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Audi RS 3 Sportback review: First drive

The Good

  • Faster than its rivals
  • Easy to handle
  • Remarkably refined

The Bad

  • Interior is uninspiring
  • Bloody expensive
4.5

Ben Griffin reviews the new Audi RS 3 Sportback, the first of the new A3 family to receive the mighty RS badge. This functional but fun hatch packs a mighty power output of 362bhp and a 0-62mph time of 4.3 seconds.

Competition is fierce in the hot-hatch category, with the new Honda Civic Type R, Seat Leon Cupra 280, BMW M135i, Mercedes A45 AMG and the VW Golf R all offering supreme performance in a practical package. Now we have something that makes them all look a bit weedy. 

The new Audi RS 3 Sportback combines quattro all-wheel drive with a brutally fast and insanely loud five-cylinder 2.5-litre turbo petrol engine to devastating effect. We headed to the Cotswolds and later the historic Shelsley Walsh hill climb to see just how devastating.

Design

As the first RS model based on the new A3, the RS 3 Sportback is a nice mix of fresh and familiar. It is slightly longer than the three-door and just that bit roomier as a result, meaning a bit more legroom for tall folk.

“Audi reckons most spend an average of £8,000 on optional extras, which is perhaps why it doesn’t bother giving much away for free.”Those extra doors break up flow of the design. Luckily a dose of RS 3 insanity such as the ridiculously large twin-oval exhaust pipes, RS 3 body styling, 19-inch alloy wheels and the RS 3 badges give it presence without being over-the-top. Standard LED headlights are a welcome addition.

While the interior is built well and has a few neat design touches (Audi’s infotainment system and controller is one of the most natural to use), it’s lacking in flair. This is an expensive machine and one that celebrates 21 years of the RS badge, so why such little difference between it and the new A3 and S3? At £40,000, we feel it warrants something more. 

You’ll have to fork out a fair few quid to tart it up with an Alcantara steering wheel and the stylish grey leather seats seen in our test car. Audi reckons most spend an average of £8,000 on optional extras, which is perhaps why it doesn’t bother giving much away for free. 

Practicality

With a 280-litre boot, there are better hatchbacks on the market for space. But you can fold the seats down and enjoy a more convenient 1,120 litres if you persuade your rear passengers to walk home. 

The new RS 3 Sportback is 4,343mm long so it has grown 41mm compared with the outgoing model. That means more comfort for those in the back. It’s also 6mm wider and the wheelbase is 43mm longer, improving cabin space. 

The A45 AMG is better than the RS 3 when it comes to boot space, at 341 litres, but neither can match the Type R’s ridiculous 498 litres so look elsewhere if you regularly do booze cruises or want to make the most of your Ikea trips.

Performance & handling

Audi has bestowed the RS 3 Sportback with a 2.5-litre, five-cylinder TFSI petrol engine that is a mere 49cm in length and 180kg in weight. Ignore the pint-sized proportions though, this is an engine that can cause you to momentarily lose control of your sphincter.

When you eventually feel brave enough to push the go-fast pedal through the floor, the car and its built-in launch control hurtles forward like a high-speed train has just piled into the back of you. A gloriously throaty crescendo no other hatchback even comes close to then alerts you and anyone in a 4-mile vicinity just how fast you are travelling. 

Power output is a healthy 362bhp (367PS), available between 5,550rpm and 6,800rpm, while torque is 343lb/ft (465Nm) from 1,625 to 5,550rpm, so even with a bit of turbo lag the car can overtake just about anything without trying.

“Ignore the pint-sized proportions though, this is an engine that can cause you to momentarily lose control of your sphincter.”But even at its most brutal, you never feel afraid. The quattro all-wheel drive system does a great job of keeping you from getting into fights with immovable objects you will never win. Push the RS 3 Sportback too hard and it will understeer in controlled fashion. There’s just enough steering feel to keep you from pushing your luck. 

The 370mm floating wave discs are designed to dissipate heat more quickly (an idea borrowed from Ducati) plus 8-piston calipers provide oodles of stopping power in a progressive fashion. It is, therefore, difficult not to drive the RS 3 hard.

