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Audi's mega-hatch is outlandish and offers stonking performance for the price

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There’s an admirable belligerence about the Audi RS3. It hasn’t been made a crime just yet, after all, to put a big engine into something relatively small and create an amusingly alternative driver’s car in the process, much as a great many of Europe’s CO2-based taxation regimes would already suggest it ought to be.

It really would be an aberration, though, if Audi’s excellent EA855 five-cylinder performance engine, motivator of the likes of the Audi TT RS and RS Q3 and winner of more International Engine of the Year awards (yes, they do exist) than you can shake a golden crankshaft at, were taken from us any earlier than was absolutely necessary.

Hot hatchbacks like this used to be a little more common, but the RS3 has become the last of that over-engined breed, with motors significantly bigger, more powerful and more mechanically exotic than you expect to find in any humble five-door and something of the aura of the custom-built, engine-swapped hot rod about them.

The Mercedes-AMG A45 is just as outrageous, but is powered by merely four cylinders. The Volkswagen Golf R is a more subtle alternative, while the Toyota GR Yaris is smaller and perhaps a bit more fun.

But the Audi is somehow mechanically bigger and bolder than its rivals. And yet more restrained - and even a bit dour - compared with them.

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DESIGN & STYLING

Audi RS3 profile driving

Available in both saloon and five-door hatch Sportback bodystyles, the RS3 has Audi’s 2.5-litre five-cylinder lump, producing 394bhp and 369lb ft of torque. There’s plenty else that’s interesting about it, but that fact alone is enough (if you tick the right options boxes) to give this little Audi a top speed of, get this, 180mph.

Audi Sport has certainly pushed the boat out for this car. Significant effort beyond the scope of that involved with any RS3 before it has gone into its chassis and suspension. It also benefits from an electronically controlled, torque-vectoring rear differential – and, of course, a drift mode (although traditionally demure Audi doesn’t label it as such).

The RS3 rides 10mm lower even than an Audi S3; on special uprated dampers that don’t appear on any other Volkswagen Group relation; on widened 19in wheels with front tyres wider of section than any on a previous version; with a front track 33mm wider than the last version’s; and with increased negative wheel camber, for enhanced cornering grip, featuring at both front and rear.

As with other hyper-hatches, there's no manual option, but there’s an active exhaust for an even more expressive five-cylinder sound and optional carbon-ceramic brakes, which come packaged with adaptive dampers.

There really isn’t much that you might imagine wanting as part of the mechanical spec of your £150,000 super-sports car that you couldn’t get on this £50,000 (ish) hot hatchback, then – and chief among those things might well be the car’s trick torque-vectoring rear differential. It’s the same hardware that features on the latest VW Golf R and it can channel 100% of the drive that’s sent to the rear axle (typically about 50% of engine torque) directly at either rear contact patch.

INTERIOR

Audi RS3 interior

The RS3 offers real bang for your buck. And it does this by saving money on the interior. It doesn't feel cheap at all and broadly it’s all well screwed together.

But it’s just not all that different from the regular A3, which means it can feel a bit drab inside.

Bucket seats are standard and swathed in the usual leather/Dinamica fabric combination, along with colour stitching and highlights, such as on the 12 o’clock indicator on the steering wheel. 

The 12.3in infotainment is the same as you’ll find in the regular A3, as are the useful climate and chassis controls, which are housed on physical buttons.

The boot is around 100 litres down on the regular A3's and is considerably smaller than the Mercedes-AMG A45's too.

The saloon is slightly longer and lower, by 153mm and 24mm respectively, but the flip side is that the saloon’s rear head room is marginally more pinched. Certainly, anyone over six-foot would struggle in the back seats. The wheelbase of the two models is identical, so leg room doesn’t differ at all.

The saloon’s boot is still a decent size, at 321 litres. In fact, it’s bigger than the hatch’s boot under the parcel shelf, so if you’re not looking to regularly fold the rear seats, the saloon is arguably more practical. And certainly more secure.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

Audi RS3 engine

Nearly 400bhp in a car the size of an A3 produces some startling results. The standard 0-60mph test is dealt with in less than 4.0sec, while the burbling five-cylinder motor sounds genuine for the most part.

Although it works through a blanket of turbo lag that softens mid-range throttle inputs, it’s bristling with vigour and intensity once on boost. Waiting a second for the car’s thrust to chime in somehow only makes it feel quicker when it does take off.

This is a cracking, characterful engine, and a wonderful dominant presence.

Performance, however, can be somewhat stunted by the seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox's hesitancy. For instance, if you're slowing for a roundabout and spot a gap, it doesn't rush towards it like a sports-car-bothering hyper-hatch should.

