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The Audi RS3 Sportback is fast and practical, but a £40k performance car needs to offer more

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The Audi RS3 is the latest in a long line of Audis offering huge performance in ostensibly family-oriented models. Back in 1994, Audi launched a compact but very special estate car to the world. The RS2 Avant was the first Audi to wear the ‘Renn Sport’ badge.

Built by Porsche, under the same roof as the 959 supercar and Mercedes-Benz’s 500E super-saloon, it was one of the first performance wagons in the world.

Audi's single-framed grille gets an anthracite finish for the RS3 Sportback

Maybe it’s due to a lack of opportunity, or out of deference to the RS line’s founding father, but Audi has never built another car quite like the RS2.

The first Audi RS4, a car of similar size, was disappointing; the second was available only as a saloon. Now, seemingly almost by accident – because it's a farewell to the humble Audi A3, a car which has rarely excited keen drivers – Audi performance arm Quattro GmbH has developed a fast, compact pseudo-estate with unmissable similarities to the Audi that Porsche built.

There is less than 25bhp and 50kg of kerb weight separating the new RS3 Sportback and that RS2 Avant, yet Audi doesn’t mention the legendary old-timer once in the RS3’s marketing blurb. Which prompts the question: is this new car of insufficient calibre to deserve a mention on the same bill?

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DESIGN & STYLING

Audi RS3 grille

Whether the Audi RS3 counts as a five-door hatchback or a very compact estate car is a moot point, because Audi has never called the extended version of the A3 on which this car is based a proper ‘Avant’ estate.

It has always been a ‘Sportback’, which hints at the compromise between compactness and practicality that goes with the packaging of this junior RS. The important thing is that it looks potent yet understated, blending the potential for battering the senses with a degree of practical sense.

RS3 Sportback's engine is mounted transversely under the bonnet

But there's plenty to distinguish the RS3 from the standard Audi A3. A bespoke, deeper front apron incorporates large air intakes is the most obvious. Look a little closer, and there's a single-frame grill with diamond patterned styling. 

Alloys are fitted as standard, naturally, and in this case they measure 19 inches. Unusually, the tyres are wider on the front - 235/35 - than the 225/35s on the rear. Side skirts unique to the RS3 and a roof spoiler add a little more sporty drama. RS's signature matt silver door mirror cappings are fitted too.

Audi boasts an unlimited selection of custom paint finishes too, but virtually all examples we've seen are in standard red, blue, silver or black finishes.

INTERIOR

Audi RS3 driver's seat

Practical stuff first. In the back of an Audi RS3, there’s room for two average-sized adults to travel in decent comfort, but three would be a squeeze. This is not an Audi Avant, remember.

This point if further evidenced behind the rear seats; the boot volume is only 302 litres to the parcel shelf and just over 1000 litres with the rear seats folded. For outright carrying capacity, that makes the RS3 only marginally more practical than an average five-door hatch. But given that the kind of cars that make up the RS3’s competition are mostly three-door hatches and two-door coupés, this Audi is still a useful car relative to its peers.

The boot volume is 302 litres to the parcel shelf

Up front, you’ll be aware that you’re driving a hatchback – and a relatively old design of one at that. The driver’s seat is a little high for our liking and the RS3’s overall driving environment – although lifted by some black gloss and carbon-look trim, a chunky sports steering wheel and some RS-branded sports seats – looks sombre and dated in places.

Most notably, the centre console is dominated by black switches and the controller for Audi’s MMI (multi-media interface) system is sited on the dashboard rather than, more conveniently, on the transmission tunnel.

Still, it’s consistently smart and looks and feels to be of high quality.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

2.5-litre TSI Audi RS3 engine

Powering the Audi RS3 is the same 2.5-litre, forced-induction motor as in the TT RS, which produces 335bhp – a headline figure which, Audi claims, is unequalled by any other fast hatchback you can currently buy. We have seen better-endowed performance hatchbacks over the last few years, however. Ford’s special-edition Focus RS500 and the Cosworth Impreza are obvious examples.

Standard fit on the Audi is a seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox with a launch control mode, which not only means that Audi can quote a remarkable 0-62mph dash of just 4.6sec for the RS3 but also, thanks to a tall seventh gear, similarly remarkable economy and emissions performance (31mpg combined and 212g/km).

Seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox with launch control is standard

When we first drove the TT RS, we hoped that its 335bhp five-cylinder motor would get another airing, and we’re delighted that it has one here. And it’s official: with performance such as this, compact hatchbacks have joined all-out sports cars in becoming ludicrously rapid.

How fast? At one end of the straight at MIRA’s test facilities, there’s a run-off area with a dusty surface, allowing a touch of useful wheel slip at take-off. Sit the RS3 on the loose stuff, place its dual-clutch gearbox in Sport, push hard on the brakes with your left foot and the software will automatically allow a launch control start. Burying the throttle disengages the clutch and holds the engine at around 3500rpm.

Side-stepping the brake, one-up and without too much fuel on board, our test RS3 reached 60mph in a remarkable 4.05sec in one direction. The test figures we quote for cars are recorded two-up and with plenty of fuel, yet still the RS3 will reach 60mph in just 4.5sec over a two-way average.