Take it steady and the car quietens down nicely (unless you leave the transmission in sport, which makes the exhaust louder) to the point where motorways are a pleasure. It trundles along with such low revs in seventh that the national speed limit feels glacial. 

That’s a huge part of the appeal. Pull up at the lights and no one will suspect a thing because the stop-start has kicked in and the five-cylinder is wonderfully relaxed at low revs. Push the pedal hard and all hell erupts. 

The RS 3 rides surprisingly well despite its performance. It is composed on motorways and can handle the odd pothole. Audi’s optional magnetic ride adaptive damping system, which can adjust damping in a matter of milliseconds to suit the road, is a big part of that. It offers a nice balance of sportiness and stiffness, which  is what you want when most UK roads are falling apart. 

Economy & efficiency

All that power does come at the expense of CO2 efficiency and fuel economy, which may be a turn off for some. But then with a claimed 34.9mpg and 189g/km of CO2, the RS 3 Sportback still does a commendable job of keeping running costs low. 

We tested the car on a mixture of A- and B-roads, occasionally taking it easy and occasionally driving like our lives depended on it, yet managed around 24mpg. 

The Stop-start system is the latest generation and now offers a tad more coasting, meaning a few extra pennies are saved when you come to a halt. Weight saving of 55kg versus the outgoing RS 3 Sportback (unladen weight is 1,595kg), meanwhile, is a noteworthy part of the equation.

Equipment & value

Value for money is hardly synonymous with a hatchback that starts from £39,955, especially as a few extras can send the price north of £50,000.

Optional extras include carbon ceramic brakes, which are potentially unnecessary unless you love track days. We would rather spend our money on improving the interior, which is annoyingly similar to the standard A3 and S3.

You can also go for a Bang & Olufsen audio system, which sounds the business, and the diamond-quilted RS Super Sports seats in Fine Nappa leather seen in our test car. Given the styling and comfort, these are a tempting upgrade. An RS sports exhaust system, meanwhile, adds even more bark for your buck.

“We would rather spend our money on improving the interior, which is annoyingly similar to the standard A3 and S3.”The all-wheel drive VW Golf R is only a bit slower but about £6,000 cheaper before you start pimping it with extras and the Leon Cupra 280 is cheaper still. Honda’s new Civic Type R, which is almost as fast in the top speed department, can be had in its top-spec GT model for £33,000.

Then there’s the BMW M135i, which is perhaps the closest in raw performance terms, and that’s around the £33,000-mark in five-door guise. 

In short, you are paying a premium for the absolute best performance in this class. Whether that’s worth the extra depends on your bank balance and if you can mentally justify a sixth of a house on what is essentially a souped-up A3. If it helps, the residuals are said to be the highest in its class, at 54 per cent.

Safety

The new RS 3 Sportback inherits the five-star rating of the standard A3, which means it will keep you very safe should the worst happen. Audi’s active lane assist can also be specced for a little extra reassurance.

Conclusion

Audi has done a fine job of incorporating RS insanity into the latest A3 and the refinement, performance and efficiency improvements mean it’s a far better proposition than most of its rivals. 

Where the RS 3 Sportback falls down slightly is in how easy and accessible it sometimes feels to drive. Sure it’s luducisoulsly fast, but like the Golf R and Scirocco R its refinement and comfort numbs the feeling of speed and excitement. The BMW M135i is a more involving drive, arguably better looking and substantially less expensive.

That said, its glorious exhaust note and mind-bending pace will impress you time and time again. And, let’s be honest, not everyone wants to feel like they’re wrestling with a bear every time they go for a drive.

Choosing the RS 3 Sportback over its competitors, then, makes sense if you really must have the fastest hatchback money can buy. If you want supercar pace and decent practicality in a relatively understated package, its definitely up there with the absolute best.

2015 Audi RS 3 Sportback pictures

Specification

Engine2.5-litre five-cylinder TFSI
Power362bhp (367PS)
Torque343/b/ft (465Nm)
Acceleration0-62mph in 4.3 seconds
Emissions189g/km of CO2
Economy34.9mpg
PriceFrom £39,995

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