8 / 10
2011 Audi RS3 Sportback, Turbocharged five-cylinder, petrol, seven-speed dual-clutch sequential manual transmission, four-wheel drive
It is said that familiarity breeds contempt and any manufacturer that relentlessly assaults the marketplace like Audi does, with a constant barrage of new versions of ageing models, is in serious danger of boring the pants off the very people it is trying so very hard to appeal to. In the past couple of years I have become one of those people. I just can’t seem to get excited by them anymore, no matter how decent these cars are in their own right.
Perhaps it’s something to do with predictability. Everybody knows damn well that, whenever an “all new” Audi comes along, the hot version will be the last to be launched. It’s a long and drawn out process and by the time the RS whatever finally see light of day, we’re already waiting for the facelift model. Many of us like to save the best till last, but when it comes to cars it’s too easy to feel ambivalent when that halo model eventually roars into view. BMW, at least, gets its M models out a lot sooner. Having Alpina on their backs no doubt keeps them focussed – maybe Audi could do with its very own Alpina…
So, when it comes to the Audi RS3 Sportback (another thing that’s getting on my wick is this insistence on trying to sex up the word ‘hatchback’), we don’t get off on the right foot. But hey, I’m a journalist, so I need to be impartial, to forget the billion other Audi models that exist and concentrate on the merits, or otherwise, of a small hatchback that costs the same in Europe as an immaculate pre-owned 997 Carrera 4S. It had better be bloody good, then.
Weird, isn’t it, how a car’s physical dimensions affect the perceived value it offers. If the RS 3’s engineering was clothed in a body the size of an A5 then we wouldn’t think twice about the sticker price. So the fact that it’s more diminutive shouldn’t matter – it’s how it’s built and how it drives that counts; let’s forget about luggage space and rear legroom for now.
First, a few numbers. The RS 3 Sportback has five doors. It weighs a portly 1575kg. Its engine has five cylinders, one turbocharger, displaces 2.5 litres and generates 450Nm of twist between 1600 and 5300rpm. It also produces its peak 253kW power between 5400 and 6500rpm. It will hit 100km/h in a rather rapid 4.6 seconds and is limited to a top speed of 250km/h (would you really want to go any quicker in a car this small?) while it can (officially) return fuel economy to the tune of 9.1L/100km and emissions of 212g/km. It has four driven wheels, its gearbox has two clutches, its front brake discs are 370mm in diameter, its suspension is 25mm lower than a normal Audi A3 and 25 percent stiffer than even the Audi S3.
One thing it does not have, though, is Audi’s Sport diff, which gives other fast Audis like the RS5, despite their quattro drivetrains, a feeling that the power is being sent to the rear, rather than to all four corners. Neither does it have the option for a traditional manual transmission – Audi says there’s simply no demand but then they said the same about the Audi TT RS when that was launched and a few months later there it was.
Visually, unless you opt for the stupid black painted 19-inch alloys with their boy racer red edges (seriously, Audi, they are so five years ago…), the RS 3 is pretty subtle. Which is a good thing because its acceleration is more savage than even the aforementioned Carrera 4S, which should mean a race at the lights won’t end up with you being pulled over first. There’s a deep front bumper replete with dual air intakes, those ridiculous wheels, a rear roof spoiler and a black diffuser as well as extended sills. The flared front wings are new, too, and Audi would like you to know that they’re fashioned from carbon-fibre reinforced polymer, between them shaving a completely inconsequential 1.6kg from the RS 3’s weight. Big deal.
Inside the RS 3 is starting to look a bit old. And this simply highlights the problem with leaving the halo models until the end of a car’s natural lifespan. There’ll be a brand new A3 with us in less than a year; surely customers spending so much on the RS deserve an interior that mirrors that fact. Despite this, everything is screwed together in typical Audi fashion. Which means it’s as good as it gets, to be honest. Materials feel nice and expensive, it’s all very well laid out and you just get the impression that this car will still look pristine in ten years’ time.
The engine thrums away nicely with a meaty, masculine bassline and there’s a Sport button that, when pressed, opens up what Audi hilariously calls a ‘sonic flap’. As you might imagine, this makes it louder and it sharpens up the throttle response. So, with the button pressed it’s time to see what this expensive hot hatch is capable of.
It’s not long at all before you realise this is an extremely serious performance car. The acceleration is savage and levels of grip are predictably enormous. In fact there’s not much that could keep up with an RS 3 on a twisting back road – it’s so poised, precise and devastatingly quick. The suspension, despite being significantly more stiff, is still forgiving, with none of the harsh bump-thump I was expecting. And the brakes offer eyeball-popping retardation. It’s exhaust note is mildly disappointing, however, because the engine’s soundtrack is too smothered and, despite being essentially the same unit as fitted to the TT RS, it doesn’t give you the same aural stimuli.
It’s not a car that will tempt potential BMW 1 Series M owners, either, because its performance, while stunning in its delivery, is too measured, too precise to have any old-school fun. Hit a corner carrying too much speed, lift off the throttle and the RS 3 simply goes around it as though it wasn’t there. No hint of drama, no danger and, ultimately, little in the way of excitement.
The steering is nicely weighted and is more communicative than the S3 but the overall feel of the car, despite its more than impressive performance credentials, is that of safe, sterile and ruthlessly efficiency. It crosses ground at a remarkable rate of knots, it’s practical and, with normal wheels fitted, looks subtle. But it doesn’t get under the skin and make you want one. A Ford Focus RS was not far off half the price of this thing and, while it may not have felt as well built as the Audi, it did at least generate excitement. It got the pulse racing, it got the adrenaline flowing and it felt like a caged tiger straining to get out and devour whatever was in its path. The RS 3, in comparison, while still an excellent car when judged by its own merits, feels like a video game. Believe it or not Audi, but there’s more to life than speed so if it’s my money on the table I’ll take that secondhand C4S, thanks.