new-school turbo applications but there's no doubting its mighty effectiveness. So third gear, just to prove the point most emphatically. Even with longer ratios than really necessary the RS3 chomps through the gear and begins to power through fourth just as rapidly - that 174mph top speed (through an option box tick) feels eminently achievable. The smirk on the Mini driver's face when he comes past suggests the speed is just as impressive from the outside.
But RS Audis have always been fast, haven't they? RS2, RS4, RS6, original RS3 - straight line performance has never, ever been a problem. Where they have often struggled is with involving the driver, some elements of dynamic subtlety and, well, fun really.
'Steering without understeering'
Going purely from specification the new car promises a lot: lighter and faster than before, with the much-lauded MQB platform underneath it as well as the latest Haldex four-wheel drive with a repositioned clutch for faster response. The press bumf proudly claims 'steering without understeering' and 'controlled drifts with dynamically optimised torque distribution'. Intriguing. Whatever the case, the RS3 really needs to be on top form; while the original had the uberhatch market to itself on launch, the new car has a recently refreshed BMW M135i, the Mercedes A45 AMG and of course the enemy within to contend with too. Tough competition.
Bar some slightly offset pedals all is well inside too. But then you knew that was going to be the case, right? Sportier seats jazz up the cabin a tad, as does Alcantara on the bits of the wheel never used, but to all intents and purposes it's a regular A3 cabin - no complaints there.
Fire up the quattro (that reference had to feature once, apologies) and on the road it's a simply tremendous powertrain. Golf R comparisons will be inevitable throughout the RS3 discussion but this is one area where the Audi easily has the VW covered. That torque curve makes overtaking so easy but it's loves to rev too - that EA888 2.0-litre four-cylinder often makes peak power at 5,500rpm until just past six, leaving little incentive to chase the limiter despite a revvy nature. The five-cylinder lump makes its peak power at similar revs (5,550rpm) but remains there until 6,800rpm, just 200rpm shy of the cutout. All the while this stunning performance is accompanied by a magnificent noise; no piped in fakery here, just an onslaught of five-cylinder warble overlaid with some occasional turbo whistle. A few minutes in an RS3 is enough to make the Golf's contrived sporty sounds seem farcical.
So entertaining is the engine/gearbox combo, even when not at full attack, that it takes a little while to appreciate the RS3's other attributes. There were quite a few tunnels on the test route you see and, well... Anyway, the first surprise comes from the ride - it's really very good indeed. As standard the RS3 gets specific sports suspension 25mm lower than an A3 with passive springs and dampers plus 19-inch wheels.
Recipe for ... hang on!
Combine that specification with some fast Audis of the recent past plus Italy's famously pockmarked roads and it sounds like a recipe for disaster. But no! Sure, it's doesn't waft like a luxury saloon but there's real compliance and what feels like a decent amount of wheel travel as well. Never is it deflected by ruts and poor surfaces, the dampers simply absorbing the impact with the minimum of fuss and the RS3 continuing down the road at a ludicrous speed.
Of course it's not all good news. Can you guess what's coming in for criticism? Yes, it's the steering... Alright, so it's hardly like the RS3's rivals are bastions of tactile response for the keen helmsman. But to guide a car with such tenacious front-end grip with no idea of where that ends is frustrating. Granted, it's accurate and certainly doesn't ruin the experience but the steering is a disappointment given the success elsewhere. If Audi can now make one spring and damper setting work then how can three steering modes all be so unpleasant?
Having said that the RS3 remains a very enjoyable road car, quick and composed with an engine and gearbox of exceptional quality. On the track? Ah, not so much.
To the circuit
The RS3s for the Vallelunga circuit are markedly different to the road cars: carbon-ceramic front discs, sports exhaust, magnetic dampers and bucket seats. Despite all that, despite the claims of controlled drifting, of the faster responding four-wheel drive and of the heightened agility, it's just not that much fun on a circuit. Whether it actually needs to be is another question entirely but you'd have to assume Audi has confidence in its abilities, or why else launch it there?
The carbon-ceramic brakes won't be available as an option until later this year but, on this experience, they're not worth waiting for. Initial bite is a clear improvement on the standard system but the pedal went soft and rather grumbly after just a few minutes on track. The performance didn't appear to be affected but it's certainly not great for confidence.
Of the other extras the sports seats are perhaps the only ones to opt for. The sports exhaust suffers from Range Rover Sport SVR syndrome, where the standard noise is so good that it doesn't require messing around with by an overwrought sports system. And given how good the standard suspension felt on the road, the magnetic dampers seem a little unnecessary. But having not compared them in the same situations it's hard to be definitive.
Inevitably both spec and driving comparisons will be made with the Golf R in due course. Having swapped from the PH long-termer for a day with the RS3, there are a few interesting observations to finish on. The Golf's weight advantage certainly makes it feel a little keener in direction changes and not an awful lot slower. But the RS3 counters with that terrific powertrain and better brakes. As an everyday hot hatch there's a lingering suspicion the Audi could just be preferable. That pesky Golf does hold a significant price advantage though: a five-door DSG R on 19s is £33,115, nearly £7K less than the Audi. Can the considerable five-cylinder charm be enough to offset the Golf's price advantage and freakish all-round ability? We'll hope to answer that very soon.
Engine: 2,480cc 5-cyl turbocharged
Transmission: 7-speed dual-clutch automatic, four-wheel drive
Power (hp): 367@5,550-6,800rpm
Torque (lb ft): 343@1,625-5,550rpm
0-62mph: 4.3 sec
Top speed: 155mph (limited, 174mph optional)
MPG: 34.9 (NEDC combined)