+ Very fast
+ Premium interior
+ Comfortable and relaxed when asked to be
- Not as practical as rivals
Verdict: The new RS3 is better at the twisty stuff than before, and still has enough straight-line shove to make you forget your own name. But we’re equally impressed by how well it goes about daily duties. The Mercedes-AMG 45 S offers slightly lower key styling and practicality though.
Is it just us or is anyone else also sick to death of hearing about Nürburgring records? They seem to be set more often than an alarm clock.
Audi has launched its new hyper hatch, the RS3, and predictably the marketing spiel wants to ram it down our throats that it’s the fastest ‘compact car’ around the Nordschleife.
We won’t bore you with lap times because they’re meaningless to anyone other than those who will buy the RS3 to use on track days, and those people will be few and far between. What Audi is telling us, really, is that you should buy its car instead of the Mercedes-AMG A 45 S because it’s faster – 0.1 seconds faster from 0-62mph to be precise.
It’s also worth thinking about the RS3 if you’re currently sizing up the Volkswagen Golf R. The VW is down on both power and price compared to the Audi, but you can get up to the same drifty shenanigans as you can in the RS3.
That’s right, the other big headline surrounding the RS3 is it comes with a drift mode for the first time. And it’s a rather sophisticated one, using a torque splitter on the rear axle that can shift power between each wheel to make you look like you’re as good at going sideways as Ken Block, when in reality the car is doing 90 per cent of the graft.
Anyway, more on that later.
Where past RS3s have looked like a slightly more athletic Audi S3 this new model is a completely different-looking beast, rippling in muscles and coated in all the shiny black trim it seems Audi could get its hands on. Some will love it, others will dislike the fact it has lost its stealth appeal.
The brawnier look is led by those whacking great wheel arches – flared because they house wheels posed in negative camber which improves handling – and a mean front bumper and diffuser. It’s the same on both the Sportback (hatch) and Sedan (saloon) models, the only obvious difference between the two in looks being the sedan gets an elongated boot. We think the boot adds some sophistication, plus you get to show off that gloss black rear spoiler.
Whether you prefer how it looks to the Mercedes-AMG A 45 is a matter of taste, but you’ll attract more attention in the Audi, especially if you opt for the wideawake Kyalami Green paintjob.
As is the case with the rest of the A3 range, the RS3’s cabin does a good job of cocooning the driver, making it feel like you’re piloting an aircraft rather than a car thanks to driver-focussed fascia and infotainment screen. Everything is within easy reach and ergonomically sound.
Physical additions specific to the RS are limited to the sports steering wheel with 12 o’clock marker and RS badge, plus some colour coding in places like the air vents. The sports seats are excellent - firm and supportive but plush and cosseting at the same time. Being an Audi, we hardly need to tell you the build quality is good - you have to go hunting in places your eyes can’t see to find any cheaper materials.
Overall it’s a cleaner, simpler look than that of the Mercedes-AMG A 45, which is much more liberal with the chrome-effect trim. The RS3’s carbon fibre-effect dash trim feels classier.
It might sound like the interior doesn’t shout loud enough about being an RS Audi, but the standard 12.3-inch digital driver display is specific to the model, offering unique ‘runway’ style rev counter and loads of cool but probably rarely used features such as a g-forces gauge and lap timer. Most importantly, then screen is vivid and easy to read, and offers plenty of customisation.
The 10.1-inch infotainment screen integrated attractively into the dash also features an ‘RS Monitor’ showing oil temperature, tyre pressure, the sort of things racing drivers like. It does its day job well too, with easy to press shortcut icons and a clear, crisp resolution.
For a hatchback the Audi A3 offers decent legroom in the back, and the same goes for the RS model. Two passengers will be comfortable, unless they have particularly long legs. Storage room in the front is a bit stingy, with narrow door bins big enough only just for a bottle of water and a shallow cubby in the arm rest.
The new RS3 hatch has actually shrunk in terms of boot space, now offering 282-litres with the back seats up. That’s nearly 100-litres less than the Mercedes-AMG A 45 and short of the Golf R’s number too, although it’s roomy enough for a couple of weekend bags. Naturally the saloon has a bigger boot, with 335-litres but that is, again, well down on the CLA A 45’s 460-litres.
The Mercedes wins hands down when it comes to practicality.
With no less than nine ‘engine of the year’ awards it’s no surprise Audi’s 2.5-litre five-cylinder turbocharged once again powers the RS3, although perhaps its days are numbered in this electrification-obsessed world. Power remains unchanged at 400hp, but it’s been fettled to dump more of its 500Nm of torque in the low and mid rev band.
Audi will tell you it can do 31.4mpg, but this isn’t a car that encourages frugal driving, so the real-world figure is somewhere in the mid-20s, which means it’s thirsty.
That’s to be expected though, because this thing is phenomenally fast in a straight line. With launch control engaged 0-62mph is dispatched in 3.8 seconds, which is 0.1 seconds faster than the A 45 S. That’s marginal enough to win only bragging rights rather than drag races, but still. In both cars the acceleration is a gut punch and made to feel all the faster by the car's hatchback proportions.
An RS button on the steering wheel offers a useful shortcut to the spicy drive modes, starting with Sport Mode then the all-new RS Mode. This is where that torque splitter we mentioned really comes into play, working in tandem with the sharp seven-speed auto’ gearbox.
The first on an Audi, the torque splitter pushes power to the outer rear wheel in corners, helping carve the nose around corner while maximising grip and ironing out any understeer. It’s astonishingly effective, we’ve never experienced this level of front-end grip in an Audi before and it’s a big improvement over the last RS3, which now looks lead-footed in comparison.
We can attest to the Drift Mode’s effectiveness too, which is also possible thanks to the torque splitter, sending up to 100 per cent power to the outside wheel to push the back end out and into a slide. It’s a bit ‘drifting for dummies’ and we struggle to see how you would use it without a massive slab of private Tarmac, but given that Audi isn’t charging any extra for it it’s a cool addition.
New optional carbon ceramic brakes with enough bite to stop an articulated lorry give plenty of confidence but little in the way of feel, but just a gentle nudge is enough to settle the car’s nose. The trick is to brake for an apex early, come off the brakes then let the torque splitter help you push through the corner on a steady throttle and line, rather than load the front just before the turn-in to maximise grip. You just don’t need to work that hard, the RS3 has got you covered.
Where many performance cars sacrifice comfort for handling ability, the RS3 is great at the day-to-day stuff too. The damping is excellent, it dials out nasty chatter from bumpy roads and rides potholes smoothly. Coupled with the normal drive mode it makes the RS3 a very friendly and easy car to drive around town. More so than the Mercedes.
It’s stable and calm at motorway speeds too, with just the low, guttural grumble of the engine reminding you that you’re driving an RS badged Audi.
Compared to the last RS3 the new model is a big improvement in almost all areas. It also grips harder at the front than the Mercedes-AMG A 45 S, plus it’s easier around town, but it’s noticeably less practical, even in saloon form.
Both cars are expensive too. The RS3 starts at £50,900 while the Merc costs £50,595, so there’s little in it when it comes to cost.
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