DRIVEN: AUDI RS3 SPORTBACK
At £40k, Audi's new RS3 'hatch' has some pretty tasty rivals
There's a lot to like about Audi's new RS3 Sportback - but it has serious competition at the price
Now, though, we live in a world where even a front-wheel-drive Ford Focus can summon more than 300bhp. So the 335bhp Audi RS3 Sportback doesn't seem quite as outrageously powerful as it would have done a few years ago, despite churning out damn near as many gee-gees as a BMW M3 would have done just five years ago.
It's not just power that's been on the up, though; even in its most basic trim (and we suspect few buyers will escape the Audi dealership without having first ticked-off several thousands of pounds of options) the RS3 still costs £39,900. Which is a lot of money to pay for a hatchback, however hot it is.
In some respects this is a clever trick for Audi to play. On the one hand it subtly distances the car from its most obvious competitors - the likes of the Ford Focus RS500 or the Subaru STi Cosworth - while at the same time emphasising the car's premium credentials. On the other hand, it does set up the RS3 against some fairly serious competition.
The big question, then, is this: can the RS3 cut it as a bargain alternative to the fast German saloon norm, or us it really just a hot hatch with a painfully heavy price tag?
There are the sort of bespoke touches you would expect of a fast German, too - the five-cylinder 2.5-litre turbocharged motor is made with vermicular graphite (makes it lighter, apparently), while the front wings are of carbon fibre reinforced plastic. The suspension is 25mm lower and the car sits on a wider, 1564mm track, too.
On the road it's another case of nearly-but-not-quite for the RS3. Its offbeat five-pot thrum is distinctive, its thrust undeniable, and its four-wheel-drive traction and grip are unquestionable, but it just isn't as involving, as enjoyable as you hoped it would be.
It covered the ground on our twisty Alpes-Maritimes test route with searing pace, and you would emerge from a particularly challenging section filled with the tingling buzz of adrenaline. But that excitement came more from sheer speed and the sense of having attacked a road with some fairly precipitous drops on it than from anything innate to the RS3's dynamic behaviour.
The gearbox can be a bit finicky out of really slow corners, too, the ratios of the 7-speed S tronic twin-clutch effort making the car too eager in first and too lethargic in second.
In the RS3's dynamic defence, however, both the gearbox and chassis are more comfortable with fast flowing sections of road, and the fact that the gearbox doesn't change up automatically at the red line is a welcome nod to the enthusiast driver.
That's not necessarily a bad thing, mind. An RS3 will appeal to those who want to enjoy a fast, safe, comfortable and well-built car, and who want to know that there are deep reserves of grip and pace available should they wish to plumb them. Those who want that nth degree of driver involvement, however, probably ought to look elsewhere. Still, the RS3 has an undeniably wide spread of abilities, and Audi will no doubt find more than enough buyers for the 500 or so it plans to bring to Blighty.
As for whether the RS3 is a hot hatch or a super-saloon, I'm going to have to draw a woolly conclusion on this one and say neither. Just as the 'Sportback' bodystyle won't be easily pigeon-holed into any one category (Audi has chosen it mainly to distance the car further from the TT RS than if it had a three-door body), so the RS3 doesn't seem to sit easily into any one category. It's definitely too refined and sophisticated to be called a hot hatch, but it's a few cylinders and several percentage points of commitment short of bearing comparison with an M3 or C63.