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The Audi RS3 is back and in new saloon guise. Here is our first chance to try it in the UK - but can it knock both the Mercedes-AMG A45 and BMW M2 off their perches?
Nic Cackett
9 August 2017

What is it?

When Audi launched the last RS3 in 2015, some bright spark at its advertising agency, doubtless tickled pink by the thought of a hatchback with a bisected, turbocharged V10 cylinder bank under the bonnet, had the idea of showing the car being ‘born’ to a tortured, sweat-covered R8 in a two-minute commercial.

Setting aside its exuberant graphical detail – which inevitably and intentionally garnered mild controversy – the film is ultimately contemptible because in reality the RS3 had about as much to do with the R8 as Bhutan did with the birth of rhythm and blues.

Sure, it possessed 362bhp and permanent all-wheel drive and could scorch from origin A to epilogue B in the time it takes to read an emoji; but its relationship to Neckarsulm’s spaceframe, mid-engined masterstroke stopped at a few shared chromosomes in the engine bay. Where the R8 was taut like a bowstring and just about as biddable, the RS3 stayed permanently riveted to the same old set of notes.

Its replacement only really breaks the mould in one sense: alongside the familiar Sportback flavour, Audi has opted to make it available as a saloon, too. On paper at least, the decision ought to be as stymieing to the model’s desirability as having the bodywork made of placenta.

The recent introduction of the Mercedes-AMG CLA 45 notwithstanding, compact saloons have typically proven about as popular in the UK as root canal; think Volkswagen Jetta or the Skoda Rapid or the Vauxhall Belmont. But think again. Those models were viewed with withering suspicion because they looked funny: a symptom of putting a longer, three-box body on a comparatively skinny car. The RS3 is emphatically not skinny. Versus the A3, it has had its front track widened by 20mm and its rear by 14mm. And even if it had not, the car’s substantial 19in wheels and dramatised styling would likely ensure that its proportions appear agreeable.

Consequently, there’s a harmonious, hockey-puck poise about the saloon that harks back to the B7 generation of RS4; coincidentally, one of the models that helped forge Neckarsulm’s current reputation for a certain kind of steroidal road car.

In that respect, the new RS3 has been treated to another round of under-the-skin injections. Its output, already deliriously jacked, has now been increased to 395bhp; meaning that, in metric terms, at least Ingolstadt can claim to have introduced 400hp to a hot hatch for the first time. (When it means 'first', of course what Audi really means is before Mercedes-AMG and BMW managed it. The fact that the Cosworth Impreza STi CS400 was producing 395bhp almost a decade ago, and the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution X FQ-440 even earlier, is about as distant from Ingolstadt’s radar as the output of CaterhamMorgan or Lego Technic.)

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What's it like?

The power comes, still, from the half-pint V10; Audi Sport having again made an overhaul of the 2.5-litre five-pot the focus of its efforts. Alongside the obvious muscle gain, the engineers have merciless slashed away at the engine’s paunch: fitting a magnesium sump and replacing the iron block with a lightweight alloy alternative. All told, the RS3’s front axle has been unburdened to the tune of 26kg. The Sportback now weighs 1510kg; the saloon 1515kg – moderately less than a Mercedes-AMG A45 or even a rear-drive BMW M2.

An Audi S3 Saloon – the RS3’s authentic closest living relative – is 45kg lighter still on paper and equally as satisfying to sit in – but there the comparison ends.

The S3 is powered by the 2.0-litre EA888 unit in its Golf R format; the RS3 is powered by gluttony and 1-2-4-5-3 firing throb and a two-phase injection system that presumably unleashes a tsunami’s worth of super-unleaded into the manifold come 4000rpm. In a straight line, the difference between old and new could almost be called subtle. The net effect, though, is not. The RS3, be it a saloon or Sportback, remains bewilderingly fast.

Fast enough from a standing start to trouble your blood flow; fast enough even to almost convince you that your phone is dropping 4G because the radio waves can’t keep up. Strapped to a V-Box in 2015, the last model clocked 3.9sec to 60mph while two-up under road test conditions - Lord knows how many fractions the latest iteration has ousted from its sprint time.

Whether or not its visceral savagery is actually soul-movingly immersive is another genuine question, yet it is made to feel of middling importance by the sheer heft of the end result. Certainly, as before, the car feels huddled around its monster powertrain - although it is to the chassis’ considerable credit that it never feels remotely overawed by the additional effort.

