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All-paw mega-hatch gets even more power — and a higher price, pushing it even further towards the premium end of its segment

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The ascent of the humble hot hatch continues. In 1975, the original Volkswagen Golf GTI developed 108bhp, hit 60mph in about nine seconds and weighed just 810kg.

Four decades later, the latest Audi RS3 packs 362bhp, wallops to the national limit in half the time and weighs very nearly twice as much. It is, for those who set store by such things, the most powerful production hatchback, edging out the almost equally bonkers 18-month-old Mercedes-Benz A45 AMG, for about three months. The reason being, Mercedes-AMG weren't going to take such red-faced cheek lying down and promptly gave the A45 an additional 21bhp taking its total output to 376bhp. 

The first RS3, powered by a slightly less powerful version of the same engine, was fast, certainly, but it was also as unyielding as a trolley jack and about as much fun to drive

Even still this battle between Inglostadt and Stuttgart is no doubt likely to rumble on as Audi announced at the Paris Motorshow that the next generation RS3, set to be available as a only a saloon initially, will gazzump the AMG with 395bhp at its disposal. How the bods at AMG will respond remains to be seen.

Nonetheless, this second generation RS3 is no powder puff. The extra power extracted from the 2.5-litre five-cylinder engine makes even the likes of the last generation Porsche Cayman GTS inferior to the RS3 purely on under-bonnet potency. A current Volkswagen Golf GTI is 145bhp less powerful, while the outgoing Boxster Spyder only makes an additional 8bhp and the Porsche Cayman GT4 only 18bhp more than this versatile hatch.

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This kind of reputation, of course, is temporary. Rest assured, as certain as death and taxes, Audi’s German premium-brand competitors won’t rest until the RS3 is no longer sitting pretty on top of the hot hatch horsepower pyramid. And a more permanent sort of reputation – such as the one that makes the 41-year-old Golf GTI revered today – needs the car in between the numbers to be brilliant.

On this point, Audi’s past record is not so hot. The first RS3, powered by a slightly less powerful version of the same engine, was fast, certainly, but it was also as unyielding as a trolley jack and about as much fun to drive.

Although it prefers not to concede weaknesses, Quattro GmbH – the maker of all RS-badged Audis – has been quick this time around to emphasise that the latest RS3 not only comes with a new headline power output but also some fettling to the all-wheel drive system to make its handling a little more balanced and interesting. And it needs to be as it is no longer just the AMG A45 to be wary of, but also the reivigorated BMW M140i and the Ford Focus RS - not to mention the BMW M2 has all the hallmarks of putting the RS3's nose out of place too.

It’s not the first time we’ve heard that from the spin machine at Neckarsulm, yet we live in hope – because the prospect of the RS3 finally becoming the hot hatch doyen that its price has long since suggested it might be is a compelling one.

DESIGN & STYLING

The 362bhp Audi RS3 Sportback

The primary difference between the latest Audi RS3 and its predecessor is not the fettling of many of its major mechanicals but rather the platform that supports them.

Despite not appearing dramatically different – the previous version was also sold exclusively as a five-door Sportback – the old car was based on the PQ35 architecture that the Volkswagen Group had employed since 2003. The new version, like its Audi A3 stablemates, gets the much cleverer modular MQB underpinnings and all the benefits that go with that.

The 55kg saving in kerb weight is mostly because of the platform change. But the model is also a little roomier than before, prettier inside (we’ll come to that) and modestly better looking thanks to a sharper scowl

Pertinent to the RS3 specifically are gains in rigidity and lightness. The 55kg saving in kerb weight is mostly because of the platform change. But the model is also a little roomier than before, prettier inside (we’ll come to that) and modestly better looking thanks to a sharper scowl.

The differentiation from standard is marked by the usual RS affectations: gloss black grille, standard LED headlights, 19in wheels, roof spoiler, flared arches that house the car’s wider track and tyres, and a Chunnel-sized exhaust pipe at each rear corner. These are connected to much the same turbocharged 2.5-litre engine as before – previously the sole reason for considering the RS3 over its rivals.

Although it is as evocative as an old cassette mix tape, the in-line five is also cutting edge, the latest iteration having been brought up to Euro 6 emissions compliance with the help of a recuperation system, an on-demand oil pump and the next generation of start-stop technology. The improved efficiency is creditworthy.

But it’s the new intercooler and revised turbocharger – now delivering more boost pressure – that deliver the engine’s most marketable gains. The additional 27bhp and 11lb ft of torque are helped along their way by the reworked software code that makes the seven-speed dual-clutch automatic gearbox upshift at an even faster rate.

