The original Audi Quattro combined a turbocharged five-cylinder engine with a sure-footed chassis and permanent four-wheel drive. The result was easily accessible performance in all weathers and peerless cross-country pace. In rallying, the Quattro left rear-driven rivals standing. On the road, it made supercars look silly.
The new, third-generation RS3 borrows from the same playbook. It too has five cylinders and four driven wheels, but while the Ur-Quattro served up 200hp for 0-62mph in 7.1 seconds and 137mph, the RS3 counters with 400hp, 3.8 seconds and 155mph (or 180mph if you specify the Dynamic Pack). ‘Progress through technology’, as they say in Ingolstadt.
Despite doubling its firepower in four decades, though, Audi still finds itself outgunned by the 421hp Mercedes-AMG A45 S – another car that harnesses four-wheel drive for blistering point-to-point speed. Can the RS3 overcome its on-paper deficit to be crowned the ultimate hot hatchback? Let’s see…
As seen in green
The Audi A3’s lead designer was apparently inspired by the Lamborghini Countach, and that sense of aggressive angularity is amplified in the RS3. Squat and square-jawed, with boxy wheelarches and a wider track, it looks like an A3 after several months of military fitness.
The LED headlights spell out R-S-3 when you plip the remote, which is either embarrassing or brilliant, largely depending on how old you are. The same goes for eye-popping Kyalami Green paint – a £545 option.
Inside, the RS3 doesn’t have the widescreen wow-factor of the AMG, nor indeed the cut-above feel of Audis of old. Frankly, it’s a bit plasticky. On the plus side, there are shapely sports seats trimmed in Nappa leather, plus hexagonal air vents that also look quite Lamborghini-esque. Audi’s excellent Virtual Cockpit driver display is standard, along with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. Rear-seat space is similar to any A3, but boot volume shrinks by 50 litres.
Five comes alive
Driving the classic Quattro was a waiting game. Its 2.1-litre motor felt lethargic until 3,000rpm, then woke up with a wallop of turbocharged boost. The 2.5-litre unit in the RS3 – winner of several Engine of the Year awards – still has a little low-rev lag, but is insanely rapid when you keep it on the boil. The seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox blams through the ratios with ruthless intensity.
It sounds great, too: a gargling growl that could only come from a five-cylinder engine, enhanced on my test car by the raspy RS exhaust. The flatulent DSG parps of the Golf R – and other Volkswagen Group hot hatches – are mercifully muted here.
There are no less than seven different settings within the Audi Drive Select system, including a tyre-smoking drift mode that is tactfully labelled ‘RS Torque Rear’. Once you find your preferred setup, however, you can access it instantly via the RS button on the steering wheel.
Four to the floor
Fast Audis, including the Quattro, long had a reputation for feeling aloof, but the RS3 is alert and utterly planted. Its supple damping is ideally calibrated for British B-roads, while the torque-vectoring diff hooks it around corners with unflinching tenacity. The A45 S has more attitude and is ultimately more exciting, but it won’t cover ground any quicker. And the Audi’s calmer ride makes it easier to live with.
Me? I’d plump for the AMG, but hot hatches are tribal and each of these cars already has its own loyal disciples. If you like the look of the RS3 – and its single-minded approach to speed – there is much to enjoy here.
Your biggest stumbling block may be the price, which starts at £54,405 and stretches beyond £60,000 for the top-spec Vorsprung edition. That seems a lot for any hatchback – and the RS3 saloon is £1,000 more. Then again, the Quattro cost £15,037 in 1980, which equates to a hefty £68,610 today. So perhaps the RS3 isn’t such bad value after all.
Tim Pitt writes for Motoring Research
PRICE: From £54,405
TOP SPEED: 180mph
FUEL ECONOMY: 31.0mpg
CO2 EMISSIONS: 207g/km