Indeed, 30-odd horsepower of additional forcefulness is folded impassively into the workings of a reportedly quicker-witted and lighter clutch-plate-based quattro system. It makes itself felt in a similar fashion to the latest RS5; in low-speed corners, a bulkhead-finding amount of throttle input will have the torque manifestly vectoring to the outside rear wheel, conferring (in the wet, at least) the fleeting impression of a more sophisticated front-to-back balance.

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Given the RS3’s previous preference for understeer, any effort to draw dynamic attention away from the (optionally) fatter front tyres is to be cheered. So, too, is the mostly benign temperament of the (standard) passive suspension. Very slightly more forgiving in the saloon than in the Sportback, the car rides firmly and energetically, but is rarely incessant despite an unambiguous vertical stiffness. The optional Sport set-up, complete with Audi’s familiar adaptive dampers, makes life more pleasant still with a slower-rate ‘Comfort’ mode, although its sportiest setting is arguably too rheumatic for UK roads – making suspension choice a mildly contentious issue.

More contentious still are the RS3’s unresolved irritations. The steering remains a vague bugbear: over-assisted in its easier setting and still a bit fudgy in ‘Dynamic’, the rack never feels a notch above adequate. That’s a shame for the most obvious reason: if the car steered like a Renault Mégane 275 Trophy-R, it would be exponentially more involving than it currently is.

The seven-speed S tronic gearbox has its moments, too. It has supposedly been made quicker, but it’s still not beyond the occasional bungled downshift or scatterbrained pull away; also, its paddles are too small and not nearly mechanical enough in feedback to properly punctuate the kind of extravagant, full-bore upshifts that are taking place beneath you.

Elsewhere, the model is handsomely equipped – in the UK, Audi’s Virtual Cockpit system is standard; but charging £1000 for the crucial RS Sports exhaust seems a little mean and the pop-up infotainment screen is plainly of a lesser standard than the latest Golf R’s touchscreen

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Should I buy one?

The RS3’s status as a time-compressing, high-priced, real-world wunderkind is untroubled. All-weather, unflappable velocity remains its chief selling point and the latest model possesses it in prodigious quantities.

At times, it almost insists on the kind of expectation reset that you’d normally have to apply to a supercar’s on-road ability; the kind that keeps your driving licence out of harm’s way. It also sounds spectacular on-song and the new saloon format - destined to go down a storm in North America - not only enhances its do-anything credibility but sets it neatly apart from the differing appeal of the A45 AMG and BMW M2.

Being nakedly quicker than both won’t hurt either.

Audi RS3 Saloon

Location UK; On sale Now; Price £45,250; Engine Five-cylinder, 2480cc, turbocharged, petrol; Power 395bhp at 5850-7000rpm; Torque 354lb ft at 1700-5850rpm; Gearbox Seven-speed dual-clutch; Kerb weight 1515kg; Top speed 155mph; 0-62mph 4.1sec; Economy 34.0mpg; CO2/BIK tax band 188g/km, 36%; Rivals Mercedes-AMG A45, BMW M2

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Comments
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yvesferrer 16 August 2017

Plain language and clear thoughts?

Some have rightly commented on the 'style' exhibited by the writer; no need to elaborate...

That said, he should bear in mind that his and other hacks' opinions have some influence on readers' perceptions! When he (and others) harp on about the blandness of saloons and the desirability of 3-door hatchbacks, he only speaks for himself!

The Jetta was/is a very capable car, as is the Octavia and to some extent its smaller sibling, the Rapid; the old debate can easily be traced back to the Renault 9 vs 11 era: horses for courses! Some need or want one thing; others want another! What is wrong with that?

Of course, the manufacturers and dealers having to stock more parts for a larger range  will grumble like mad and perhaps even 'push' the scribes into writing the 'correct/approved' stuff?

Booted saloons look good for the most part (most BMWs or Mercs?), why knock them?

erly5 11 August 2017

Plain English - I'll second that!

The clever flowery language detracts somewhat from the review!

 

Spanner 11 August 2017

I do struggle

I know I bang on about this, but I do struggle with the writing style. Some of the sentences are bewildering. Plain English campaign anyone?

I like the idea of the RS3. Subtle but ballistic. I love the 5 cyl engine, it has a character that a 4 just cannot match, no matter how the engineer tunes it. Problem is you have to push these cars to make them fun and they are soooooo fast, you might has well just drive quickly to the local plod hang out and hand in your licence. 

Regardless of the above, If business is good, I still might replace my current car with the sport back version.