Wednesday 9th March 2011


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
There's a lot to like about Audi's new RS3 Sportback - but it has serious competition at the price
Without wishing to sound too much like some sort of automotive Gok Wan, it seems that, for the aspiring hot-hatch-about-town of the 'teenies', 300 is the new 200. (Are you Gok Wan? Ed.)

RS3 Sportback has a 'bespoke' flavour...
RS3 Sportback has a 'bespoke' flavour...
Two decades ago, you were doing distinctly well if you could muster 150bhp from your fast hatch. Then, at the turn of the century, Honda got all feisty and brought the fast hatch top-end up to 200bhp (all right, 197bhp, but close enough), while Audi had the original S3 with its 210bhp turbocharged 1.8.

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.

...and goes like stink. Is that enough?
...and goes like stink. Is that enough?
It's a measure of just how far up the performance car food chain the RS3 is being positioned that Audi's press material cites the Mercedes C63 AMG and BMW M3 as 'rivals', against which the 15k cheaper RS3 represents conspicuously good value.

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?

Even the engine is well-dressed
Even the engine is well-dressed
First impressions, it has to be said, are good. The basic performance stats of 0-62mph in 4.6secs and an electronically governed top speed of 155mph are spot on the mark, while 332lb ft of torque available 1600rpm and 5300rpm provides serious real-world punch, especially when overtaking. And the RS3 comfortably bests its more glamorous V8 German cousins when it comes to economy, with a claimed 31mpg on the combined cycle (no, we don't care all that much about economy, but when fuel prices are nudging 1.40 per litre it does become a little bit important).

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.

RS3 could be any hot Audi from here
RS3 could be any hot Audi from here
These are all definitely moves in the right direction, but it doesn't really feel specialised enough to compete with its higher-end rivals. The whole effect is a bit too reliant on flared wheel arches, a deep front spoiler and chunky 19-inch wheels to differentiate itself sufficiently from more ordinary Audis - and that sounds like the sort of tricks a hot hatch would employ to us.

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.

Sportback adds practicality around to
Sportback adds practicality around to
The problem, as is so often the case with fast Audis, is that the RS3 just doesn't flow with you down the road. It feels safe, grippy and predictable, but there's precious little sense of adjustability to the chassis, whether on the approach to, in the middle of, or exiting a corner.

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.

Nice in red, too...
Nice in red, too...
It's one of few genuine nods to the hardcore driving enthusiast, though. Like the TT RS and RS5 before it, the RS3 seems to represent a further move away from hardcore performance in favour of something a little softer - and arguably more civilised.

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.



Author: Riggers
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