Make no mistake, the Audi A3 is a perfectly fine car, and the S3 spun from it is a thoroughly enjoyable hot hatch. What does that make the RS3 then, a hyper hatch, uber hatch, ultra hatch maybe?
Ponder that for a moment while you consider the Audi RS3's mind-warping 294kW and 480Nm outputs. That’s peak power at a nice high 7000rpm, but peak torque from as low as 1700rpm for a massive breadth of performance.
The engine responsible for those numbers isn’t the category norm either. Whereas most manufacturers stick with four-cylinders, Audi keeps ties to its heritage with a five-cylinder turbo that not only gives the RS3 a curious point of difference, but also one of the most wild soundtracks this side of a supercar. But more on that later.
As part of the updated A3 range that arrived in 2017, the RS3 also pulled an extra 24kW and 30Nm out of its hat, sharing engine specs with the TT RS that Audi calls a ‘compact supercar’ – which would make the RS3 a compact super hatch, I suppose.
Headline numbers aside, the rest of the RS3 Sportback package is no less of an assault. Pictured here in solid Nardo Grey paint, this fast five-door looks properly menacing with its massive front bumper intakes and huge mesh-packed single-frame grille.
Glossy black highlights the performance exterior parts, huge oval tailpipe finishers punctuate each side of the rear valance, and the only jarring element (to my eyes at least) concerns the 19-inch polished alloy wheels, which somehow look under-tyred and too far inboard for a car of such enormous performance potential.
As far as visual treatments go, the RS3 isn’t boy-racer garish, more ‘poised and potent’ in the way so many high-powered Audis before it have been. If you’re after something a bit louder, there’s always the option of eye-catching red or blue paint – or a less arresting range of whites, silvers, greys and blacks.
Not that there’s any physical impost to performance. Audi claims the RS3 has the potential to flash from 0–100km/h in 4.1 seconds. You can attribute at least part of that to Audi Sport’s quattro all-wheel-drive system and another portion to the split-second gear shifts from the seven-speed dual-clutch automatic.
From the second you prod the starter button, it’s clear that this Audi delights in being as impolite as possible. A throttle blip and crackling bark of exhaust on start-up set the tone for the lunacy that lurks within.
When you consider the 294kW RS3 generates almost three-and-a-half times more power than the 85kW 1.0-litre three-cylinder base-model A3, it's fair to call its beginnings humble. But despite such a massive gulf in outputs, the RS version is by no means pushing the limits of the A3’s Volkswagen Group MQB underpinnings.
Drive modes make the biggest difference. Select the RS3’s comfort setting and it can be as docile as any other hatchback on the road. Of course, there’s still big power on tap, but a progressive throttle and early gearshift points see some of the monster within dialled back.
Flick through to dynamic mode and everything becomes more alert. Sharper throttle, a sport mode for the transmission, weightier steering and firmer settings for the magnetic ride control dampers lock the RS3 into attack mode.
Keen drivers are sure to revel in the alert throttle and high-rev responsiveness. Onlookers, meanwhile, will be treated to a guttural bellow from the unique-sounding inline-five that (I’m told) can be heard up to two city blocks away. Sorry neighbours!
On the right roads, the RS3 has a just-right sports car feel. Forget the hatchback body – if you never looked at the rear-view mirror, you could be mistaken for thinking you’re in a dedicated sports coupe. But please, do check behind you periodically, even though you’ll be leaving most cars in your wake.
Cornering grip is massive, and the traction afforded by the RS-spec all-wheel-drive system means that even with 480Nm at play, there’s no hunting for grip. And aside from a split-second of front-end slip from standstill, there’s little question as to the reactivity of the all-paw system.
Dial up dynamic mode and the system will send more torque to the rear wheels via the multi-plate clutch for a more nimble drive.
As with similar all-wheel performers, there’s inescapable understeer, though not pronounced front-end plough – more of a minor hint that can be corrected on the fly. Audi’s switch to the latest five-cylinder engine has saved around 26kg over the front axle, where every kilo counts.
Power is nothing without responsibility, as they say, which in the case of the RS3 means a set of 370mm front brake rotors clamped by chunky eight-piston calipers, while at the rear is a set of 310mm discs.
With enough stopping force to jam you hard into your seatbelt, the brakes are impressive, however the downside (as is often the case with many high-performance brake systems) is some jerkiness at low speeds and occasional hints of squeal when cold.
On the inside, the RS3 features a set of dramatic-looking RS sports seats with a near-perfect balance of butt-hugging grip, liveable comfort and enough free space around the shoulders of shorter drivers to keep from feeling hemmed in.
They adjust manually, which feels a little unexpected considering the $80,611 price point (before on-road costs and options), but if you really need your seats to do the sliding for you, a set of less wild sports seats with electric adjustment is a no-cost option.
Elsewhere, the interior is much like that of the rest of the A3 range, including the same minimalist dash design with circular air vents, and electrically deployed 7.0-inch navigation screen with RS specifics like the flat-bottom Audi Sport steering wheel and specific Virtual Cockpit TFT instrument cluster graphics.
The interior decor could be where the RS3 comes unstuck. While it’s still high quality, the design isn’t very premium and some of the features (like the 7.0-inch screen) start to look a little out of touch, particularly when Audi’s mainstream counterpart, the Volkswagen Golf R, comes with a 9.2-inch screen and an interior that looks and feels more like a prestige car should.
Standard kit does include leather trim, heated front seats, dual-zone climate control, keyless entry and start, LED interior lighting, WiFi hotspot, DAB+ radio, LED headlights and adaptive cruise control. In fact, the only glaring omission (which would be darnn handy to have) is a speed limiter.
Options as fitted include the $5900 RS Performance Package that adds adjustable magnetic dampers, Bang & Olufsen premium audio, and carbon interior inlays. Plus, a $1600 Black High Gloss package that coats the parts of the grille, intake blades, window trims and rear diffuser in a gloss-black finish.
On the ownership front, Audi sticks to a three-year/unlimited-kilometre warranty (as do most of its competitors) and advises that servicing every 12 months or 15,000km will cost $520, $760 and $520 at each visit, though without a fully fledged capped-price program these prices are subject to variation – check with your dealer for an estimate.
Fuel consumption is rated at an official 8.4L/100km, which doesn't sound bad until you consider the Mercedes-AMG A45 somehow manages an official 6.9L/100km and even the larger, more powerful RS4 Avant claims 8.9L/100km. In real-world driving and with plenty of enthusiastic fangery involved, we recorded 10.8L/100km.
While the RS3 might still claim useful cargo capacity, seating for five, and all the versatility that comes with its hatchback body, anyone who buys one for any of those reasons might be leading themselves astray.
The real reason to get into an RS3 is its outstanding value. Of course, no $80K hatch is ever going to top a list of bargain buys, but given this car has so much in common with the ferocious TT RS, yet undercuts it by a massive $57,000, it starts to look like the clever choice.