All thuggish arch flares and bluffly raked windscreens, race-bred triumphs of function over form, four short-wheelbase Sport Quattros greeted us as we rolled through the gates of Rome’s Vallelunga Circuit at the launch of the new Audi RS3. The link between a monster-powered everyday hatch and one of the world’s most iconic homologation specials might seem tenuous, but Audi was keen to reinforce the key differentiator between the RS3 and lesser hot hatches: its five-cylinder engine. Or maybe it hoped that laying on a display of cars that are now worth an eye-watering R4.8m each according to a recent auction price would help deflect attention from the RS3’s price tag which, although though not yet confirmed, is likely to be just shy of R700000 before options. Evidently there are plenty of people who see nothing wrong with paying Porsche Cayman money for a hatch. But does the RS3 really add up?Based around the same hybrid steel/aluminium MQB platform as lesser A3s and its Golf cousin, this 1520kg second-generation RS3 is 55kg lighter and 20kW stronger, the 2.5-litre transverse five it shares with the RS Q3 SUV being boosted from 228kW to 270kW. That’s backed up by 465Nm of torque, 15Nm more than before, delivered through a standard seven-speed dual-clutch transmission to a Haldex four-wheel-drive system that can freeze the front wheels out entirely when they find the going too slippery, and send 100% of the torque to the back axle.
Push both pedals and pop the left to engage the launch control mode and the RS3 hurls itself forward with a garnish of tyre slip, passing 100kph in 4.3sec, 0.3sec quicker than before. Top speed is limited to 250kph as standard, or you can pay extra to up the limit to 280kph.There’s so much torque, and so much of it is available from little over 1500rpm, that performance is effortlessly fast. Perhaps that’s why it doesn’t always feel quite as humungously rapid as it clearly is. And it is rapid. What looked like a half-chance to overtake one car suddenly turned into an opportunity to do two at the same time. Indulge too often though and you’ll pay a price at the pumps for that extra cylinder. As it is, the RS3’s 8L/100km combined figure looks very optimistic.Audi’s engineers were making a big noise about the optional sports exhaust with its two adaptive flaps, but it still left us wanting a little more. This is the RS model, after all. What noise there is, is pure five-pot pleasure, and the sound effects are all real, not microchip-generated. BMW’s M135i, and Golfs GTI and R, all rely on synthesised sounds.
But who cares when they’re all also fast and flighty, nimble things that goad you into driving like a loon at every opportunity? The old RS3, whizzy but wooden, was so one-dimensional it made watching South Park feel like an IMAX 3D experience. Is this one any better? None of the new RS3 test cars came with the optional magnetorheological adaptive dampers, but from the way it crashes into urban potholes, we’d say you’d be wise to add them to yours. The standard 19in wheels transmit too much shock back into the cabin at low speeds, but up the pace and leave the city behind and the RS3 starts to shine brighter. It feels eager and alert, its two-turns lock-to-lock variable-ratio rack, colossal grip and tight body control making direction changes instant, and there’s more fingertip feel this time around.Audi’s engineers say that it’ll even oversteer in low-grip situations, though on the hot, dry Tarmac of Vallelunga, the most we could feel was a subtle yawing that helped twist the nose but never required anything as unseemly as opposite lock. Even with the latest-generation four-wheel-drive system working twice as fast to apportion torque, this is still a car that responds better to measured inputs. Barrel clumsily into a corner and understeer awaits. Try a neater approach, use the excellent brakes to shed speed, and carve your way cleanly through and you’ll be faster and have more fun.
We’d be surprised, though, if the RS3’s entertainment factor isn’t thrown into sharp perspective by Ford’s also four-wheel-drive Focus RS and its ‘Drift’ mode when we drive it later this year. For all its competence, the RS3 never really feels quite naughty enough to justify that badge, or its price. What the Focus can’t hope to emulate is the Audi’s stunning interior finish. It’s largely conventional, with no TT-like full TFT display, but the materials are first rate and details such as the red insert in the circular heater vents that moves as you pull the central plunger to alter that volume of airflow really lift the ambience. The only real disappointments are the cheap-feeling plastic gearshift paddles, and the use of a boring old black plastic switch for the Drive Select controller governing throttle response (always slightly dull), steering weight and, if fitted, the sport exhaust and adaptive dampers.If it’s a surprise to find that the RS3 comes only in five-door Sportback form, the reality is there’s no demand among big-money hatch buyers for three doors, and the five-door shell’s 35mm longer wheelbase helps make this a comfortable four-seater. It’s a pity the measly 280-litre boot, compromised by the space-sapping battery relocated beneath its floor, severely limits its touring talents. There’s a four-door saloon version due next year, but has not been confirmed for SA. But let’s get back to that expected price, which makes the sublime, and vastly cheaper, Golf R look like bargain. On the one hand it seems scandalous that even if you can get your head around paying R700k-plus for a hot hatch, you’ll still have to find more cash to get the sports exhaust, adaptive dampers and proper Recaros that you’ll inevitably want. Option a Golf R up with DSG, adaptive chassis and a USB port and the pricing gets a lot closer, though you’re still down on power. That said, improved as the second-gen RS3 is, I’d put money on the eventual group test showing that the Golf, and not the Audi, is VW’s finest, most exciting, hot hatch.