When: 9 March 2011
Where: Nice, France
What: 2011 Audi RS 3 Sportback
Occasion: International first drive
Overall rating: 4/5
Five-cylinder turbo power and a charismatic throbbing exhaust note with overtones of ür-Quattro come all wrapped up in a relatively sober five-door hatchback body in the new RS 3 Sportback. Audi's RS division has created an unlikely, but very effective, Q-car. Shame then that only 500 right-hand drive cars are expected to be built.
Engine: 2.5-litre, turbocharged five-cylinder petrol
Transmission: seven-speed, dual-clutch S tronic, four-wheel drive
Body style: five-door hatchback
Rivals: BMW 1 Series M Coupé, VW Golf R, Subaru WRX STI
CO2 emissions: 212g/km
Tax band: Band F - €1,050 per annum Combined economy: 9.1 litres/100km (31.0mpg)
Top speed: 250km/h (155mph)
0-100km/h: 4.6 seconds
Power: 340hp at 5,400-6,500rpm
Torque: 450Nm at 1,600-5,300rpm
In the Metal:
You can take one of two routes with the RS 3. Opt for the black wheels highlighted in red; body coloured, hard-backed bucket seats; and Alcantara on the steering wheel and you'll get plenty of attention. Take the standard unpainted wheels, a less extrovert colour and the standard sports seats and perforated leather steering wheel and the RS 3 is fairly discreet for a 340hp hatchback.
Larger air intakes, wider front wings (which are made of carbon fibre reinforced plastic to save around 1.6kg), bigger brakes, a roof spoiler and re-profiled rear bumper mark it out. Inside, a smattering of RS badges, the S tronic transmission with its too-small paddles and a flat-bottomed leather steering wheel nod to the RS 3's sporting flagship status.
Audi's quattro GmbH clearly has on and off days. Although the RS 3 borrows heavily from the rather disappointing TT RS it immediately rouses interest when turning the ignition key. Thank the glorious warbling from the turbocharged 2.5-litre five-cylinder engine, which pleases with its staccato tones as you pull away. Sadly the S tronic seven-speed twin-clutch automatic is the only transmission choice, but you can take over via the wheel-mounted paddles.
They're small though, too small when firing up and down the gearbox on the switchback, hair-pinned climbs and descents that make up the mountain roads behind Monaco. The shifts are quick and smooth, but with the amount of wheel-turning required you're left grabbing the back of the wheel for gears, often finding air instead of shifters. The flat-bottomed wheel doesn't help, with the cut off section interrupting flow on the lock-to-lock turns as the roads climb and descend the mountainous route.
You need to be busy with those seven gears, too. The 340hp 2.5-litre turbocharged five-cylinder engine might produce its peak torque from as low as 1,600rpm, but the RS 3 only really punches hard from around 3,000rpm onwards. Get the timing of those shifts right and keep the engine revving and it's fast - enormously so. Ally that pace to the huge grip and traction on offer and the RS 3 carries its speed very effectively indeed. There's little understeer, with the RS 3 feeling neutral through even tighter bends. Switch the ESP to Sport, or off, and little changes, with the nose remaining resistant to understeer, the RS 3 needing serious provocation to relinquish its grip.
The steering is speedy to respond, but there's not a huge amount of communication at its chunky, perforated leather rim. Press the Sport button and the throttle response improves, while valves in the exhaust open to increase the intensity of the soundtrack from the five-cylinder unit. It's fast too, with 100km/h possible in a Porsche 911 Carrera 4S rivalling 4.6 seconds. The RS 3 Sportback surprises with its easy cross-country pace; even if it's not quite as interactive and enjoyable as some of its rivals.
What you get for your Money:
Standard kit levels are as comprehensive as you'd expect on a range-topping sporting model. It rides on suspension 25mm lower than its A3 relatives, has a full leather interior, iPod and Bluetooth telephone connection and 19-inch alloys.
That 25mm lower suspension is firm. That's useful when you're pretending to be Walter R?hrl on the Monte Carlo Rally, but might prove tiresome on your commute to the office.
Don't be tempted by the optional weight-saving bucket seats. They might hold you a bit tighter and drop the kerb weight by 17kg each, but you're also sat a touch higher. Heavy or not, the standard seats are the better choice.
Audi's new RS 3 Sportback isn't a car that's loaded with feel or interaction, but its pace, grip and traction allow it cover ground with real impunity. A manual gearbox would add another dimension to the driving experience, though. As it is it's unlikely to ever be a car that you'll love to drive like you might its rivals, but you can't help but respect the RS 3's mighty ability.