Audi has managed to homologate its evocative 2.5-litre inline-five turbo petrol engine for the WLTP regulations and so the RS 3 returns to the German company's showroom fold, in full 400hp guise and now with a petrol particulate filter (PPF). Has its absence made our heart grow fonder for this ballistic performance hatch?
In the Metal:
Visually, the RS 3 Sportback hasn't changed so there's not much to report here. The usual RS signifiers - like huge 19-inch alloys, blistered wheel arches, a pair of giant oval exhaust pipes and the 'quattro'-emblazoned surround for the Singleframe grille - give the Sportback plenty of purpose, although we must say we prefer the taut proportionality of the RS 3 Saloon sibling, which is also revived with a PPF and which costs an additional €1,060 over and above the hatch version.
Inside, it's as beautifully appointed as you'd expect of a 72-grand Audi, with top-notch fit and finish and the visual allure of the 12.3-inch TFT Virtual Cockpit, but while its MMI infotainment system is perfectly well-presented (with sharp resolution and fast-reacting graphics), the little screen that pops out of the dashboard is old-school Audi now. The RS 3's interior jazziness cannot hide the fact that the basic architecture is from an A3 that launched in the dim and distant 2012.
Fitting a PPF can sap power from an engine - it happened to the TTS, for example, when that came in for its midlife facelift - and Audi has also had to quieten down the engine/exhaust of the RS 3 to meet European regulations. However, don't fret even for one second that the Audi hyperhatch has lost either its outrageous speed or its wondrous voice, because it hasn't.
Indubitably, it sounds better with the optional (and expensive) RS Sports exhaust, yet even the standard car has that minor-key, discordant wail in abundance, like all the finest five-cylinder engines. Stretch the legs of this 400hp/480Nm jewel of a motor and you will wonder why any car at any price level needs any more power or punch than this: pick a gear, pick a point on the rev counter, depress throttle, hurtle off into the middle distance on a wall of noise and ferocious acceleration. With the inherent traction advantages of its quattro all-wheel drive, the RS 3 Sportback is as crazy-fast as it has ever been, PPF or not.
What's most pleasing, though, is that it handles better than ever before. Again, an option to have half-an-inch-wider 19-inch wheels fitted on the front axle, when compared to the rear, sharpens the RS 3's turn-in that bit more and so we think they're worth specifying. But even on the standard-width 19s, there's precious little understeer to report; this applies in the wet and on surfaces with low levels of grip, too. When the 400hp engine was introduced in 2017, Audi was pleased to say it wasn't just a tuned-up example of the 367hp turbo, but actually an all-new engine that was also 26kg lighter. It might as well be 126kg lighter, though, because the RS 3 has been vastly improved as a performance car since it went to 400 horses. It's still a touch too four-square during cornering, the most you'll get out of it in terms of oversteer being a tweak of the back end if you lift sharply mid-corner, but by the same token it's not a completely dull and uninvolving experience to throw the Audi down a challenging road.
More pleasing than the superb turn-in and ridiculous pace the RS 3 possesses, however, are the steering and the damping. Both seem to be improved here from the last time we drove a pre-PPF 400hp RS 3 and yet Audi says neither has been altered... except there's much less syrupy stickiness from the steering when just off dead-centre, while the damping does a great job of keeping the 1,530kg Sportback's shell in check during hard driving, just as well as it provides a limber if slightly firm ride when you're simply cruising in the Audi. So while we can't say we particularly missed the RS 3 while it was away, on this evidence we're very, very glad it's back. Excellent stuff.
What you get for your Money:
The RS 3's starting price of €72,120 is obviously exorbitant, given it is comfortably more than double what a base-spec A3 Sportback would cost, and no amount of generous standard equipment is going to totally mitigate that outlay. Furthermore, you can easily inflate the price tag with a costly and lengthy options list. Nevertheless, it's worth remembering just how quick the RS 3 is: you're basically buying supercar-like performance, in a hatchback shape. Put that way, the Audi isn't actually that bad on price, although it will still take a brave sort of soul to buy one here in Ireland when there's a €1,200-a-year road tax liability and fuel economy that's frequently going to be in the mid-20s, at best.
There are hot hatches that will better involve their driver in the experience of going quickly than the Audi RS 3, and there are certainly many hot hatchbacks that will provide 95 per cent of its fearsome pace - only for about 70 per cent of its equally fearsome price. Nevertheless, few competitors have the same scintillating soundtrack as the RS 3, nor can they hope to match its tremendous all-weather ability. Yep, PPF or no, the RS 3 Sportback remains a beguiling proposition in the current realm of fast cars.