► Audi’s fastest small saloon tested
► 395bhp, 0-62mph in 4.1s
► Fast, but is it fun?
It’s 2017. As much as the new Audi RS3 is the contemporary compact four-door ‘bahnstormer with 400 metric horsepower, the small-and-very-sporty saloon is a bit of a time warp.
You see, the RS3 is a dinky yet big-booted saloon but has a five-pot heart, Super Sport front seats, gaping vents and vestigial spoiler. That brings back memories of hot saloons of yesteryear; wolves in sheep’s clothing.
Unlike other pre-teen boys lusting after Testarossas and Countaches in their poster-laden bedrooms, I was quietly hankering after the Orion Ghia Injections and Belmont SRis in my well-thumbed brochures. The RS3 Saloon almost has the same attitude.
There is a point to this: the Audi represents an admittedly small renaissance of smaller saloons, and it’s got to the game ahead of BMW’s forthcoming 1-series four-door and the booted version of Mercedes’ fourth-generation A-class. This uprated RS3 is the performance pinnacle of this select club. For now.
Primarily this boot-y call is satisfying demand from China and North America, but also increasingly downsizing European clientele, demanding a form of exclusivity that’s tailgate-free.
It’s a logical extension of the fettling that the RS3 Sportback’s undergone, with the headline being its 395bhp output, delivered to all four wheels – we’re in Quattro-badged territory, after all.
Blatting from a standstill to 62mph takes 4.1 seconds, a pummelling rate that should have your passengers either whooping or bracing their bodies at every possible contact patch with the plush interior, yet in a straight line it feels civilised rather than savage.
Peak torque on stream from just 1700rpm ensures such a linear delivery of speed.
At least it sounds the part if you spend an extra £1000 on the RS Sport exhaust package. It’s ruder than Katie Hopkins’ Twitter feed, but it’s infinitely more bearable.
The RS3 hasn’t just had a horsepower massage either: despite its increased mechanical hench, the engine is now 26kg lighter courtesy of the lower mass of its new aluminium block and oil pump, plus magnesium oil sump.
Linkage between engine and axles is a tweaked seven-speed S Tronic dual-clutch automatic gearbox. Largely it’s fine, particularly if you’re piloting the RS3 with tempered exuberance where it’ll toddle between cogs without fuss, but occasionally it umms and aahs with its ratios like Sean Spicer upon opening his shoe closet.
Now and again downshifts can send an unsettling shimmy through the driveline, while brisk junction getaways can have the engine screaming at the red line begging for second to wake up and be ready for action.
Naturally, control can be wholly yours by flapping the behind-the-wheel paddles, but they feel too small and rather binary for true involvement.
Audi has made further revisions to the quattro all-wheel drive system which permits, in extremis, all of the engine’s torque to be delivered to the rear wheels, yet don’t mistake this for some sort of Focus RS-aping arse-out hooliganism as part of its mid-life makeover.
Sure, select the appropriate drive mode and the tail can drift progressively, just as it did on the sand-dusted asphalt of our previous drive of the RS3 hatch in Oman, but on Britain’s oft-drenched roads, quattro is a watchword for security. More relevantly the RS3 will trace the high-speed flow of B-road bends with eye-widening accuracy during downpours.
Torque vectoring is at play here and it works with startling efficiency; quick yes, but it’s at the expense of fun. You’ll have a bigger grin in the Blue Oval’s blue collar alternative – the RS3 feels more like a faster, more luxurious Golf R. Hardly a bad place to be, though.
Chief culprit is the steering. Having less heft over the front axle makes the latest RS3 nimbler than the pre-facelift iteration, but there’s little tangible increase in steering feel to complement that newfound agility. Kim Jong-un opposition rallies are almost as communicative.
It’s an area Audi has to nail for the RS3 to be a great all-rounder rather than being merely booted and ballistic.
At least there’s been appreciable progress with the conventional suspension arrangement compared with steel-sprung Audis of yesteryear. It’s necessarily firm in order to manage the demands through high-speed corners, but even on especially undulating surfaces it’s not so stiff where it will irritate. Still, drive one with the adaptive system before buying.
Visually the RS3 now apes the rest of the A3 line-up that received a mild visual makeover months ahead of it, which is to say it looks sophisticated yet all-too-familiar and [whispers] a bit dated.
In true Audi form it’s not too shouty either, with gapier grilles, thickened sills, that aforementioned bootlid addenda and “quattro” script large at the base of the front bumper the principal clues.
Even the interior, once the paragon for C-segment premiumness is starting to feel somewhat passé. There’s a whiff of Super Mario about the rising multimedia screen these days, too.
It’s decently kitted-out as you’d hope for your £43,765 outlay, while this one’s fairly representative of the options RS3 buyers tend to bestow upon their cars, albeit not always to the tune of nearly £12,000’s worth of extras.
Most you can leave and frankly, should be standard anyway – electrically folding door mirrors with an auto-dim function will cost you £275, for instance – but the problem will be at resale time when the next buyer expects such rudimentary elements to be present and correct.
That RS exhaust isn’t cheap but it’ll make the Audi sound less anaemic, while the £895 matrix LED headlights ensure night-time jaunts are that bit easier too. You’ll be lumbered with the pulsating indicators, mind.
While plying dual carriageways in the RS3 you’ll soon be conscious of the Volkswagen Group hierarchy, with throngs of TDI-badged fleet fodder sweeping left in deference to the menacing prow of Audi’s latest saloon.
Which neatly encapsulates what the RS3 Saloon’s all about: subtly muscular four-door bodywork enveloping marvellous mechanicals.
Devastatingly fast, particularly in archetypal British weather conditions, but there’s more unadulterated joy to be had elsewhere.
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