– Speed and handling
– Cabin space and features
– Fairly comfortable ride
– Pricey for a hot hatch
– Average boot space
– Some hard cabin plastics
If you were around in the Middle East back in the 1980s like we have, you’d remember that hatchbacks were looked down upon as economy cars. That trend continued all the way into the new millenium, after which the new generation started to warm up to the little 5-door cars, which have always been popular in Europe. Hot hatches have been around since the 1970s, with the birth of the Volkswagen Golf GTI, but who would’ve guessed that decades later, there would be such a thing as “premium” hatchbacks, and the best of them would have supercar-chasing performance?
This here is the Audi RS3 Sportback. Look closely and it becomes obvious that this is no ordinary A3. One of the numerous front grilles has “quattro” emblazoned on it, the rear spoiler doubles as a shade for the rear window, and the 19-inch wheels are sizeable, with the front ones showing off flowery-shaped drilled brake rotors. Of course, we wish the car displayed even more aggression in its design, such as even wider fenders and a few more functional vents elsewhere other than just the front bumper, but clearly, Audi chose to be subtle with this car.
Inside, it’s not much different from the base Audi A3’s cabin design. There’s soft-touch materials on all above-waist surfaces, with hard plastics in the lower half reminding you of its A3 roots. The upholstery is fancier though, done up in “Fine Nappa” leather. The multimedia screen pops up on top of the dash, and can be stowed away at the press of a button, if you wish to focus on driving.
Cabin space is pretty decent, with good headroom all round as well as enough rear legroom for average-sized adults, although the middle rear seat is only fit for kids. The sporty front seats are aggressively bolstered only around the waist area, so they don’t feel cramped at all, unlike the seats in many other hot hatches. And there’s enough door pockets and cubbies, but when it came to cup-holders, the front ones were awkwardly placed ahead of the gear shifter, and we couldn’t even find any rear ones. The boot is an okay size for a hatchback, although don’t expect much space to be left over if you put something as big as a pram back there. And oddly enough, a pass-through opening and rear-middle armrest are optional, hence our car didn’t have them.
Available features include glass over half the roof, LED headlights and tails, rear camera with sensors, cruise control, dual-zone auto a/c with rear vents, smart key with starter button, auto engine start/stop for fuel savings in traffic, electronic parking brake, power front seats, a full set of airbags, ESP and more. The aforementioned multimedia system is not something we could pick up in just a few days of use, as it requires looking down at the labels around the rotary controller near the gear-shifter, but we assume an actual owner might get used to the position of the controls without having to look.
Powered by a 2.5-litre turbo 5-cylinder churning out 367 hp at 5550 rpm and 465 Nm of torque from just 1625 rpm all the way to 5550 rpm, this thing is a straight-line bruiser. We managed a 0-100 kph time of 5.4 seconds with a factory-fresh car in February weather, with all that juice put to tarmac efficiently via the “Quattro” all-wheel-drive system. However, it doesn’t feel a whole lot quicker than, say, a 280 hp VW Golf R in regular street-driving with the occasional bursts of speed. The RS3’s extra oomph only comes into play at stop-light drag-strips or at illegal speeds.
The 7-speed dual-clutch automatic gearbox works well, fairly smooth in casual driving, while being quick to respond whenever extra kick is required. The paddle-shifters are quick enough for some proper self-shifting fun too, accompanied by muted “braaaps” on downshifts, especially in the driver-selectable “dynamic” mode. However, the throttle pedal is a bit slow to respond when taking off from idle, resulting in a rubber-band effect for less than a second before firing off. Leave it in “normal” mode most of the time, and you can likely achieve better fuel economy than the respectable 13.2 litres/100 km we got.
Our test car rode on optional adaptive suspension, although the difference between modes wasn’t readily obvious. It handles as neutral as you’d expect a little all-wheel-drive hot hatch to handle, with understeer and oversteer never rearing their heads. There is no obvious body roll to speak of, and there’s no end to the grip in aggressive street-driving. It changes direction with the certainty of a leopard chasing down deers in the wild, and yet, it is no harder to control than a pet cat.
As for steering feedback, it can best be described as mild but well-weighted, while offering a bit more of both in “dynamic” mode. The brakes are plenty strong and easy to modulate, with fancy drilled rotors up front.
The ride is firm but still compliant enough for the daily drive. It is also reasonably quiet in normal, with the exhaust note going higher only on hard throttle.
As hot hatches go, the Audi RS3 is the top dog with its combination of power, handling and practicality. Sure, the recently-facelifted Mercedes-AMG A45 offers a bit more power on paper, but it lacks the low-end torque of the Audi’s bigger engine, aside from the latter’s better proportions and practicality. Of course, a little hatchback has its limits in terms of overall space, and our partially-loaded test car being priced almost as much as a base Audi Q7 firmly seals the RS3’s fate as a desirable-but-expensive niche product, but we believe there may be buyers who will opt for special orders with fewer features to bring the price down. This car will still be just as fast without the leather and the sunroof.
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