Audi RS 3 Sportback review: RS-clenchingly fast

Audi RS 3 Sportback front view

As fast as the new Audi RS 3 Sportback is, can you ever really justify a £45,000 hatchback? Ben Griffin braved the Beast from the East in a beast from slightly less east as part of his week-long road test.

It used to be that one would start out with a small car, something like a rusty Peugeot 108 or a Fiat Punto 60S (with faded paint, in my case), then as they got older a saloon or 4×4 would beckon. You have to house the fruit of your loins somewhere, after all, and preferably in something safe and dependable.

Nowadays, though, who knows where your motoring journey could end up. There are, for example, crossovers for those unable to decide between an SUV and a coupe. Even supermini crossovers exist. There has never been as much choice and, thanks to finance, never so accessible.

There is another option, of course, which involves spending a huge amount of cash on a hatchback. Similar to the one you probably learned to drive in, except with huge amounts of horsepower, a huge price tag and the same paint colour all over. Like the 2018 Audi RS 3 Sportback.

Some of you will inevitably balk at the idea of a £40,000+ hatchback, no matter how fast or refined. You may even clench your fists and scream at the sky: “Why!” Either reaction is entirely justifiable.

There is method to the madness, though. Hatchbacks are immensely capable motors, with practicality, handling, style, desirability and performance all part of the package. They are also familiar because, let’s face it, as a youth you probably didn’t drive to McDonald’s in a 5 Series, did you?

There is also the fact that motorists who remember driving a Peugeot 106 may now have the disposable income to buy a hyper hatchback. Or, at least, afford the monthly finance bills without enduring a few years of eating baked beans from a tin.

There are quite a few competitors in this arena and, annoyingly for the Audi, some of the best are substantially cheaper than even the most barren RS 3 Sportback. Cars such as the Hyundai i30 N, BMW M140i, Mercedes-AMG A45, Honda Civic Type R, Ford Focus RS et al.

But very few, if any, are as fast on paper and in the real world, owing to Audi’s quattro all-wheel drive system and that monster of an engine. Is there more to the RS 3 Sportback than impressive performance, though? Does it understeer like a champ? Can you really justify all those pennies and can it excite like a sporty hatchback should?

What is the Audi RS 3 Sportback?

As you may have guessed, the Audi RS 3 Sportback is based on the latest A3. That means you can have it as a saloon (a first for the model) or, as seen here, a more practical sportback that gives you more space at the expense of a less enticing design. You can have it with a top speed of 155mph or 173mph, depending on your budget requirements.

Underneath the Germanic-built bonnet is a 2.5-litre TFSI petrol engine, which is used in various other models including the TT RS. It pumps out a staggering 394bhp and 354lb/ft of torque, the latter kicking in from just 1,750rpm. Combined with the quattro system and forward motion can be, to use a trendy word, savage.

Compared with the older RS 3, you get nine per cent more horsepower, 2.5 per cent more miles per gallon (allegedly) and 0-124mph takes one and a half seconds less. The engine, meanwhile, is mounted transversely and is 26kg lighter. That and other stuff make it a more nimble affair.

The Audi RS 3 is good to drive, right?

Despite a numbness seen in a lot of modern-day cars, we had a soft spot for the older RS 3. What it lacked in excitement, it made up for with dependability and ease of use. In its latest form, it is even faster and, therefore, able to get the blood flowing. Boy does it sound incredible, too, although the volume has been turned down less than it is in the TT RS.

There is, however, still a detached feel that makes it harder to bond with the RS 3 Sportback than BMW’s sideways-happy M140i or the lively Hyundai i30 N. The steering is oh so precise and the steering wheel feels absolutely fantastic, but there is no sense of engagement.

This is good and bad. Good because the RS 3 Sportback is probably the easiest car to drive fast besides something electric. Its dual-clutch transmission is as sharp as you need and the quattro system is hugely effective. Hell, even the older car’s understeer-prone ways have been curbed, resulting in something capable of dangerously fast cornering. It breaks hard, too, and is easy to moderate how hard if you can put up with the odd squeak.