The all-wheel drive system’s multi-plate clutch, mounted on the rear axle for better weight distribution, has also been reprogrammed. In the right circumstances, up to 100 percent of the available torque may now be sent to the RS3’s back end, with the intention of improving both the agility and neutrality of the chassis.

Suspension is still by way of MacPherson struts and multi-links, but it uses more high-strength steel and aluminium and delivers a ride height 25mm lower than the Audi A3’s norm. If you’d prefer magnetic adaptive dampers over the conventional alternative, you’ll need to fork out an extra £1495. Our test car came thusly equipped.

It didn’t have the optional carbon-ceramic brake discs, although if we point out that they’d be an entirely appropriate option – necessary, even – on track-regular cars, you’ll have some idea of how successful the other added-performance additions have been.   

INTERIOR

Audi RS3 Sportback dashboard

There’s a sense of understatement to the Audi RS3’s interior that seems odd at first, but it begins to make sense when you consider the car as Quattro GmbH clearly does: not so much as the maddest, wildest, hottest of hot hatchbacks on the block but rather as a feeder car for the rest of Audi’s RS performance range.

This is an Audi, after all, and the garish extravagance of volume brands in performance mode, or even of a Focus RS's or Mercedes-AMG A45’s cabin, wouldn’t do. So some may find the RS3’s interior a bit monotone – soulless, even. But this cabin is as immaculately finished as it is pleasingly practical and there really aren’t many other charges you could level at it.

This cabin is as immaculately finished as it is pleasingly practical and there really aren’t many other charges you could level at it

You have to look harder than expected for the extra-special go-faster fitments, which would suggest that Audi could have afforded to be a little bit bolder and freer with them. The flat-bottomed steering wheel is leather-Alcantara, for example, and just tactile enough to excite the fingertips but absolutely no more so.

The instruments look pretty stock, until you investigate them closely enough to see the boost gauge inset into the rev counter (handy for timing your launch control starts) and find the lap timer incorporated into the drive computer.

The car’s wide-shouldered nappa leather sports seats come with RS embossing, as well as excellent all-round support. Our test car’s were the optional Super Sports seats with diamond stitching. Carbonfibre-shelled RS buckets, saving 7kg per side compared with the standard ones, are another option and would doubtless add more performance flavour.

Likewise, there’s an interior design package that adds red accents to the driver’s knee pad, air vents, floot mats and seatbelts.

You shouldn’t need to dress up your £40k mega-hatch with so many options in order to give its interior a genuine sense of the dramatic, of course. But many will.

And whether you do or not, you’ll have car with five doors, decent cabin space and a good-sized boot – one that, judged against its closest rivals, provides the same distinguishing usability that Audi RS models have traded on for decades.

As for the standard equipment bequeathed onto the RS3, it received 19in alloy wheels, an aggressive Audi Sport designed bodykit, all-weather LED headlights, parking sensors and automatic lights and wipers giving visual allure alongside added convenience. Inside there is Audi's excellent MMI infotainment system, with a retractable 7.0in display, DAB radio, USB connectivity, Bluetooth and sat nav, as well as dual-zone climate control and heated front seats thrown in for good measure.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

Audi RS3 Sportback front end

Single out the power upgrade, the software revisions or the lighter body and they seem modest enough in the grand scheme of things. But to drive in the real world, the Audi RS3 is anything but.

The previous model, which could be described as rapid even now, posted several near-5.0sec 0-60mph times in its two-way runs at MIRA before the Audi finally recorded a 4.5sec two-way average. Not so the new car.

The previous RS3 never made it to 150mph within a standing mile, but this one hits 
it nearly 2.5sec quicker than the 
A45 managed last year

Our V-Box recorded one run at 4.0sec dead. When you consider that was achieved with the ballast of a second 100kg road tester on board and a full tank of fuel, the possibility of a one-up, launch-controlled 0-60mph time starting with a ‘3’ isn’t remote at all. All this makes Audi Sport's desire to further eek out an additional 32bhp from the same unit is astonishing, as will the figures the RS3 Saloon will no doubt post.

And that’s just the RS3 getting started. If the difference between it and the Mercedes-AMG A45 looks negligible up to 60mph, by 100mph the Audi is a full second ahead.

The previous RS3 never made it to 150mph within a standing mile, but this one hits 
it nearly 2.5sec quicker than the original 
A45 managed. From 30-70mph, the car on test took nearly a second out of its rival. And this, remember, is against a car that sports the most powerful 2.0-litre production engine yet built.

The difference the RS3’s extra cylinder makes is not merely physical. It’s textural, too. Where the A45 is flatly uninspiring and the VW Golf R boomy, the Audi’s 1-2-4-5-3 firing sequence – ably supported by two exhaust flaps – filters a proper mechanical rhythm section into the experience.

