Performance hatchbacks are all about blistering speed, yes, but as most owners tend to use these cars on a daily basis they need to offer everyday usability as well.
The new Audi RS3 Sportback looks to have both of these angles covered. It has the practicality of one of our favourite family hatchbacks and headline-grabbing performance, courtesy of its 362bhp 2.5-litre turbocharged petrol engine. Oh yes, and that power is tamed for the real world by four-wheel drive.
At £39,955 it’s not cheap, but that’s about the same as Mercedes asks for its rival four-wheel-drive A45 AMG. BMW takes a different route, offering its M135i with rear-wheel drive, but for around £10k less.
The RS3 looks the part, with flared wheel arches, 19in alloy wheels, a rear spoiler and twin oval tailpipes, but with the last version criticised for being dull to drive, is this new model a more exciting proposition?
What’s the 2015 Audi RS3 Sportback like to drive?
This car has the potential (with the delimited option) to reach 174mph and hit 0-62mph in 4.3sec. That’s not far shy of many supercars but importantly, for bragging rights, makes it quicker than both the Mercedes and the BMW.
Floor the accelerator at anything above 1500rpm and there’s little to touch it off the line. Plenty of mid-range punch makes it equally quick for overtakes without the need to keep dropping gears.
Both the BMW and Mercedes sound good, but the RS3 is even more tuneful. That’s partly down to the engine’s five-cylinder configuration and - on the car we drove - the sports exhaust, which created all sorts of race car-like pops and crackles.
Unlike the M135i there’s no manual gearbox option for the RS3, so all cars come with a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission. For the regular commute you have a smooth-shifting automatic mode, but when you want to press on, fast and near-seamless changes are at your fingertips via the steering wheel-mounted paddles.
The new RS3 is much improved, handling-wise, starting with the steering. Audi has fitted a variable ratio steering rack, which makes the car quick to respond through sweeping bends, but avoids it being too darty around the straight-ahead.
Through corners the RS3's body stays level and the large tyres provide enormous grip. It feels more enjoyable to drive than the A45, although keen drivers will still have more fun in the more adjustable M135i.
The big surprise is how well the Audi rides - at least on the optional adaptive dampers we tried. Sure it’s still firm, but it’s more compliant than the A45 and only gets harsh over sharp ruts.
What’s the 2015 Audi RS3 like inside?
Much like a standard A3 Sportback, which is a good thing. You get a clean-looking, premium-feeling interior, great driving position and room for four adults plus their luggage in the decent boot.
There are enough extra touches that make the RS3 feel special, such as contrasting stitching on the sports seats, unique dials - including a turbo-boost gauge - and Alcantara trim on the steering wheel and doors.
Standard equipment is also fulsome and includes Audi’s MMI infotainment with sat-nav and a reversing camera.
Should I buy one?
Most cars' running costs in this sector are high, but the RS3 is more expensive to buy and run than even its main rivals.
However, for many buyers high running costs are a given, and this RS3 is a big improvement over its predecessor. It’s more involving than the A45, and while it might not deliver quite as much fun as an M135i, point-to-point, there’s little doubt the Audi is the quicker car.
What Car? says...
Audi RS3 Sportback
Engine size 2.5-litre petrol
Price from £39,955
Torque 343lb ft
0-62mph 4.3 seconds
Top speed 174mph
Fuel economy 34.9mpg