The perfect excuse to keep away from motorways…
With all the alacrity of an overladen oil tanker, Audi’s high-performance Quattro GmbH division is starting to respond to the helm. It might still be understeering as much as its products became rightly renowned for over time, but each successive one I’ve driven of late has had just that little more on offer for those who want to do more than impress their mates by showing how fast they can go in a straight line.
This new RS3 Sportback represents another few degrees of deflection. The headline numbers hold that this is the world’s most powerful hatchback, its sonorous five-cylinder 2.5-litre motor proving good for 362bhp, seven more than the current Mercedes-Benz A45 AMG, though that will be boosted to 375bhp later this year, escalating the tit-for-tat arms race inexorably towards the 400bhp mark.
Imagine that, just for a second: a showroom standard production hatchback with the same power as the Ferrari 288 GTO had 30 years ago. We’re not there yet – the RS3 is only in 5-litre Boxer territory at present – but my strong hunch is we’ll be there before the end of next year.
For now, however, back to this particular Audi. It’s interesting not for its ability to blast to 62mph faster than a Porsche 911 GTS (yes, really) but because there is actually some charm to the way it goes about doing so. The five-cylinder engine is superb in almost all regards: it’s quiet when you need it to be and rousingly sonorous when you don’t. Despite a specific output approaching 150bhp per litre, there is vestigial turbo lag and a solid wall of torque from below 2000rpm. The only downside to using a reasonably large capacity and five rather than four cylinders is shocking fuel consumption combined with a fuel tank designed to service the rather less taxing demands of the small diesel motors that occupy the engine bays of most basic A3s. Think 28mpg in normal use, the teens if you cane it and a practical real-world range of not much more than 250 miles.
But there’s something else, too. I took the RS3 to Goodwood for the Festival and, because I’ll do anything to avoid the traffic, left home at 4.30am. The first few miles to the Severn Bridge are on world-class roads. One of the ways I measure a car’s fun factor is determined by whether I continue on A- and B-roads once I’ve hit dry land, or just engage cruise and let the M4 take the strain. In the RS3 I went cross-country almost all the way.
Those who’ve driven them on race tracks will tell you all the old understeer is still there, but at sane speeds on public roads it felt poised and pointy.
I disagree, too, with those who say they got nothing back through the steering: it’s no Lotus Esprit for sure, but it was good enough to let me place the car precisely where I wanted and, for a car like this, that’s good enough.
So even if the RS3 is not quite a triumph like its cheaper, better VW Golf R cousin that sits on the same platform, it is not just an impressive newcomer, but hopefully also an encouraging sign of philosophical change in the hearts and minds of those who have for too long made fast Audis that have promised more than they have delivered.
Engine: 2.5 litres, 5 cylinders
Power: [email protected]
Torque: 343lb [email protected]
Transmission: seven-speed double clutch, four-wheel drive
Power to Weight: 238bhp per tonne
Top speed: 155mph