Best of all, the engine never leaves you with the impression that its mid-range is doing all the heavy lifting. Following some barely noticeable lag before the turbo boost kicks in at around 1600rpm, there’s nothing but forceful response in the lower reaches of the rev band and another perceptible surge beyond 4000rpm as some extra rasp arrives.

But it’s in a final lunge beyond 5550rpm where the made-over engine really shows its mettle. There is a rev limiter at 7000rpm. Expect to gleefully hit it a few times. 

RIDE & HANDLING

Audi RS3 Sportback cornering

The essentials first. With the optional adaptive dampers fitted, and restricted to their Comfort setting, the Audi RS3 rides UK roads adeptly. In fact, considering the 19in wheels on which it rides and the car’s necessarily high grip levels, it does so rather well.

There is still an element of distant thumping (à la Audi RS4) as the suspension goes about its business, and bigger deflections are managed as whole body movements rather than single-wheel events, but the gap from here to the jowl-jerking ricochet of its predecessor is pleasingly wide.

The RS3 gives more reward for being brave than for being smooth and precise

The fact that the Audi now settles into a reasonably tame motorway journey is doubly marvellous, because what it will do elsewhere is remarkable. There are familiar problems with the RS3 at its limit – which we’ll come to – but don’t expect to approach these much on the road. Expect instead, in all weathers and opportunities, an intoxicating rush of blood to the head.

On an empty B-road, the car is more Quattro GmbH mission statement than hatchback: indelicate, immodest and catapult quick. From an emphatically dependable front end, to the squat, flat-bodied cling mid-corner, to the kind of decisive traction and stability that makes four-wheel drive seem not just necessary but enormously desirable, the RS3 is a fully paid-up A-to-B monster.

Its capabilities are so cornfield wide, in fact, that your own aptitude at the wheel feels like a less crucial commodity. The RS3 gives more reward for being brave than for being smooth and precise.

Therein, of course, lies the familiar rub: the RS3 is a driver’s car that has little time for the delicacy and nuance on which a keen driver thrives. This is revealed quickly enough on a track, where, despite Audi’s protestations, the latest version of the quattro system fails to deliver on the dynamic promise of a fully empowered rear axle.

Efforts to involve it at an apex or even unseat it completely are largely for nought. Instead, via the usual over-assisted steering wheel murk, you mostly 
just wait for the front tyres to find their purchase and haul the car through the meat of any given corner before feeding the power back in. It’s route-one stuff.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Audi RS3 Sportback

Euro 6 compliant the new engine may very well be, but the Audi RS3 will still penalise your wallet with decidedly old-school spite if you let it goad you into a sufficiently aggressive driving style.

In 60 miles of full-bore driving at MIRA, the car returned 7.9mpg, precisely the same as the Mercedes-AMG C63 tested alongside it. Happily, though, if you try equally hard in the opposite direction, the five-pot returns the favour. It delivered 38.6mpg in our stately single-lane touring test cruise. That’s a 4mpg improvement on the previous model and even a little better than the A45 AMG.

The RS3 delivered 38.6mpg in our stately single-lane touring test cruise

On emissions, the lower cylinder count wins out, the Mercedes being 33g/km cleaner when it comes to CO2. On annual VED costs, that’s enough to make the RS3 £310 more expensive in its first year and 6 percent dearer on company car tax. 

Don’t expect that to dampen many buyers’ enthusiasm, though. That the car proves quite an expensive prospect to run is likely to be a secondary concern if you’re comfortable with meeting its 
sub £40k sticker price in the first place.

For some, that figure will just sound the starter pistol. With options, our test car’s cost rounded out to a chest-tightening £51,185. 

VERDICT

When the previous Audi RS3 landed, it seemed singularly overcooked. This one feels far more sophisticated and its enhancements are obvious.

At the one end, better comfort levels – Audi's magnetic dampers are an essential option – and superior refinement make the RS3 the plush, usable prospect it always should have been. At the other, it is hilariously fast.

Merely turning up the wick on a hot hatch doesn’t guarantee it greater esteem in our eyes, but because the real star here is the magnificent powertrain, the remoteness of the chassis isn’t a deal-breaker.

The car can’t compete with the vivid involvement of the Renaultsport Mégane Trophy-R or the value and broad-batted dynamic talent of a Volkswagen Golf R or even a 2016 Autocar favourite the Ford Focus RS.

But measured against rivals built in its likeness, and directed squarely at those for whom five doors and four driven wheels are essential components of a £40k performance car, the ferocity, stability and quality here are outstanding. It just makes you wonder what kind of animal to expect in 2017 when Audi Sport finally deliver the RS3 Saloon.

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 Sportback 2015-2016 First drives