What is it?
Audi's long-held plan to reach beyond the S3 with an even more powerful and narrowly focused mega-hatch appeared to have hit the skids following the company's decision not to reveal the RS3 as originally planned at last year's Paris motor show. Now, however, with the second-generation A3 Sportback edging closer to replacement and recent investments providing added production flexibility, Ingolstadt has finally come good on its promise to produce a car to take on Europe's performance-hatch elite.
The RS3 is differentiated from the S3 Sportback by a deeper front bumper, wider front wings, aluminium-look exterior mirror housings, chunkier sills, a larger spoiler above the rear window, a reprofiled rear bumper and unique 19-inch wheels. And, unlike the S3, it will not sell in three-door form.
Powered by the same turbocharged 2.5-litre, five-cylinder petrol engine used in the TT RS, at 335bhp the RS3 packs 74bhp more than the 2.0 turbo, four-cylinder S3. Drive goes to all four wheels via a seven-speed dual-clutch S-tronic gearbox.
What's it like?
The engine makes some wonderful noises; there's an alluring warble through the exhaust under moderate loads, as well as the odd splutter of back pressure on the overrun. Hit the Sport button on the dashboard to tap into the more aggressive of the two throttle maps and unleash the full 1.2 bar of boost pressure on offer. You even get some old-school turbocharger whistle to go with it.
The upgraded driveline is supported by a reworked chassis that uses a 22mm wider front track, along with firmer springs and dampers, beefed-up anti-roll bars and subtle changes to the valving of the electro-hydraulic steering.
Predictably, this imbues the RS3 with a more eager nature than the already highly capable S3, with a greater willingness to turn in, improved body control and added precision to placement on the road. The RS3 sits a full 25mm lower than the A3 Sportback upon which it is based – and a further 5mm lower than the S3. On the icy roads on which we drove the early production example pictured here, the ride was acceptable. Yes, it's firm, with less travel than either of its siblings, but the suspension – a combination of MacPherson struts up front and a multi-link set-up at the rear – was compliant enough to soak up the bumps without any undue harshness.
Still, for all its dynamic excellence, the engine is the defining feature of this car. The characterful five-pot provides the RS3 with a wonderfully user-friendly nature. With a solid 332lb ft of torque at just 1600rpm, it pulls taller gears at typical motorway cruising speeds with real conviction and, according to Audi's figures, can be coaxed into returning over 30mpg on the combined fuel economy cycle.
Even so, heady levels of performance – the sort to shame many cars costing twice as much as the RS3 – are just a drop of a gear or two away. Plant your foot in the lower ratios and you're treated to truly memorable on-boost acceleration. Audi says the RS3 will do the 0-62mph sprint in just 4.6sec – and reaches a limited top speed of 155mph.
Should I buy one?
No doubt about it, Audi's most affordable RS model to date has what it takes to trouble the likes of the Ford Focus RS, Renaultsport Mégane 250 and Volkswagen Golf R.