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Car reviews - Audi - A3 - RS3 Sportback

Our Opinion

We like
Momentous engine and exhaust note, classic quattro sure-footedness, everyday practicality, smouldering looks, interior quality and aesthetics
Room for improvement
No manual option, no USB connector

Gallery

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Audi logo5 May 2016

Price and Equipment

ON FIRST inspection, paying $78,900 before on-road costs for any small hatchback may seem a bit of a tall order, but spend a little time to getting to know the Audi RS3 as we did, and the equation starts to make a bit more sense.

It may be based on one of Audi's more affordable models, but with a significant makeover from the car-maker's most hardcore tuning branch, the RS3 is every bit an RS.

Plush quilted black leather adorned the interior of our test car with heated seats. You also get 19-inch wheels, LED headlights, an Alcantara flat-bottomed steering wheel, 10-speaker 180-watt sound system with digital radio, Audi's MMI navigation via a 7.0-inch screen and 20GB hard drive as standard.

Our car had a few extras including a lovely pearl white paint ($1495), extended black high gloss styling pack ($1600) and roof rails in black, which struck us as a bit steep at $780.

One thing you don't get is a USB port which we thought was a little miserly. An SD card slot is provided, but that is perhaps a little esoteric given the vast array of media on offer and the various ways to connect it.

A cable can be bought separately to swap for the iPhone cable connector allowing a USB connection, but a permanent hard-wired socket as found in virtually every car on the market would be a far better option.

Another omission are electrically adjustable seats, which, in this case, we fully support. In a car as light and nimble as an A3, many luxuries such as lazy seats would risk piling on the pounds and spoiling the fine road manners – but more about that later. Electric seats are available as an option if you really insist.

As a bonus, our car had the $6490 RS performance package option, which adds a different 19-inch wheel design, magnetic ride suspension in place of standard RS specific suspension, a Bang & Olufsen stereo, carbon-fibre interior trims and monstrous RS red brake callipers.

Interior

If Audi got an interior wrong then there would be something very wrong with the automotive world because, among many other well-engineered elements, the German car-maker's quality cabins have become almost synonymous with the brand.

The RS3's interior is no different, with beautifully crafted leather sports seats that touch in all the right places, fine quality materials in all areas and ergonomics that have been clearly thought out at length.

For a roomy hatchback, the driving position is easy to adjust for a wide range of drivers thanks to a telescopic steering column with a long reach and those excellently adjustable seats.

With its virtual cockpit, a fully digital instrument cluster, Audi has shown its rivals the way information should be displayed, but the innovative system has not yet made it to the A3 range. However, the pop up dash screen and more conventional cluster is a good compromise for now and maintains the prestige feel of the rest of the interior.

It may have a manic firecracker of an engine under the bonnet and get-out-of-my-way looks but the RS3 is still an A3 under its intimidating skin, and that means real-world room for five people and a 340-litre boot which expands to 1180 litres when the rear seats are folded.

Engine and transmission

Underneath the RS3's handsome exterior lies an engine and transmission, which provides a massive hammer blow of performance with 270kW and 465Nm of torque making a dash to from zero to 100km/h possible in just 4.3 seconds.

How the Audi stands out from its competitors is by using a delectable five-cylinder 20-valve engine coupled with the quattro all-fours transmission the RS3 provides an unobscured view back through more than three decades of heritage to Audi Sport's formative years.

Floor the loud pedal in an RS3 and the only thing that will tear your attention away from the way it pins you to the hide is the demonic and almost antisocial report from its two oversize tailpipes.

With the Dynamic setting selected, the noise that comes from the RS3 – and we are not exaggerating – is hard to distinguish from a full-blown Group B rally quattro of the 1980s.

It was fortunate that our weeks spent with the Audi were fair weather because, for virtually every trip, the pre-flight check list was as follows: Engine start, select Dynamic mode, flick gear selector to manual, open all windows.

Describing the sound of a highly-strung turbocharged five-cylinder will never do it justice, and nothing comes close to a five-pot's weird but lovely note on hard acceleration, complimented by a hose-busting turbo whistle, finished with the loudest overrun crackle we have heard in recent years.

Yes, it is nearly an $80,000 hatchback, but we would pay almost every cent of that for a soundtrack and charisma that cannot be touched by anything this side of an Audi R8 V10.

Adding to the authenticity of the RS3's rally-car-for-the-road package is its super-tight gear ratios and lightning gear changes, courtesy of the seven-speed dual clutch automatic transmission.

In fully-automated mode, the cog box is excellent at delivering a smooth ride and doesn't suffer as badly from low-speed driving characteristics as some of its forebears, but we spent little time in the sensible setting, choosing instead to do our own stage management with the paddles.