Curiously, though, this doesn’t translate to a feeling that the RS3 is overpowered on the road. Perhaps it’s because the wet-clutch gearbox feels slightly slushy, or it’s drag from the 4WD drivetrain, but you’d swear the Audi was no more powerful and rapid than a Ford Focus RS. Certainly it’s less immediate and vociferous.

Its engine, meanwhile, makes a tuneful but muted five-cylinder thrum that we wish was allowed to be louder. Acceleration from low revs builds gradually despite the big slugs of torque available, with the engine doing its best work through the mid-range. If anything, the RS3 feels like a moderately faster last-generation Focus ST in its delivery.

Ultimately, though, ask a lot of the RS3 and it delivers. The numbers don’t lie, and the RS3 is – accelerating through the gears or in gear – a match for anything at the price.

Do the RS3 and its peers need to be this quick? Undoubtedly not. Is it amusing that they are? Often, yes. But we can’t help thinking that compact hatches like the RS3 do not need to be heavier and more powerful than the original Audi RS2. And should emissions regulations force them to become lighter and use less powerful engines, it would be no bad thing.

RIDE & HANDLING

Audi RS3 cornering

A five-cylinder turbocharged engine, quattro four-wheel drive and relatively compact dimensions put Audi's legendary RS2 squarely in mind when you glance over the Audi RS3’s specification sheet, but there are key mechanical differences between this car and its spiritual forebear. 

For starters, the RS3 takes the Audi A3 Sportback as its basis, which means its engine is mounted transversely under the bonnet. That engine is coupled to a part-time four-wheel drive system driven by a rear-mounted, electronically controlled wet clutch.

The RS3 feels like a car that's been developed for immaculate asphalt

The system sends the majority of power to the front wheels by default, until wheel slip suggests it’s required at the rears. And it can do that very quickly, as we’ll soon discover.

The suspension, by MacPherson struts at the front and a four-link arrangement at the rear, shows significant purpose. It is lowered by 25mm over a standard A3 and, at 1564mm, the front track is more than 40mm wider than even the last Audi S3’s. It also has 370mm front disc brakes, shrouded by 19-inch wheels with 235/35 R19 front tyres (and slightly smaller rear ones).

The result is a car which feels like it has been developed for, and on, immaculate asphalt. And although that makes it an effective way to travel at speed on motorways, most roads aren’t like that.

Across typical, more challenging surfaces, the RS3 is much less impressive. It rides with a woodenness and heaviness, with a feeling of heft and an inability to keep its body flat. It isn’t crashy but it lacks dexterity and every significant lump in the road is amplified in the cabin. A BMW 1 Series M Coupé, itself no paragon of suppleness, is a much more composed cross-country machine. So are Audi’s S3 and TTS.

You’ll note that we don’t include the Audi TT RS in that group, because it, too, rides with the flat-footedness of the RS3, albeit with even more harshness. It’s this inconsistency that Audi could most do with addressing.

Conversely, on a circuit the RS3 is far more capable than we’d have expected, given its 1640kg (as tested) kerb weight and its feeling of inertia on the road. It was particularly impressive on our wet handling track, finding deep reserves of lateral grip and even (if the ESP is switched out) a surprising amount of throttle adjustability. Here, it was almost nine seconds a lap quicker than the 1 Series M Coupé. The RS3’s impressive pace, if not its flexibility of cornering attitude, continues on the dry circuit.

Such pace comes at a price, though. Although the RS3’s brakes seemingly stood up to the torment well, they thereafter grumbled in a fashion that the 1M’s or a Porsche Cayman’s don’t.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Audi RS3

The official figures from Audi say 31mpg combined and 212g/km CO2 (so not quite in the max-tax, gas-guzzler zone), and for once our test mpg wasn't too far off. Our Audi RS3 averaged 28mpg overall, although fuel economy is down to single figures when the engine is being worked hard.

The idea of getting £70 in change after handing over £40,000 for a hot hatchback – any hot hatchback – will discourage plenty of people from further interest in the RS3, but when you consider the car’s performance, that price isn’t so crazy.

When you consider the performance, the price isn't crazy

Order an RS3 today and your friendly Audi salesman will quickly point out that it’s a car with the engine from an Audi TT RS for several thousand pounds less than the coupé. And that it’s more usable.

Not that you could order an RS3 today. Officially, the UK allocation for this car has been sold out, although cancelled orders and speculator’s cars are sure to be available in limited numbers.

And the limited availability of the RS3 should make residuals strong – stronger, certainly, than those of bigger and more powerful RS models.

VERDICT

3 star Audi RS3

Some people may be surprised that a car as fast as this new Audi RS3, and as capable in isolated areas, should end up with such a guarded report.

The truth, though, is that it just isn’t exciting or entertaining enough. At times, it’s borderline boring.

The RS3 has strong all-weather performance but lacks character

Although technically impressive, by the standards of hot hatchbacks the RS3 suffers a noticeable shortage of dynamic character.

It’s a hard car to take satisfaction from, with its inert steering and a chassis that’s very capable but lacks the agility and finesse to really please on a typical back road.

And aside from hot hatches, when you consider the excellent sports cars at the RS3’s price point, that failing seems all the harder to forgive.

With everyday use in mind, we could well understand why you might pick the RS3 over a less practical performance rival, but in our opinion the trade isn’t worth making.

Audi RS3 2011-2012 First drives