Another year, another attempt by a high-performance Audi to rid itself of that reputation. You know, the one that holds that these cars are straight-line machines only, great at gathering pace, less great at changing direction. These, then, are not cars for drivers, but cars for those who wish to be seen to be drivers, which is absolutely not the same thing.
Oddly enough, it is a reputation increasingly undeserved these days. I’m not saying that modern fast Audis have become oversteering wunderwagens, all opposite lock and smoke-filled wheel arches – anything but, indeed – but those I have driven of late have been far better balanced machines than their forbears. But reputations are as slow in the spending as they are swift in the earning: there are people who to this day buy Porsche 911s with four-wheel drive because somewhere deep inside their brains, something tells them that if left to their own devices these cars will still take you on a magical mystery tour through the field on the other side of the hedge of your nearest wet roundabout. Truth is that, if driven with even a modicum of common sense, they never did.
Back in the present day, this new Audi RS 3 is a Golf-sized and based hatchback with a power figure of just less than 400bhp and price just over £54,000. Both are quite extraordinary numbers for such a car. When the original fast A3 – called the S3 – came out in 1999 it had 203bhp and, believe me, we all thought that quite some output
That money buys you a fundamentally smart new hatch, which many may feel is visually spoiled by a touch too much go-faster bodily addenda, with a 2.5-litre straight-five motor slung across its engine bay which in fact differs little in specification or output from that in its eponymously entitled predecessor.
But the chassis is brand new and, significantly for scholars looking for signs of philosophical change in the way such cars are set up, the rear axle has ditched its hitherto conventional diff for a set of clutch packs that are quicker and more precise in the way they distribute torque between the two rear wheels.
Whether through this or some combination of the other changes to spring and damper rates, this RS 3 feels instantly different. You don’t need to be sliding it around to feel how much more engaging and alive it seems. It’s just that sense of balance you get when driving any car at a reasonable rate on a good road: it no longer leads from the nose, but pivots around you making you feel not just more engaged, but more in control too.
“You don’t need to be sliding it around to feel how alive it seems”
Which is good. What’s better is that despite this new-found enthusiasm for the business of driving, the RS 3 is now significantly easier to live with too, at least if you option in the active dampers which do a remarkable job of smoothing out the ride when you’re not driving as if your life depended upon it. It remains firm but, unlike generation after generation of previous front-engined RS Audis, the harsh edges have been rounded off, and it was always these and not the spring rate per se that led to much-justified criticism of the way such cars rode. It would now be an easy car with which to live and enjoy on a daily basis.
But it does have a rival, the Mercedes-Benz A45 S, which is even more powerful (416bhp) and, at nearly £58,000, more expensive still. You may be goggling that any mere hatchback can cost so much, a process unlikely to be helped when I mention a Porsche Cayman S falls directly between their two price points.
If however you are able to elevate your jaw back towards your face, the comparison is interesting. Despite official figures suggesting a fractional performance advantage to the Audi, the Benz will be quicker because it not only has more power but weighs a tiny bit less too. But both are implausibly, ballistically fast for their genre. Both have four-wheel drive too but while the Audi is now close to as well-balanced as the Mercedes, the A45 is the better communicator and is the one I’d choose to drive just for the hell of it.
On the other hand, while the AMG engine sounds implausibly good for a turbo four, the RS 3’s five has an insuperable advantage on account of the fact that, when pressed, it sounds like a really angry original quattro. It’s not just tuneful, it’s also really interesting to listen to. I’d hazard it was fractionally more refined and comfortable on a long journey, though the Mercedes has the better-looking and more functional interior.
But the truth is I’d need both side by side to determine which one I’d prefer, and if you want evidence of Audi’s progress in this area, that alone would seem to provide it. The previous RS 3 would not have got near.
Actually, I’d not have either. While these cars are preposterously rapid, the numbers don’t make sense, either in Porsche Cayman terms or the number of well-equipped, fast and no less entertaining hatchbacks you can buy for many thousands less. Once the novelty of their performance has worn off, there’s not enough enduring qualities to make me think they represent anything approaching value for money. I’d get a Volkswagen Golf R, trouser the savings and go about my business having lost nothing in terms of driving enjoyment
2022 Audi RS3 statistics
Engine 2.5 litres, five cylinders, turbocharged, petrol
Power 395bhp at 5600rpm
Torque 369lb ft at 2250rpm
Power to weight 251bhp per tonne
Transmission Seven-speed double clutch, four-wheel drive
Top speed 174mph
Verdict Get your kicks elsewhere