Quite honestly, there is no other hatchback that could get away from an RS 3 in the hands of anything but a quadriplegic squirrel. Even if something, somehow manages to get away when cornering, it has no chance to escape the sheer straight-line pace of the engine. In sport mode, the RS 3 is snappier than a burnt twig. Not quite R8 levels obviously, but close enough for most people.

The bad is that you find it harder to engage and that means, quite honestly, you never really want to drive it. It is enjoyable when you do, but the inclination to make time for it was overshadowed by the fact I had a Caterham 310R the week before. I’d gone from ultimate involvement to ultimate precision and it was troubling.

If the RS 3 Sportback was a ride, it would be the teacups because ultimately you get off content, maybe even somewhat dizzy, but that is as far as it goes. You have fun but there is never any fear, no one attribute you remember particularly well, unlike the brilliant TT RS.

Audi fans are probably foaming at the mouth now, but I am happy to admit the RS 3 Sportback is an engineering masterpiece. You can drive it to the shops and feel remarkably comfortable, with the engine happy to deactivate cylinders for a near-silent drive. It would be a struggle to name a car as potent that feels as refined, let alone another manufacturer capable of such witchcraft.

Emphasising my point, I found driving the RS 3 around in snow (lots of it) the same as if it was raining or sunny. I doubt many of its competitors would have even moved, let alone laugh in the face of really quite adverse conditions.

But at £45,000 (before extras, of which there is about £10,000 worth fitted to this particular press car), to me you would really need to love the way it drives. But I don’t. In truth, my money would go towards a Civic Type R, i30 N or the M140i. You take a hit on the 0-62mph, but your smile will be bigger after each drive.

Whatever. Is it practical?

In terms of fuel economy, the fact it can manage early twenties (the claimed figure is 34.9mpg) deserves praise. We doubt you will ever get out of one after a long journey and feel any discomfort, either. It has enough head and leg room, both in the front and back, to keep those around six-foot happy.

Being a hatchback means the boot should be a decent size, although the quattro system eats into the space available. The total is 280 litres, the same as a VW Polo. In a Mercedes-AMG A45, you get 341 litres, which makes the RS 3 Sportback less capable of booze cruises or keeping the family dog happy.

What about all those optional extras?

Like most German cars, you can easily bump up the base price with relatively few extras and there is a chance you will because the monthly price increase if using finance is manageable. Not that you need to because although the RS 3 interior is smart, rather than glitzy, it feels expensive and the basic equipment level is good.

Extras fitted to the test car included 19-inch five-arm-rotor alloys in matt titanium colour (£695), Ara Blue paintjob with crystal effect (£775), Matrix LED headlights with LED rear lights (£895), privacy glass (£375) and the matt aluminium styling pack (£800) and matt aluminium roof rails (£250), all of which look great but you can get away without.

It is, however, worth considering the RS Sport suspension with MagneticRide, RS Sport exhaust system and the comfort and sound pack (£995), which adds to the £630 delivery cost, £55 registration fee and £1,200 road fund licence.

Should I buy the Audi RS 3 Sportback, then?

It really depends on what you want. At this price, you could get something more exotic. Or you could spend less and get something more involving. But if you desire refinement, comfort, desirability and unhinged pace in one reasonably practical package, the RS 3 Sportback is the answer – albeit a really expensive one.

Audis have become more involving in recent years and the RS 3 is another example of this progression. It handles better than its predecessor without affecting the ride quality, which is impressive for such a honed machine. The problem is that we still struggled to completely fall in love with it. Compared to the TT RS, the sensations are more muted.

Nonetheless, as an engineering achievement the new RS 3 Sportback is remarkable. As a noise-maker, it makes most cars sound dull (yes, Porsche, we are looking at your recent flat-four). But as a petrolhead weapon of choice, it falls a little shorter than we had hoped for.

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