Transformative - that's what the changes made to the midlife-updated Audi RS 3 are, rendered in a single word. Audi Sport's 2017MY alterations turn this C-segment bullet from a fast-but-infuriating performance car into one of the most beguiling cars in its class. And now that you can have it as a Saloon, rather than the slightly dumpy Sportback only, we think the updated über-quick Ingolstadt machine is good enough to have you seriously reconsidering either the Ford Focus RS or the BMW M2 as the de facto choices in this rarefied segment.
In the metal
Yep, we've gone there - full aesthetic marks for a small saloon car that's distantly related to the Volkswagen Golf. The thing is, though, we think the regular Audi A3 Saloon is perhaps one of the company's finest-ever three-box designs as it is, so giving it the beefy RS treatment is hardly going to hurt things. The result is a super-taut, compact street brawler of a thing, the RS 3 Saloon exuding menace even while it's sitting stock still on its tasteful 19-inch alloys. Like any Audi, it has a beautiful cabin, replete with sports seats and the glorious 12.3-inch Virtual Cockpit plus seven-inch MMI dash screen set-up, so there's little to visually fault about the RS 3 Saloon at all, inside or out.
Naturally, the addition of the Saloon variant to the super-fast A3 line-up is big news, but that's not the only change - and you can still have the RS 3 as a more practical Sportback five-door hatch if you like (it has a 335-litre boot as standard, rising to 1,175 litres with the rear seats relieved of their passenger-carrying duties), saving you €1,000 in the process; but whichever RS 3 you pick, you now get the 400hp/480Nm 2.5-litre blown five-cylinder motor, as already seen in the TT RS.
Audi says this is not just a reprogrammed computer for the old 367hp/465Nm engine, but actually a significant bit of redevelopment. There's a lightweight alloy crankcase, in place of the compacted graphite iron item used in the old motor, as well as plasma-coated cylinder bores, 6mm-smaller main bearings for the crank (which is also now hollow-bored, to save a kilo of weight) and a lighter magnesium sump as well. Net result? Weight loss of 26kg compared to the old engine, all of it at the nose. Which means we might get a significant improvement on the very thing that has so often blighted RS Audis - including the preceding model of RS 3 - in the past: their propensity to wash into early-onset understeer. Fingers crossed, then...
Oh, goodness. Audi talks about the lighter, 154kg engine and its extra power, but there's no mention of any notable changes to the chassis mechanicals. Apart from new quattro driving dynamics software, it's all as you were for the RS 3. And yet, rather as with the transition from 360-to 381hp variants of the Audi's key Mercedes-AMG A 45 rival, it would seem that more than just a power hike has been enacted here. The RS 3 now feels like it is alert and has a genuine ability to provide rear-axle antics, rather than being just a brutally quick hatchback with a chronic weight distribution issue.
It takes one particular corner, handled in third gear, to confirm our early excitement generated by the Audi's perceived additional athleticism. Driven on a sopping wet day - perfect for testing a 400hp hot hatch with quattro four-wheel drive, then - we bunged the RS 3 in hard at the apex, having started out on a needlessly wide line. First surprise: no complaints from the front wheels at scything into the corner. Understeer simply doesn't materialise. But then, in a lovely, progressive movement, the feeling of the rear end breaking loose feeds into the sensory equation and, glory be, we're winding off a bit of lock to compensate, before hitting the power to fire the Audi out in a neutral stance onto the next straight.
Sure, it's not the lurid angles of tyre-smoking oversteer a BMW M2 will indulge its driver in on track, but for an Audi RS 3 to be dancing like this at all is a minor miracle. And, over the course of the rest of the test route, it goes on to prove just how superb a road car it is. Optional Audi Magnetic Ride dampers help it to blend rigid body control with a supple ride. The traction is mega, despite water streaming everywhere in the Audi's path and plenty of large puddles littering the route. And the noise of the five-cylinder engine coupled to the (again optional) RS Sport exhaust system is, quite simply, unsurpassed at this sort of level. It makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up, time and time again.
OK, so the latest RS 3 isn't flawless. There is understeer there, if you rummage around hard enough in your own box of dumbass driving tricks and deliberately provoke the poor Audi on turn-in with levels of sheer ham-fistedness not seen since Andre the Giant starred in The Princess Bride. And while the variable Dynamic steering feels much nicer and more consistent in operation here than it has been to deal with on other Audis, it is nevertheless a touch too light in its weighting for a true performance car. The M2 is still the keener driver's first choice at this sort of 370-400hp level, but the Audi is so much closer to the BMW than it has been prior to this point. And, believe us, that's a massive accolade for the RS 3.
What you get for your money
At nearly €70,000, the Audi RS 3 Saloon is not cheap when held up to a Ford Focus RS or Volkswagen Golf R, for example, but it is priced competitively for this sort of supercar-esque performance wrapped in a pragmatic package. Nevertheless, while the standard specification is very generous, there are plenty of pricey options (such as carbon brakes, deeper bucket seats and those noisy exhausts) that can push the RS 3 dangerously close to the €100,000 barrier. This, for what is ultimately an A3 at the end of the day, a car that starts at €27,810 in Ireland.
Also, watch out for the upgraded 19-inch wheels as on our test car - they're wider on the front axle than the rear, which does enough to the CO2 to bump the RS 3 Saloon from Band E for road tax (€750 per annum) to Band F (€1,200 per annum). Ouch.
The Audi A3 Saloon's looks, that utterly brilliant 'new' engine and the much more playful chassis underpinning the latest Audi RS 3 all combine to make this the semi-affordable Audi Sport car we've been waiting for. It can now entertain and thrill its driver, just as well as it can make storming point-to-point progress come rain or shine as any hot Audi quattro model should.
The net result is that this RS 3 Saloon goes straight into our 'Top Three' for products from Audi Sport, just behind the R8 and the mighty B7 RS 4 Avant. You'll still get more fun behind the wheel of a BMW M2, when the conditions are right, and a Ford Focus RS will probably match it for cross-country pace for less cash, but neither of them quite have the super-polished, all-round set of skills that this rather brilliant Audi RS 3 has. Marvellous work, Audi.