New Audi RS3 vs Mercedes-AMG 45
Both of these hot hatches are bonkers fast. But is Audi's latest RS3 good enough to see off its thrilling Mercedes-AMG rival?...
New Audi RS3 Carbon Black
List price £58,480
Target price £58,480
The new RS3 is claimed to be faster and more fun than its predecessor, despite having no extra power. Is it really worth nearly £60k?
Mercedes-AMG A45 S Plus
List price £57,885
Target price £57,885
Our current favourite hot hatch for those with deep pockets, packing even more firepower than its foe from Audi
‘Arrive before you leave’ was the slogan that British Airways used when it talked about Concorde. It wasn’t wrong either; cruising at 1350mph and 50,000ft, Concorde allowed you to leave British shores and arrive at JFK in New York at an earlier local time than when you left. An impressive feat, especially when you consider that its first passenger flight was only seven years after the Boeing 747’s.
Indeed, Concorde was the first of its kind and supposed to be the future of air travel. And yet today that same flight will take you almost eight hours – something that’s perhaps surprising, given that most other technologies have come an awful long way since then. But when you take a closer look at Concorde, it isn’t all that strange. Sure, companies could have continued to make supersonic jets that are expensive to run and carry a small amount of people, but when you can fly loads of passengers for less, at the cost of a few extra hours in the air, what’s the point?
Audi seems to have come to a similar conclusion when creating the new Audi RS3. You see, it’s been involved in a race against Mercedes-Benz over the past decade that has seen the power of both brands’ range-topping hot hatches spiral to levels previously seen only in proper performance cars. Indeed, the latest Mercedes A45 from Mercedes’ AMG performance arm packs an incredible 415bhp – almost twice as much as a Volkswagen Golf GTI.
Audi could doubtless have tuned the new RS3 to 420bhp or more and won some shallow bragging rights in the process, but it instead decided that 394bhp (exactly the same output as the previous RS3) was quite enough. After all, when your family hatchback can already out-accelerate a Porsche 911 Carrera, does it really need any more firepower?
But that doesn’t mean Audi hasn’t spent many hours improving its range-topping A3. It’s just focused on better deployment of all that power, and added some clever tech that should hopefully make the new RS3 more playful and fun through corners. Then again, it’s not as though the A45 is dull to drive, so which is the better buy?
Performance, ride, handling, refinement
These cars are about so much more than just going quickly in a straight line, as we’ll come on to explain, but it’s nevertheless something they’re very good at. Indeed, both manufacturers claim 0-62mph times of less than four seconds, with the more powerful A45 actually a tenth of a second behind (3.9sec vs 3.8sec).
In our tests (to 60mph rather than 62mph), both cars were a tenth adrift of those official times, but that’s purely because they had to contend with a rain-soaked track. Thanks to four-wheel drive and clever launch control systems for their dual-clutch automatic gearboxes, they still positively slingshot away from the mark in wet conditions, requiring next to no skill from the driver.
Fortunately, how easy these cars are to drive quickly doesn’t make you feel disconnected from the experience. When you want to, you can even take full control of the gearshifts by pulling Formula 1-style paddles behind the steering wheel. This is great fun along country roads, because you can downshift when braking for a corner to make sure you’re in the ideal gear to slingshot out the other side.
The A45’s gearbox is that bit quicker to respond to pulls, though, and the extra aggressiveness of its shifts feels more appropriate for such a high-performance machine. The more languid nature of the RS3’s gearbox, combined with some turbo lag (the delay between you pressing the accelerator pedal and the engine responding) at low revs, makes it feel less alert and ready for action.
That said, the RS3 has the better-sounding engine. Go for Carbon Black trim and you’ll get a sports exhaust as standard, letting you hear the delicious warble from the 2.5-litre five-cylinder motor even better. In fact, the RS3’s engine alone is almost enough of a reason to buy one.
But it isn’t as though the A45 sounds boring and benign. While the noise of its 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine has been artificially embellished, it doesn’t sound obviously fake, and at higher revs the piercing rasp is almost racecar-like. That experience actually transcends to the A45’s cruising manners, with plenty of tyre and wind noise making its way to your ears. The RS3, by contrast, is remarkably easygoing when you choose one of the less aggressive drive mode settings.
In fact, we’re struggling to think of a more comfortable hot hatch. Switch the RS3’s optional adaptive suspension (£960) to its most comfortable setting and you’re treated to a ride that’s genuinely more supple and sophisticated than that of many regular family hatchbacks. Audi’s decision to stick with sensibly sized 19in wheels, with no option to upsize, is no doubt partly why.
The thing is, though, are you looking for a hot hatch that will thrill you and pamper you in equal measure? Or would you sacrifice a little civility for extra fun when you want it? If it’s the latter, you’ll want the A45. Its ride is firmer, sure, but far from fractious on its standard adaptive suspension. And it’s the better car through corners, with a delightful handling balance; you can feel it rotating predictably when you’re braking into a corner to help you get around. The amount of speed you can carry through corners is remarkable, as is the effectiveness of the four-wheel drive system at keeping things neutral and composed on the way out.
The RS3 is incredibly competent, too – and when you select Dynamic mode, you can feel more power being sent to the rear wheels, meaning you can use the accelerator to help steer the car. This is thanks to something called ‘torque splitter’ technology. Essentially, two clutches on the rear axle allow drive to be sent separately to each rear wheel. When you’re cornering hard, more power is sent to the outside wheel, helping the car to turn.
This doesn’t happen in an over-the-top, intimidating fashion like it does in some powerful rear-wheel-drive cars; it just adds another dimension of playfulness to the RS3’s repertoire. We found very little difference between the two in ultimate cornering speeds around our test track, although the A45 has better steering, streaming more feedback to your fingertips and making you feel more involved in the process.
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