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Driven: Audi RS3 Sportback

Surprisingly engaging hot A3 makes a play for 'posh Impreza' alternative

By Dan Trent / Monday, March 05, 2012

Please Audi, pull your head out of your proverbial and make more cars like this! And the secret? Stop trying to be perfect!

It's the RS3's rough edges that make it such an appealing prospect. Sure, you'll lose it in a car park full of S Line equipped A3 TDIs, especially with the standard stealth 19s. Better those than the naff, 'I've had a heavy night' red-rimmed alternatives though.

Discreet, pulverisingly quick - a classic RS Audi

Discreet, pulverisingly quick - a classic RS Audi

Immediately the RS3 gives off vibes of an old-school Audi long-since squashed by ever more lazy homogeny. But then it is an old-school Audi, relatively speaking. Those familiar with the brand will spot heater controls and other bits and bobs hailing from a previous generation.

No bad thing there of course. And it's a sense that goes further too, the ghost of the much loved RS4 apparently very much preserved - somewhat unexpectedly - in this RS3.

It's an even greater surprise given how uninspiring the car that donated the engine and much else - the TT RS - is. 340hp from just 2.5 litres of classic long-stroke, five-cylinder turbocharged engine is, of course, very traditional Audi. As is the burly power output and torque-rich delivery.

Five cylinders, turbo, 4WD ... sound familiar?

Five cylinders, turbo, 4WD ... sound familiar?

Blast from the past

But where the TT seems stodgy, inert and curiously unexciting for one so rapid the RS3 is bursting with character and soul. A chunter in the diffs manoeuvring around a gravel car park is an unexpected indicator of how tightly wound this chassis is, a test period in the very depths of a cold, occasionally snowy winter admittedly playing perfectly to the strengths of a compact, powerful four-wheel drive hatch.

Unlike the last one we drove this one didn't have winter tyres on it, making it all but useless on compacted snow. You just spin four wheels rather than one or two. But on those curving, wet sliproads demanding assertive acceleration to muscle into tightly packed, fast-moving traffic the RS3 demonstrates the relevance of the Quattro drivetrain.

Not playful like an Evo but effective

Not playful like an Evo but effective

Try the same in the 1 M that's too often chosen as foil for the RS3 and, unless possessed of Harris-like confidence and sideways skills, you'd either be enjoying a DSC strangled 10 per cent of your 340hp and trickling up the slip road at 10mph or attempting to tame a wild tank slapper. Fun when you're in the mood but not always what you want.

Fast, not furious
The RS3 simply opens more opportunities to delve into its huge power band, a rich, thick seam of thrust underscored with a shamelessly evocative five-cylinder soundtrack. More so with the Sport button engaged to force open up the otherwise automatic flap in the exhaust.

Well, it worked for Subaru so why not Audi. Indeed, the Subaru comparisons are more relevant than the 1 M ones, the RS3 really the posh German alternative for Impreza and Evo owners looking to maintain the same driving model in a less attention seeking package.

RS3 definitely one of the firm's recent hits

RS3 definitely one of the firm's recent hits

True, the RS3 isn't as aggressive or poised as either of these two and the Quattro bit only kicks in once the front wheels have lost traction - ie, when you're already understeering - but the unusually pointy front end, surprisingly supple passive dampers and fast, direct steering all make it a very, very effective B-road weapon and one pleasingly free of the usual Audi gadget freakery.

S Tronic only means you can get creative with left-footed trail braking and other tomfoolery in an effort to counteract the default nose-heavy stance but you still have to ride it out before you can get on the power with any commitment. We're talking percentages here and on that default slimy B-road the RS3 feels compact, alert and eager.

The German Impreza
And it's full of pleasing little details too. It's little things - the red cam cover on the engine, the massively over-engineered and machined aluminium bells on the front discs, the discreetly widened track and gaping front intakes that inject a bit of charisma and geek friendly, feel-good detailing. Discreet but enough to get fanboys offering thumbs up as you pass. Not usual stuff in an Audi.

Usual Audi goodness in here

Usual Audi goodness in here

The everyday appeal extends to tax-friendly 221g/km emissions and genuinely achievable 30mpg+ cruising, which is somewhat better than Riggers' alarmingly thirsty, and 100hp down,

Golf GTI Edition 35.

Boring numbers to be obsessing about perhaps but enough to mean you could slip an RS3 past bean counters, business or domestic, who'd see an Impreza or Evo coming a mile off.

It's that stealth ability that really appeals with the RS3, that and the sense that the performance attributes it possesses are both accessible and relevant in everyday driving situations. And you therefore get to enjoy them more.

It's still a little inert compared with the class leaders. But it's got charms of its own and that enough is something of a relief given the disappointments of the TT RS and RS5.

All of which suggests taking a break from the relentless Vorsprung Durch Technik stuff and seeking a bit of inspiration in highlights from the back catalogue might not be a bad thing from time to time.

2,480cc 5-cyl turbo
Transmission: 7-speed dual-clutch auto (S Tronic), four-wheel drive
Power (hp): 340@5,400rpm
Torque (lb ft): 332@1,600rpm
0-62mph: 4.6 sec
Top speed: 155mph (limited)
Weight: 1,575kg
MPG: 31mpg (NEDC combined)
CO2: 212g/km
Price: £38,705 (£43,560 as tested)




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