First drive: Audi RS3 on road – Top Gear

Posted: Wednesday, April 15, 2015

The new RS3? Haven’t you driven this already?

We have. But wait, this time we can actually tell you what it’s like to drive!

Were you lying last time?

No, but we’ve only tried it on ice lakes so far. And while Audi’s performance car launch strategy of first unleashing its Quattro-drive hot hatches on ice rinks provides an adept demonstration of noise, stability system calibration and extreme slip angles, even TG doesn’t drive at twelve-tenths all the time.

You can find the full breakdown of vital stats in our previous encounter here, but suffice to say we’ve 2.5 litres, 362bhp, 343lb ft, and performance figures to embarrass all but the most rarefied German and Italian hardware. Let’s head for a proper, ice-free road.

What’s it like?

Enormously, mind-warpingly fast. On paper, Audi promises a 62mph time of 4.3 seconds and a 174mph top speed – the former is frighteningly conservative, the latter patently absurd for a hatchback (and entirely believable).

It’s the sheer quantity of said performance you can brandish at any given moment that lights the RS3’s afterburners beyond any hot hatch we’ve come across. Full-time all-wheel drive and a seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox team up to ensure not a single horsepower is wasted – nor that titanic torque output that’s on cue from a silly 1625rpm.

Principally because of that linear power delivery, and the rapid-fire transmission, this is the fastest hatchback out there now. Meet the new benchmark.

The naughty but laggy Mercedes A45 AMG isn’t in the same postcode for drivability, while VW’s stellar Golf R is suitably down on power as its £6000 price undercut suggests. The RS3’s foolproof, twist-and-go performance is hilariously, terrifying accessible. Come rain, shine, or, indeed, snow.

Is it just a straight-line weapon, then?

No. The RS3’s point-to-point road ability is mind-blowing. It’s almost mini-GT-R-ish in the manner it reels in and chows down a road – except fifty times as refined and wieldy. That wider front axle is nailed to the surface as well, and through loaded-up corners you momentarily can sense the rears doing their bit to whack you up the road.

Does it ever feel 100 per cent rear driven, as Audi claims is possible during ‘enthusiastic driving’? No, no way. But on road at least, the RS3 is less nose-led than we’d feared.

Flat-out on track, you’ll discover understeer (the entire engine, gearbox and radiator live ahead of the front axle, so no surprise) but so far as road use goes, it’s a mighty device.

What else?

Oh, the waaaaarrbCRACKwaaaarb Sports Exhaust (a worthwhile £1495 option) exhaust is still a genius creation, making the most of what’s now the only five-cylinder motor left in series production. No hi-fi cheatery here – just old-school mechanical valves and some gratuitous flatulence accompanying every nailed upshift, last-gasp downshift and lazy overrun. Delicious.

Ride-wise, we’re not back in the bad old days of the RS5 and previous RS3, which tackled B-roads like a bouncy ball on a flight of stairs, but it’s still on the ‘busy’ side of firm.

Audi is developing a magnetic ride system that will become optionally available on the RS3 later in 2015, but right now you’re stuck with a passive set-up.

It seems potential customers don’t mind: RS3 order books have filled faster than Gordon Ramsay’s swear-box. One company source predicted Europe’s 2015 allocation will sell out as early as next month, with none of the 5000 buyers having taken a test drive. Talk about brand loyalty.

Are those ‘blind buyers’ going to be disappointed?

Not if they liked the last RS3. The new one is faster, rides night-and-day better, and doesn’t corner like you’ve hurled a nose-tethered anchor out of the window pre-apex.

But, at the same time, it just isn’t that involving. Seamless – that’s the RS3 in a word. It’s uncompromisingly effective, and the sheer pace with which any novice can conquer a road from behind its Alcantara-clad wheel is laudable. Or should that be laughable?

However, that suede wheel is totally divorced of speaking terms with the front tyres, the transmission so handy when left to its own devices that you might not wade in and interfere with the cheap’n’nasty plastic paddles as often as you would in the auto-only A45.

One more for the PlayStation generation?

It boils down to what you personally find exciting in a car. If sheer speed, a fabulous noise and pulverizing, any-weather grip, composure and acceleration get your pulse racing, the RS3 is indeed the best car this side of a GT-R for you. It’s extraordinarily competent.

But, if you delight in feeling a car adjust its trajectory when you brush the throttle, encourage you through its control weights and feedback, and even let you change gear yourself (step forward, Golf R), then the ultimate A3 is ultimately unsatisfying.

Fast Audis, R8 excepted, have rarely majored on the above, though. Their owners still seem to adore them.

Same old fast Audi then?

Tricky one. Should Audi be criticised for using its prodigious engineering and technical prowess to manufacture the fastest hatchback it can? Certainly not.

And we should all be grateful Quattro GmbH’s powertrain boffins convinced the EU testing killjoys to grant that glorious five-pot engine a swansong, though mid-twenties rather than the claimed 34mpg (up from 31) is a safer bet.

So, RS3 v2.0 is lighter, more neutral hot hatch and has a superior interior – all welcome ticks. If you need adrenaline kicks beyond eye-watering speed, just stick to driving it on snow.


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