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Audi mega-hatch takes sizable strides on handling balance and driver engagement but remains every bit as outlandish for its price as its stonking performance

There’s an admirable belligerence about Audi Sport’s thinking with this third-generation RS3 mega-hatch. 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 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. Thankfully, it hasn’t been, so the ‘net zero glidepath’ can get back in the sea for the next 1000 words at least.

Hot hatchbacks like this used to be a little bit 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. When I started out writing about cars and not long thereafter, there was a Volkswagen Golf R32, an Alfa 147 GTA, a five-pot Ford Focus ST and a straight-six BMW 130i about which to get excited – and I did. Now, every other hot hatchback seems to come with a samey four-pot turbo. Whatever the planet may make of it, my inner 20-something thinks that’s a great shame.

Available in both saloon and five-door hatch Sportback bodystyles, the new RS3 has Audi’s updated 2.5-litre five-cylinder lump, which now produces 394bhp and 369lb ft of torque (15lb ft more than it did last time out). 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.

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Imagine, if you will, the look of crestfallen incredulity on the face of the besuited driver of a BMW X6 M550i or Mercedes-AMG E-Class Estate, on his morning autobahn commute between Karlsruhe and Pforzheim, when he’s passed at that kind of speed by an Audi A3. It might even be worth the price of admission – although, as we’ll come on to, it’s quite a high price.

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 the car’s chassis and suspension overhaul. This also becomes the latest fast five-door with an electronically controlled, torque-vectoring rear differential – and, of course, a drift mode (although traditionally demure Audi doesn’t label it as such).

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

The new RS3’s seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox has a wider spread of ratios than it used to, for faster acceleration and better cruising efficiency. (It’s the first one that’ll crack 62mph from rest in less than four seconds). There’s a new active exhaust for an even more expressive five-cylinder sound. There are new and enlarged standard steel brakes with six-piston calipers, too. Or, if you prefer, you can have optional carbon-ceramic brakes, which come packaged with adaptive dampers, as part of Audi’s RS Dynamic package. Pirelli P Zero Trofeo R tyres are optionally available in other markets but, for reasons unknown, Audi UK isn’t offering them.

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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 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.

Both inside and out, the RS3 looks and feels like a significantly more purposeful car than its predecessor – perhaps not as neat, but definitely angrier – although it doesn’t immediately seem that way when you drive it. 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 press launch of this car, allowing us to test the car’s, ahem ‘drifting potential’ (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.

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On the road is where the car’s most meaningful dynamic gains needed to be made, though. Previous-generation RS3’s never struggled for outright pace, but they lacked the agile, game, involving handling of rivals. The new one 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.

There is also plenty of drama and speed to be enjoyed – more, probably, than ever there was in an RS3 before. The burbling five-cylinder motor sounds genuine for the most part, and 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 the car feel quicker when it does take off.

This is a cracking, characterful performance engine, and a wonderful dominant presence. The RS3’s body control, meanwhile, 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.

This would seem to be the best and most roundly impressive RS3 that Audi has ever built. With prices starting from £50,900, 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; and so the same barrier to making a case for ownership of a car like this remains in place, and grows a little higher.

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, I suspect the former will cut little more ice than this car’s new and enlivened handling, 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.

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First drives