Good: hilarious speed and noise, traction advantage, styling, cabin comfort and quality
Not so good: expense, quattro system feels occasionally clunky, hard ride, small boot
Wow, this was not a smart idea. I mean, giving me a car with eighties-style quattro graphics and a big, growly, five-cylinder engine? That's like leaving a bucket of fireworks and some matches with an unattended toddler. Something's going to go bang.
My mis-spent youth was not wasted in snooker halls nor even in games arcades, but instead parked in front of the telly, every Easter weekend, watching Rally Report and the daily updates from the Circuit of Ireland. This was back when the Circuit was often still a real, actual loop of the whole island (one of the stages ran just metres from my parents' front door) and often boiled down to a straight three-way fight between Jimmy McRae (usually in a Sierra Cosworth), Billy Coleman (in whatever he could get his hands on; I remember a BMW M3 one year) and Welsh ace Dai Llewellin, who seemingly could never catch a break in his rapid but un-winning Audi Quattro.
While McRae usually took home the spoils, the guttural growl and all-paw traction of that Quattro stayed with me, and now here we are, in 2018, and I've just been handed the keys to a car with a growling five-cylinder engine, four-wheel drive and more power than Llewellin, McRae or Coleman would ever have thought sensible or possible. Toddler, meet fireworks.
Of course, the Audi RS 3 is as logical a product development as you can imagine. It's designed to rekindle public affection and attention for the ageing Audi A3 range, before an all-new successor is launched in due course. It's a straightforward development of the less-bombastic-but-still-ruddy-fast 300hp S3, and it borrows the existing 400hp 2.5-litre five-cylinder turbo engine from the TT RS coupe. In some ways, it's almost a box-ticking exercise for the Audi marketing department: Bulgy body kit? Check. Borrowed engine? Check. Neil's childhood dreams and memories made real? Check...
The basic (Basic? Come on...) RS 3 has a starting-gun price tag of €69,550, which makes it a direct rival to the enormously impressive and fun BMW M2 Coupe. Our test car - resplendent in a gloss grey paint job that some unkindly call 'Primer', but I'm going to call 'Shiny Battleship' (it's actually called Nardo Grey) - had been optioned up to a fairly stiff €89,432 thanks to items that you might reasonably expect to come as standard, such as the upgraded navigation system, the 'Virtual Cockpit' all-digital instruments and snazzy black-edged 19-inch alloy wheels. So, it's pricey, but still not dramatically out of line with the M2, especially considering the extra power.
However, let's take a moment here. Let's take a moment to sink into the surprisingly broad-shouldered RS bucket seat (at last; a figure hugging seat that's wide enough to hug, rather than extrude, my own portly figure) and press digit of choice to the starter button. The five-cylinder engine fires with a Jurassic Park growl and a dose of flatulence that would have you on the 12-step programme at Beans Anonymous, so clearly someone at Audi's engine-tuning department is (a) keen on a bit of street theatre and, (b) really wants to get you in trouble with your neighbours.
Slot the dual-clutch S tronic box into D and off we trundle, noticing quickly that the RS 3 is very, very firmly suspended, but manages to just about stay on the right side of harsh (in spite of a 25mm suspension drop compared to the standard car, and the tracks are wider to fill out those blistered arches) and that the engine is so torquey (480Nm) that even with the Drive Select switched to 'Comfort' and the S tronic transmission taking the strain, pulling away can sometimes be a jerky experience.
Now, find a quiet stretch of road or, better yet, a convenient local airfield, and pin the throttle pedal to the back of the carpet. And here the RS 3 truly and awesomely separates itself from the rival M2 because it just feels so much faster. The quoted 0-100km/h time is 4.1 seconds (impressive enough in itself and 0.2 seconds faster than an M2 (in fact, it's even 0.1 seconds ahead of the newer 410hp M2 Competition), but subjectively it feels much faster than the BMW. The M2, being rear-wheel drive, takes a fraction of a second to compose its traction levels, whereas the all-wheel-drive Audi simply grips, bellows and goes. The noise, guttural and growling at low efforts, turns to a wall of roaring as the revs rise to the redline, as if a really angry bear was asleep on the back seat and now you've woken her up and spilled her honey and she's mad as hell.
Once your own giggling subsides, you'll find some twisty roads and discover that the RS 3 is composed, agile and engaging, but not addictively fun to drive. The steering has sweet weighting and accuracy, but still lacks the fine-grained feedback of the BMW, and while the handling is assured and confidence-inspiring, you can feel the engine's torque and power being shunted between the front and rear wheels. The RS 3 is, effectively, a front-wheel-drive car with the ability to send torque rearwards though its Haldex clutch-controlled system, and it just never feels as seamless nor intuitive as the 'proper' quattro systems, with their Torsen differentials, that you get in bigger Audis.
Does the M2, then, do enough in the handling stakes to claw back the Audi's straight-line performance advantage? I'm not so sure. The M2 is more precise and more rewarding to steer, but I think the RS 3 might actually be more fun, simply because it's more bombastic. That angry engine note is more addictive than the BMW's more cultured six-cylinder rasp, and the sheer kicked-down-a-lift-shaft feeling that you get under full acceleration is pretty much unbeatable for the money. It's not even that thirsty - drive it gently (applications for sainthood should immediately follow if you manage to do so) and you'll see the sunny side of 30mpg.
Even the cockpit, which should look and feel old given the age of the current A3, is still nice, thanks to those seats, the characterful bulls-eye air vents and the brilliant (if expensive) all-digital instruments. The driving position is a bit awkward, but you'll forgive it that. You might find it slightly harder to forgive the tiny 315-litre boot, hampered as it is by all the quattro gubbins beneath.
The BMW is still arguably the purist's choice (just as was supporting the sublime Jimmy McRae back in the day), but I think I'd prefer the Audi. I'm no Dai Llewellin behind the wheel, but just as the seven-year-old me suspected, quattro and a growling five-cylinder engine make for an unbeatable combination on Irish roads. Time to go home, the long way around, methinks...