Overall rating: 3.5/5
Audi's RS models used to be a last hurrah for outgoing cars, but this RS 3 has arrived much quicker than before. Aptly then, it's very fast, but huge speed and capability don't necessarily equate to big fun.
In the Metal:
Subtle changes mark Audi's fastest five-door hatch out (ignoring the RS 7), the RS 3 gaining the usual RS signifiers such as deeper air intakes, brushed metal highlights, large alloy wheels and a pair of gargantuan tailpipes. It's an effective makeover, the handsome lines of the standard Audi A3 given a convincing sporting boost by the company's performance off-shoot, quattro GmbH. The wheel arches are slightly enlarged, though unlike its predecessor those front wings are made of metal rather than carbon fibre. Remove the RS 3 badges and have those brushed metal accents changed via the options list and the RS 3 could be mistaken for just another Audi A3 S line.
The interior follows the RS recipe to the letter, too. There's a flat-bottomed steering wheel with RS 3 badging, RS 3 instruments and a smattering of Alcantara. Pay extra for the lightweight bucket seats if you're planning on taking it to a track, though the standard seats hold you in tightly enough on the road - and are easier to get in and out of. The A3 felt pretty special inside before the RS people got their hands on it, so the changes only add to that, without detracting from its day-to-day usability or practicality.
The most powerful car in its class brings with it shocking pace. The Audi RS 3's turbocharged 2.5-litre in-line five-cylinder engine develops 367hp, though it's the 465Nm of torque and its huge spread - from 1,625rpm to 5,550rpm - that makes it so otherworldly quick. Get it right, or simply use the launch control, and the RS 3 will reach 100km/h in 4.3 seconds from rest. That's quicker not just than obvious rivals like the Mercedes-Benz A 45 AMG and BMW M135i, but also faster than the Porsche 911 Carrera 4 GTS.
All that power drives though Audi's quattro four-wheel drive system and a seven-speed, dual-clutch, paddle-shifted S tronic automatic transmission. Four-wheel drive gives the RS 3 incredible traction, while that automatic is quick to shift up, if sometimes tardy to respond to requests for downshifts from the wheel-mounted paddles. Drive Select allows some tailoring of your drive, changing the parameters of steering, gearshift and engine response, while adding the optional Dynamic Pack means the addition of a Sports Exhaust with active bypass flaps and Audi's magnetically damped suspension.
You'll want that exhaust, as it adds a sort of off-beat, intense throb under power, and cracking and popping on the overrun that sounds every bit like an Audi Group B rally car from the '80s. If the sound is enough to evoke memories of Blomqvist, Rohrl and Mouton, then so too is the RS 3's ability to cover ground. Few, if any, cars are as quick on the public road; the combination of all that grip and grunt makes for an extraordinarily rapid machine.
Nonetheless, the steering isn't overly rich on information, though you're unlikely ever to encounter a situation on the road where you'll be finding the limits of the RS 3 Sportback's grip. The suspension achieves a fine compromise between good control and ride comfort - it's undeniably firm, but there's a suppleness to it despite its sometimes busy nature. The standard brakes, with their eight-piston front callipers, are unlikely ever to leave you wanting on the road, but the RS 3 is offered with a set of carbon ceramic brakes up front that not only up the resistance to fade, but also reduce the unsprung mass by 13kg. At around 10 per cent of the car's list price they're expensive and for all but the most hardcore drivers, an unnecessary choice.
The RS 3 Sportback's shocking pace and ability are not in question, but aside from the evocative soundtrack that accompanies it, the RS 3 doesn't truly excite the more experienced driver. It's staggeringly competent, able to cover ground at breath-taking pace and ease, but it's so composed, so sure of itself and its limits so high that there's little reward. Tip it into a corner at any speed and there's no will-it-or-won't-it-make-it; the RS 3 is so resolute that you just know it will. On a track, it starts to lose some of its composure when you start reaching its limits, but on the road, they're so lofty that you'll never get near them.
What you get for your Money:
Although Audi Ireland has yet to confirm specifications, the RS 3 Sportback should feature, among some other stuff, 19-inch alloy wheels, Nappa leather sports seats, LED headlights and Audi's parking system plus over the already rapid and well-specified S3 model. The sticker price might be high at around €60,000, but when you consider what it saves you from buying, for the performance and practicality combined, then it actually starts to look like sensible money. Customers evidently think so too, and not happy with already spending as much, typically add around 20 per cent to the list price in options. You can pay to have the 250km/h electronic speed limiter raised to 280km/h too, though we cannot imagine why you'd ever want to if you do all your driving in Ireland...
The early arrival of the RS 3 demonstrates something of a shift in strategy for quattro GmbH's product offering. RS models once represented a last blast for a soon to be defunct model. Demand is so high though that quattro GmbH's sales hit record levels in 2014, with 15,000 cars being built by the high-performance offshoot. That's good business, and new Managing Director Heinz Hollerweger told CompleteCar.ie that more S and RS models will be added in time. For the RS 3 there's certain to be another body style and it should please Irish buyers that it'll be an RS 3 Saloon.
An undeniably incredible car, the new Audi RS 3 Sportback amalgams supercar pace into a relatively sensible five-door hatchback body. Its otherworldly ability is its undoing though, as the RS 3 Sportback is so outrageously capable, so incredibly fast and assured that it's all but impossible to enjoy it properly on the road. Spend some extra on that naughty exhaust, as it adds some real aural thrills, but its own understudy, the S3 does all the RS 3 does, just not at quite the same insane pace. Likewise, Volkswagen's Golf R.