I’ve been pondering why anyone would spend nearly £50,000 on a modest hatchback. This new Audi RS3 is close to that price once you add a few choice bits and pieces. Yet to the uninitiated, it looks the same as the £21,000 model your children’s nanny drives.
The obvious reason is that it goes like hell, which is probably why Audi took me all the way to Oman to drive it. There are no reciprocal arrangements for speeding fines there, I assumed, perhaps optimistically.
The trick with the RS3 is that while it looks, at a glance, like the regular A3 it’s actually a great deal different. It has Quattro four-wheel drive and a seven-speed double clutch transmission – which means there are paddle shifts if you want to override the automatic gear changes.
Then there’s Audi’s USP, the five-cylinder turbocharged engine. No one else offers an engine like this any more, largely because it’s easier to get low CO2 with a four-cylinder motor. Yet the headline figure of 400hp betters BMW’s 370hp for its M2 and the Mercedes-AMG A45’s 381hp.
That odd number of engine cylinders gives the RS3 a seductive, sonorous soundtrack that will send tingles down your spine when you switch to Dynamic mode and press down hard on the throttle. The benchmark 62mph is reached in 4.1 seconds, top speed set at modest 155mph. That’s modest because the RS3 can have this restriction lifted, allowing a theoretical 174mph.
As brilliant as a performance car as the RS3 is, that brilliance only really shines when you are able to drive it beyond socially and legally acceptable norms.
Obviously I didn’t get anywhere close to this in Oman. Too many camels wandering onto the roads, for one thing. Yet the chassis in the RS3 seems so incredibly capable that I feel sure it would acquit itself well should you pop over to Germany for a run around the Nürburgring.
On regular roads, the RS3 brings absurdly fast cross-country ability. Instant pick-up out of corners, fadeless braking and reassuring stability through the bends are all part of the deal.
Smart electronics keep the Audi pointed where you’d expect, although ramping up the options helps here too. Magnetic Ride suspension makes it more comfortable in the city, while front ceramic brakes benefit the retardation if you plan to do track days.
You may think you’ve heard all this before with the last-generation Audi RS3, but this one is different – and better. It’s lighter, which helps the agility, there’s the option of Audi’s fabulous Virtual Cockpit dashboard display. There’s now a saloon derivative for the first time as well.
So here’s how the logic goes with Audi RS3, and cars like it. It’s cheaper than a Porsche, but just as fast and the performance is less challenging to exploit. Around town it has most of the benefits of a normal hatchback. Which means space for the family when you get fed up trying to park that Q7.
There’s sense in this, while large front air intakes, drainpipe exhausts and some less-than-subtle body mods get the RS3 noticed by the cognoscenti. Yet here we are in the horns of a dilemma.
As brilliant as a performance car as the RS3 is, that brilliance only really shines when you are able to drive it beyond socially and legally acceptable norms. Things are different in a proper sports car. You are sitting in a Porsche even when you are waiting at the traffic lights. It’s good to look at the reflection in the shop window. The RS3 has far less impact.
So, unless you can find a proper race track to stretch the RS3’s legs, it’s likely that a straightforward Golf GTI will provide equal entertainment – and at two-thirds of the price.