Audi RS 3 Hatchback (2015 - ) review
The RS 3 has the most powerful five-cylinder engine in Audi's history and Quattro four-wheel drive, but does that make it the ultimate hot hatch?
Interested in buying Audi RS3?
Just one glance at the RS 3 is enough to tell you that this is a very high-performance A3. Not only is the car wider and more squat than the regular A3 Sportback it’s based on, it’s also positively overloaded with features that will earn you lots of ticks in the I Spy book of hot hatches. There’s the unique RS bodykit, for a start, featuring extended side sills, a honeycomb grille and spoilers front and rear. Then, to top it off, the car has aluminium-look door mirrors, twin oval tailpipes, and LED lights all-round. The standard 19-inch alloy wheels are gleaming silver, but there are some attractive alternatives on the options list. Likewise, you’ll almost certainly need to see the options list for an alternative to the one standard colour: Nardo Grey.
Inside, too, there’s no mistaking that this is a cabin from the range-topping version of the A3. Open the door and you step over aluminium door sills to see plenty more aluminium-look bits and pieces all over the cabin, as well as a leather and Alcantara flat-bottomed steering wheel and quilted leather upholstery on the front sports seats, complete with embossed RS 3 logos. Then, there are the more subtle touches, such as the RS logo and boost gauge on the rev counter dial. As ever in any A3, the materials and build quality are superb, and the driving position excellent, with a wide range of adjustment on the driver’s seat and steering wheel. The MMI system that controls the infotainment system isn’t quite as neat as BMW’s iDrive system, but it’s still very easy to use.
This is one place where the RS 3’s roots in the A3 Sportback pay real dividends. Not only is there impressive head- and legroom for a couple of adults in the front, it’s not too hard to fit another couple of six-foot adults in the rear in comfort. Mind you, the RS 3 isn’t all that comfortable for five because the large transmission tunnel in the floor limits the foot space for whoever is lumbered with the narrow middle seat. Still, the boot is reasonably impressive, expanding from 280 to 1120 litres when the standard 60/40 split rear seats are folded down. They don’t sit completely flat, but at least there’s no lip in the floor, and the boot’s wide opening, square shape and low sill make it easy to load and unload.
Ride and handling
So far, we’ve only driven RS 3s with the optional Dynamic package, which includes adaptive dampers that adjust to suit the driving conditions. Our experience suggests it’s a worthwhile investment, because although the car does have a firm feel to its step, it’s far more comfortable than you might expect of an uber-powerful hot hatch. What’s more, it achieves this comfort while still providing fine body control. However, strong body control isn’t the only thing that makes for good handling, and the RS 3 is case-in-point. Although the Quattro four-wheel drive system helps give lots of grip in most situations, the car feels surprisingly nose-heavy in briskly taken corners. Indeed, the RS 3 understeers more than most front-wheel drive rivals. Combine that with steering that gives you virtually nothing in the way of weight, feedback or engagement, and the RS 3 will leave you feeling cold. It’s very disappointing.
If there’s a star of the show in the RS 3, it’s the turbocharged 2.5-litre five-cylinder engine that produces an amazing 362bhp. Mind you, when you first pootle away in the RS 3, it’s so benign and smooth – especially in combination with the standard seven-speed S tronic semi-automatic transmission – that there’s not even the slightest hint of what awaits you when you get the chance to bury the throttle. But, when you do that, you experience the kind of acceleration that you’d expect only supercar owners can understand. Holy Cow, this car is fast. Astonishingly fast. And, because its peak pull comes at less than 1,700rpm, not only is it tremendously easy to drive fast, it’s also amazingly responsive. Combine all that with the benefits of four-wheel drive traction, allowing you to accelerate very early after a corner, and there’s precious little that can keep with a hard-charging RS 3 across country. The one thing we would say, though, is that having at least the option of a manual gearbox might appease enthusiasts after a bit more engagement - even if that means doing a bit more legwork in town.
How you judge the value-for-money that the RS 3 gives depends entirely on how you see things. On one hand, it’s the cheapest way into one of Audi’s renowned RS models, but on the other, it’s by far the most expensive A3 and costs several thousands more than most of its hot hatch rivals from other companies. The Audi’s fuel economy and emissions are also worse than its rivals’, but if you’re considering a car like this, economy probably isn’t your number one priority. And, the Audi does have one saving grace; its residual values are forecast to be stronger than those of most rivals, meaning its whole-life costs will be more competitive. It will, however, be pricier to maintain and service than the more workmanlike versions of the A3 family.
Despite what you might expect, Audis are not renowned for their reliability. Figures from Warranty Direct put Audi well below average as a manufacturer, and it’s the same story with previous generations of the A3, although it’s often the actual cost of repairs rather than their frequency, which is the problem for owners. On the other hand, buyers of the previous-generation RS 3 report excellent reliability on our website, and this engine has been tried and tested in several different models for years now.
The only version of the A3 Sportback to be tested by Euro NCAP is the hybrid e-tron model, but that scored a maximum five stars in tests in 2014; and, we expect that the RS 3 would score just as well if it was to be tested. It comes with an impressive array of standard safety kit – seven airbags, including one for the driver’s knees, as well as Electronic Stability Control and an Electronic Differential Lock – and there are plenty of options available, too. These include Audi’s Lane Assist and Side Assist packages, as well as Adaptive Cruise Control.
As befits the flagship model in A3 Sportback range, the RS 3 comes with plenty of standard equipment. On top of its unique bodykit and sports suspension, you get luxuries such as dual-zone climate control, DAB radio and Bluetooth connectivity. Beyond that, there’s a huge range of options, but among the most tempting are the Magnetic Ride suspension, the Technology Pack (with sat-nav) and enough styling tweaks to be able to make your RS 3 almost unique. Get carried away, though, and you might be surprised by just how much those options cost when totted-up, so it's best to choose them wisely.
The RS 3 is immediately attractive because it’s both the ultimate version of the A3 and the cheapest RS model on the market. On top of that, it’s also very, very fast and demands no sacrifice in terms of quality or practicality over the standard A3 Sportback. If you’re looking for the ultimate hot hatch, though, look elsewhere, because the RS 3 is nowhere near as engaging to drive as several cheaper rivals.