RIDE & HANDLING

Audi RS3 front driving

The RS3’s body control is generally taut but not brittle or restless, and its four-wheel drive system is just ‘active’ enough most of the time to enrich the car’s handling without making it feel contrived or unnatural.

Audi’s adaptive sports suspension creates a pleasingly calm and reasonably quiet town ride and the steering is light in the tamer driving modes and progressively paced just off centre rather than nervy. There is, in short, Audi’s usual dynamic versatility about this car, even though it has clearly been prepared to do even more dramatic things elsewhere.

And it does do them – to a point. Audi set up two track driving experiences at the launch of this car, allowing us to test the car’s, ahem, drifting potential. We found that it will actually hold a tightish slide around a consistent-radius bend quite nicely in what is called RS Torque Rear driving mode, provided you keep dabbing some positive steering angle in among the opposite lock, as well as its conventional circuit handling.

On the road is where the car’s most meaningful dynamic gains needed to be made, though. Previous-generation RS3s never struggled for outright pace, but they lacked the agile, game, involving handling of rivals. This model isn’t any revelation, but it is notably improved: better balanced through long, faster, sweeping bends, where the driveline has time to shuffle torque and influence the attitude of the car, and with much clearer and more tactile steering feel than some fast Audis provide when you flick into the car’s sportier driving modes.

Through tighter corners, you feel as though you have to overwork the front axle more in order to activate and enliven the rear, and you can spend a long time groping for the natural rotational personality of the car but never fully grasping it. That’s just the way these torque-vectored, four-wheel-drive hot hatchbacks are, though, and there is still clearly a keener, grippier front end here than RS3s have had before.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Audi RS3 front cornering

If you're truly worried about MPG, you may be looking at the wrong car. The RS3's official WLTP rating is 31.4mpg (31.7mpg for the saloon) and during our real-world testing on mixed routes we reached high 20s. On a motorway run, 30mpg will be achievable for most.

VERDICT

Audi RS3 front static

This would seem to be the best and most roundly impressive RS3 that Audi has ever built. With prices starting from more than £50,000, though, and rising quite a way further still for a car with all the options you might want, it’s a driver’s car with some proper opposition – so the same barrier to making a case for owning a car like this remains in place, and grows a little higher.

The VW Golf R lacks the five-cylinder charm, but offers much of the RS3's pace and tech for less money. Meanwhile, the Mercedes-AMG 45 also lacks the five-cylinder howl, yet has an interior that matches the price of the car.

Is the idea of an Audi A3 that’s capable of 180mph more or less absurd than one that might cost you as much as £65,000 after options? If you bother to think too hard about the latter, we suspect the former will cut little more ice than this car’s lively experience, as creditable as it may seem. You can only assume that RS3 owners don't think about it and simply wouldn’t spend what seems like an awful lot of money anywhere else.

Murray Scullion

Murray Scullion
Title: Digital editor

Murray has been a journalist for more than a decade. During that time he’s written for magazines, newspapers and websites, but he now finds himself as Autocar’s digital editor.

He leads the output of the website and contributes to all other digital aspects, including the social media channels, podcasts and videos. During his time he has reviewed cars ranging from £50 - £500,000, including Austin Allegros and Ferrari 812 Superfasts. He has also interviewed F1 megastars, knows his PCPs from his HPs and has written, researched and experimented with behavioural surplus and driverless technology.

Murray graduated from the University of Derby with a BA in Journalism in 2014 and has previously written for Classic Car Weekly, Modern Classics Magazine, buyacar.co.uk, parkers.co.uk and CAR Magazine, as well as carmagazine.co.uk.

Matt Saunders

Matt Saunders Autocar
Title: Road test editor

As Autocar’s chief car tester and reviewer, it’s Matt’s job to ensure the quality, objectivity, relevance and rigour of the entirety of Autocar’s reviews output, as well contributing a great many detailed road tests, group tests and drive reviews himself.

Matt has been an Autocar staffer since the autumn of 2003, and has been lucky enough to work alongside some of the magazine’s best-known writers and contributors over that time. He served as staff writer, features editor, assistant editor and digital editor, before joining the road test desk in 2011.

Since then he’s driven, measured, lap-timed, figured, and reported on cars as varied as the Bugatti Veyron, Rolls-Royce PhantomTesla RoadsterAriel Hipercar, Tata Nano, McLaren SennaRenault Twizy and Toyota Mirai. Among his wider personal highlights of the job have been covering Sebastien Loeb’s record-breaking run at Pikes Peak in 2013; doing 190mph on derestricted German autobahn in a Brabus Rocket; and driving McLaren’s legendary ‘XP5’ F1 prototype. His own car is a trusty Mazda CX-5.

Audi RS3 First drives