and stiff ride than the TT RS, albeit one that’s still firmer than the S3's or a Golf R's, even with adaptive dampers in play.
Dynamically, the RS3 still plays up to the age-old fast Audi tropes of being hugely grippy, predictable and safe. But there’s less understeer than you would have found in an RS of yesteryear; the engine is lighter and the four-wheel drive system is clever, even allowing the faintest element of mid-corner adjustability these days. Yes, the BMW M2 Competition is distinctly more engaging on the road or on a track, but it can’t match the RS3’s crushing all-weather ability.