The auto is certainly a well-paired piece of engineering, but for a model that has such a clear lineage to some serious racing machinery, and such an obvious driving enthusiast focus, we would love to see the RS3 offered with a manual gearbox.

While some of the more potent RS engines would simply tear a manual to pieces in the wrong hands, the RS3's more manageable unit might just work. Dare we say it? A manual RS3 could be the perfect all-rounder for the performance pundit.

The Mercedes-AMG A45 has a little more power and torque but it has to wring its 2.0-litre cloth very tightly to do it, whereas the Audi has a whole half litre and an extra cylinder up its sleeve. If Audi decides to turn up the taps a future version would most likely trounce the Merc.

As a final note on the engine, it is also worth mentioning that when you lift the bonnet on an RS3 you are not met with an expanse of plastic and covers. The beautiful five-cylinder noise comes from an engine that looks just as good.

Ride and handling

As you might expect, any model wearing the esteemed RS badge has a ride on the firmer side and you would be right about the RS3, however, it strikes a good balance of comfort and bitumen-biting grip.

Audi's magnetic ride variable suspension system makes a big difference to ride quality allowing a choice of firm, firmer or very firm, but that said, when in the most comfortable setting the RS3 has a surprisingly compliant ride that we would happily live with.

Switched to its most aggressive, the suspension set up is purposefully hard but not as bone-shattering as the set-up that the Mercedes-AMG A45 rolls on. That said, when driven in anger, the Audi's chassis is no less capable than the Merc.

Grip is seemingly boundless in the dry, but a bit of moisture reveals the RS3's excellent balance. The quattro four-wheel-drive system is often criticised for being biased to understeer on the limit, but we have found this is almost always due to a heavy pair of hands on the wheel.

With a bit of concentration and care, the RS3 has a delightful front-to-rear equality not unlike a mid-engined car.

Steering is precise, smooth and nicely weighted at low speed but loads up nicely at higher speeds, although we would have liked just a little more feel when in the sportiest settings.

Head-to-head on a race track, the Audi might forfeit a few tenths to the Mercedes, but for more day-to-day driving circumstances, ranging from a supermarket run to a thrash over your favourite mountain pass, the Audi offers the better balance.

Safety and servicing

AudiCare is a 24-hour roadside assistance service offered on all new Audis for three years, a three year warranty is also offered on all vehicles but it can be extended for up to another two years and 160,000km for a price and depending on the model.

The Audi Genuine Care Service Plan covers a wide range of models, which includes all scheduled servicing for 45,000km or three years, however the plan is not available for RS models.

Standard safety features include dual front, front-side and curtain airbags, as well as a driver’s knee airbag, tyre pressure monitoring but no spare (there is a puncture repair kit), rain-sensing wipers, auto-dimming centre mirror, stability and traction control with the front electronic diff lock.

Verdict

Pegged against each other on a track, the Mercedes would probably shave a few tenths from the Audi's time and BMW would hold the longest power slide, but this is the real world and if you spend a lot of time on circuits you probably wouldn't be looking at high-end hatchbacks at all.

Where the Audi streaks ahead of the pack is in its balance of sledgehammer performance, practicality and ride comfort. (Insert overused Goldilocks analogy here) The BMW is a bit cool, the Merc is a bit too hot, but the RS3 is just right.

Officially, the Audi RS3 costs $78,900 but after spending a few weeks with it we realised there is a better way of looking at its value.

Every customer who stumps the cash for an RS3 also gets a free Audi A3 thrown into the bargain, but it won't take up an extra parking space on your driveway or cost you another rego or insurance bill each year. All you have to do is flick the Drive Select switch.

One minute the RS3 can be a sensible, likeable small hatchback, but with the two clicks of an unassuming toggle, it hunkers into a demonic hot-hatch slayer with a soundtrack that takes you straight back to the slopes of Pikes Peak in 1985.

There is no other car on the new car market that can stir such a sense of automotive nostalgia or a smile as big for less cash. That noise, oh that noise.

Rivals

BMW M135i from $62,900 before on-road costsDespite having the largest engine in the segment at three litres and the most number of cylinders at six, the BMW is the least powerful with 240kW and 450Nm.

Accelerating from zero to 100km/h takes 4.9 seconds making it the slowest of the three, but it is the only hyper-hatch to offer the most driver-focused rear-wheel drive. The BMW is also the most affordable option in the segment.

Mercedes-Benz A45 AMG from $77,900 before on-road costsSoon after Audi announced its RS3, Mercedes pumped up the output of its hyper hatch to just out of reach with 280kW and 475Nm – a respectable figure given its fewer cylinders and 0.5 litres less displacement. The Merc is faster to 100km/h by a tenth of a second and has a stiffer chassis and is a little more affordable than the Audi.

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