What Car? says...
There’s been an arms race in the world of hot hatches for the past decade or so – and it was started by the Audi RS3. You see, once upon a time, hot hatchbacks were essentially regular family cars with a bit more power and stiffer suspension.
The original RS3 may have looked like a dolled-up Audi A3 but underneath it was very different. It had four-wheel drive, a mighty five-cylinder engine with 340bhp and could accelerate quicker than many proper performance cars.
It wasn’t that exciting to drive around corners, but the limited number of examples built sold quickly and for enough money that Audi's rival Mercedes took notice and responded with the A45 AMG. Since then, more and more power has been added to each car to the point that today’s Mercedes AMG A45 has up to 415bhp and can hit 60mph faster than the Porsche 911 Carrera.
The RS3 you’re looking at here is is the response from Audi and the big headline is that it doesn’t beat – or even match – the A45 for power.
So, does that mean Audi has given up and conceded defeat? Well, not quite, because although the third-generation RS3 has less power than its big rival, it’s officially quicker. Audi says it can do 0-62mph in a staggering 3.8 seconds and, if you pay extra to have the speed limiter removed, keep accelerating to 180mph.
It's not all about straight-line speed, though. The latest RS3 also has better brakes than its predecessors along with clever new ‘torque splitter’ technology to make it feel a bit more agile and fun. It’s available as a hatchback (Sportback in Audi speak) or, for a small premium, in saloon form.
In this review, we’ll be finding out whether the Audi RS3 is one of the best hot hatches you can buy in more ways than just performance. Read on over the next few pages to find out how it stack up for practicality, running costs and more.
When you’ve decided which model is right for you, head over to our free What Car? New Car Buying service to see how much you could save off the brochure price without any showroom haggling. You'll find lots of new hot hatch deals.
Performance & drive
What it’s like to drive, and how quiet it is
The latest Audi RS3 uses the same basic 2.5-litre five-cylinder engine as its predecessors – and that’s great news because it’s an absolute cracker. Its maximum 394bhp isn’t quite a match for the Mercedes AMG A45 but it’s still a huge amount for a car of this size and delivers true performance car pace.
Indeed, the RS3 offers similar performance to the much more expensive Audi RS4 and BMW M3 and, in our tests, managed to hit 62mph in a staggering 3.8 seconds. Any driver could match this acceleration thanks to a standard launch control system that allows you to make the perfect getaway every time, plus a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic gearbox that takes care of shifts far quicker than you could hope to with a manual clutch and gearlever.
That five-cylinder engine sounds glorious, too – especially with the RS Sports exhaust fitted. That comes as standard on Carbon Black and Vorsprung versions, and is optional on the entry-level RS3. The roar under hard acceleration is far more evocative than the noise from the AMG A45 or, for that matter, other four-cylinder hot hatches including the Volkswagen Golf R.
The ‘torque splitter’ technology means there are two clutches on the rear axle, and they allow drive to be sent separately to each wheel. When you’re cornering hard, more power is sent to the outside wheel, and that helps the RS3 feel more agile and playful than you’d imagine – especially if you’ve owned one of the previous generations of this car.
When you drive the RS3 at a moderate pace in Comfort mode, the steering is light and naturally weighted. The Dynamic setting adds a lot of unnecessary heft, which arrives in an artificial way as you turn into bends, so is best avoided. Either way, when you’re driving really hard along a road with lots of turns, you don’t get a huge amount of feedback streaming to your fingertips.
This certainly doesn’t rob you of any confidence, and the steering is always very accurate. It just means you don’t enjoy the final degree of reward you get from the best hot hatches, including the AMG A45.
The latest RS3 has better brakes than any of its predecessors, with long-lasting carbon ceramics available for track-day enthusiasts. These are very expensive, though, so they're only worth considering if you’re expecting to put your RS3 through some really punishing laps.
We’ve only tried the RS3 on adaptive suspension, which comes as standard on the range-topping Vorsprung and is optional on lesser versions. It delivers a remarkably composed ride in Comfort mode – in fact, the suspension is barely any less forgiving than in regular versions of the Audi A3.
The interior layout, fit and finish
The Audi RS3’s standard sports seats aren’t the sort of full-on bucket seats you get (or can spec) in some hot hatches and performance cars. Importantly, though, they're supportive enough through corners and remain comfortable on longer journeys.
You might also think the interior is rather plain to look at because it's no different to any other A3's. In some countries, you can order a faux-suede steering wheel with a 12 o’clock marker, along with body-coloured highlights on the air vents and seats – but not in the UK.
The infotainment system is a touchscreen affair and is reasonably easy to operate, especially compared with the screen in the Volkswagen Golf R. It's not quite as user-friendly as the AMG A45's system, though, while the iDrive set-up in the BMW M135i is by far the best option among hot hatches.
All trims have a 12.3in digital driver’s display behind the steering wheel, along with a gadget that allows you to record acceleration and lap times if you take your RS3 to a race track.
Passenger & boot space
How it copes with people and clutter
In short, you get rear doors on all RS3s to make it easy for people to get into the back. Once inside, those passengers will find a similar amount of room as they would in the Mercedes AMG A45 or Mercedes AMG CLA 45. If you're planning to put tall people in the back, it's worth noting that the RS3 Sportback has slightly more head room than the Saloon.
There is one big compromise over the regular Audi A3, though: boot space. The complex four-wheel-drive system raises the height of the boot floor and makes the load bay very shallow. We managed to fit just four carry-on suitcases below the parcel shelf, compared with five in the AMG A45.
Mind you, all RS3s come with 40/20/40 split folding rear seats as standard, so you can carry more clobber when you need to.
Buying & owning
Everyday costs, plus how reliable and safe it is
If you’re someone who thinks hot hatches should be about cheap thrills, the Audi RS3 isn’t for you. It starts at more than twice the price of an entry-level Audi A3 and you can spend a lot more than that if you go for range-topping Vorsprung trim or add a few options.
We’d avoid the entry-level RS3 because it misses some important features, including the RS sports exhaust, and will be less desirable on the used market in years to come because of its plainer styling.
Carbon Black trim makes the most sense, adding the exhaust but also more aggressive looks and more advanced LED headlights. You’ll still want to stump up for adaptive suspension and potentially the Comfort and Sound Pack, but this is cheaper than going for Vorsprung trim.
Fuel economy isn’t terrible for something this fast – you can expect close to 30mpg if you drive gently. That said, don’t expect parsimonious running costs because new tyres won’t be cheap, and the RS3 is in the highest (37%) company car tax bracket.
Audi finished 18th out of 30 manufacturers in the 2021 What Car? Reliability Survey. That's not a brilliant showing, and is below BMW in 13th, but it's better than Mercedes managed (it came joint 22nd).