The very first drive in this new RS3 was not the crowning disappointment of my year. In reaching this lowly achievement this new superheated shopping device has at least surpassed the credentials of its predecessor. Because that was the worst car I drove in 2012. It takes some very shoddy road manners to cloud the brilliance of a 331hp 5-cylinder turbo motor, but the ride, the understeer and the bland cabin somehow managed just that.
The new RS3 has even more power – 367hp is the exact number – about the same as a Ferrari Testarossa if we’re going to contextualise the absurd power race currently raging within these supposedly suburban bodyshells. The motor fires with a scrumptious blare of Hannu Mikkola music and you can’t help but prod the throttle to hear it spool and pop on the overrun.
The cabin is pure A3, the seat can just about be punted low-enough, the wheel isn’t round enough and, in light of the previous car’s terrible ride comfort, I’m bracing myself for some spinal discomfort. It doesn’t arrive.
This car can now be fitted with adjustable dampers as part of the Dynamic Package Plus (£2495) which also brings a raised 174mph speed limiter. I cannot believe I’ve just typed that in connection with a hatchback. Anyway, those dampers, they’re a bit of a triumph if we’re going to head directly to the nub of this car. You can knock them into comfort and have yourself an entirely pleasant fast, small Audi on UK roads.
The ride is good, the car offers pleasing quantities of roll and pitch – people seem to forget that these movements are the best information for the driver, and therefore help rather than hinder road driving. In Sport they’re just about bearable. In Dynamic the roof lining threatens to detach itself. But back in comfort damper mode, within a few miles you’re popping up through the dual-clutch transmission, marveling at the sheer strength of the engine and wondering when the last time you drove a £52,000 hatchback was. Over fifty grand? Blimey. Can it really be that good?
You cannot deny that Audi has thrown the entire toy cupboard at this car. The powertrain would be a full-marks effort were it not for some strange part-throttle hesitations on upshifts. Like the old car it runs wider front tracks and tyre widths (255s, with 235 rears) but working on the new lightweight VW architecture and with the latest version of the Haldex 4WD system it is quite a special object.
I thought the brakes were good in terms of feel, but was surprised how quickly the pedal lengthened even on the road and the steering was nothing more than average. I quite liked it in the heaviest of the three settings, which is odd because I normally prefer these things to be light. With the engine set to dynamic mode it performs the most excellent exhaust flatulence on the overrun and full-power upshifts give you that Ur-Quattro ker-whump we all so adore.
Factor in the usual visual excellence from Audi – especially the subtly wider arches that give it such menace in a way neither the M135i or A45 can match with their standard body widths – and you have quite some machine. You would need a 911 Turbo to cover ground any quicker, and yet somehow the Audi would almost look cooler parked outside your average swanky hotel because it wasn’t so overtly sporting.
The most obvious competitors are the aforementioned BMW and Mercedes. I adore the M135i, but it is 70hp down on this car and we’ll need to wait for the M2 later this year for a true RWD rival to the RS3. The Mercedes has just been boosted to 380hp (what a coincidence?) and is dynamically a match for the Audi, but doesn’t quite have the visuals nailed as well and lacks that addictive engine sound.
But whenever I drove the RS3, I kept thinking of the little S3. It’s down on power, but it costs ten thousand less and is almost completely anonymous, especially in that tasteful dark blue I keep seeing them in. This isn’t quite a case of S4 and RS4 where the lesser car is clearly a more pleasant everyday companion, more a way of questioning what you really want from your fast Audi, and how much you are willing to pay for it.
So, if you must have that engine and the butch looks and the badges that let everyone know you have the alpha-omgea Audi hatchback, then this car will suit you perfectly. It is miles better than its predecessor. But I’d have the much-subtler S3 and pocket the change. It comes surprisingly close on the road and no one has any idea of its potential. I like that. I suppose the same argument can be made for the Golf R, but it is much more the racer’s chariot visually, and for some reason I think that people looking at an RS3 might have done so to avoid buying a VW. As with many other things, I may be entirely wrong about that.