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Audi RS 3 Sportback

Click to view picture gallery“The bad news is that Audis latest
  RS — the RS 3
has already sold
  out. The good news is that while it
s
  been hailed as the spiritual successor
  to the original Quattro, the RS 3 is
  decades better
...”

NO WAY. Legend though it may be, no way. On this Alpine road, the road that gave birth to the first Audi Quattro, there's no way the 1980 original would even remotely keep up with the car I'm driving over the same stretch of tarmac...

And what, exactly, is this stretch? It's the epic Turracher Höhe in the Austrian Alps. The Austrian pass has gradients of 24% and possibly as many switchbacks as the Passo Stelvio in Italy. Roll back to January 1978 it was here that Ferdinand Piëch showed the original Audi Quattro prototype to Board members and convinced Audi to build the Quattro.

It's also, more than forty years later, the perfect test for the latest quattro-equipped Audi the new RS 3, which Audi is not shy in touting as the spiritual successor to the original Quattro. The Quattro is quite some act to follow, but on these roads it's the Quattro that would be doing the following.

“At the heart of the RS 3
is an engine with the
same number of
cylinders — five — as the
original Quattro.
Five-cylinder engines
remain a rare delicacy in
the motoring world,
and Audi is still the five-
cylinder king
...”
The RS 3 is the latest in Audi's long string of 'RennSport' RS acts. Starting with the RS 2 of 1994 (co-developed with Porsche) we've had a few duffers (the original RS 6) and some epic successes (the last RS 4, tragically now defunct). The arrival of the RS 3 brings Audi's current RS line-up to three: the other two being the RS 5 and TT RS.

At the heart of the RS 3 is an engine with the same number of cylinders five as the original Quattro. Five-cylinder engines remain a rare delicacy in the motoring world, and Audi is still the five-cylinder king.

The RS 3's turbocharged 2.5-litre lump is shared with the TT RS and it boasts 335bhp very healthy by anyone's reckoning. It sounds über-grunty, too: at first, with the same offbeat growl you get from the Volvo/Ford five-cylinder engine but as it nears its 6,500rpm redline a harder, more urgent edge sears in.

If you press the Sport button on the dash, an even more urgent exhaust note reaches yours ears, apparently. I say 'apparently' because even after several attempts I couldn't personally hear any difference at all. But then I did listen to a lot of Hawkwind as a teenager…

I confess that my drive of the RS 3 brought back tearful memories of the late, great RS 4, whose sensational V10 powerplant was as aristocratic as it was brutal. The RS 3's five-cylinder lump is, frankly, a bit of a let-down in comparison. Granted, in all sensible measures, the 'five' is more than half of the V10, but it's still leaving me with a glass-half-empty feeling.

However, there's no doubting the engine's brute force. Peak power arrives at a heady 5,400rpm but the maximum torque figure (331lb ft) is available all the way from 1,600 to 5,300rpm. If ever there were a time to bring out those tree-stump-pulling, goes-like-a-train clichés, this would be it. The power delivery may be epic, but there's still no escaping turbo lag: if you hoof the throttle from very low revs it does take the large single turbo some time to wake up and blow its trumpet.

“In-gear acceleration is
fast and feisty rather than
phenomenal. While not
as brutally fast as, say,
an Impreza STi, it
s
unlikely to disappoint
many buyers.
The RS 3 is also
extremely easy to pootle
around town in at low
speeds — not something
you can say of many
335bhp hatchbacks
...”
You can only buy an RS 3 with a seven-speed S tronic gearbox and in my book that's no problem at all. In Sport mode it hangs on to its ratios brilliantly, blipping on downshifts and changing up with purposeful 'woofs' from the exhaust.

The paddle-shifts work wonderfully too, with one exception approaching a bend on a trailing throttle, if you try to shift down the computer often says 'no' and shifts you up instead. I say: What's the point of a manual paddle system that second-guesses you in the polar opposite direction?

In-gear acceleration is fast and feisty rather than phenomenal. While not as brutally fast as, say, an Impreza STi, it's unlikely to disappoint many buyers. The RS 3 is also extremely easy to pootle around town in at low speeds not something you can say of many 335bhp hatchbacks.

This RS 3 wears slinky 35mm rubber and sits some 25mm lower than a regular A3. You'd think that would be a sure recipe for a harsh ride but while the RS 3 is no limo, the ride quality is much better than most hot hatchbacks. You may feel every imperfection in the road but never uncomfortably so.

Audi has fitted its five-cylinder engine transversely and in true quattro tradition given the permanent four-wheel drive system a Haldex centre differential. Rarely is there any sense that the limits of traction are remotely being reached. Pushing very hard up the Turracher, grip is exceptionally good, helped by 235/35 R19 front and 225/35 rear tyres.

The traction control system almost never needs to intervene on these dry roads; when it does, its intrusion is meek. Switching it off (or semi-off) livens up the feel even more, as does pressing the Sport button on the dashboard (you get a slightly sharper throttle response).

The RS 3 is only available in five-door Sportback guise. Why? Because, says Audi, the three-door would sit too close to the TT although I really can't see that myself. In an effort to save weight, Audi has made its front wings, with their flared arches, out of carbon-fibre. Yum. Despite that, the RS 3 still weighs in at a beefy 1,575kg.

“Crimson red trim
stitching and — what’s
this? — red alloy wheel
highlights are also
available to jazz up your
RS 3
...”
Equipment is generous but it's a surprise to see cruise control on the options list. Other options include power seats, Bose hi-fi, adaptive headlights and rear privacy glass. Crimson red trim stitching and what's this? red alloy wheel highlights are also available to jazz up your RS 3.

Your RS 3 did I say? Well, you'll only be getting one if you've already signed up. The 'initial production run' of 500 for the UK has completely sold out. Audi UK is giving us a lifeline, though, in not ruling out the possibility of securing more production in 2012 but given that the all-new A3 is due in 2012, it surely won't be many more. Go on, Audi, how about an extra run of three-door RS 3s next year?

It certainly justifies it. Okay, the RS 3 may not match the legendary status of the original Quattro but it's a very fast, very safe, very appealing car one of the quickest hot hatches ever made. Its main rival is undoubtedly the BMW 1 M Coupe; same price, same power, same limited production total.

But in many ways the RS 3 is a very different animal, with less nervy handling than the rear-wheel drive Beemer and, of course, a much more practical five-door body. The RS 3 could be the perfect all-round performance car: docile yet ferocious, practical yet precocious, entertaining yet forgiving. Yes, I like it!
— Chris Rees

Audi RS 3 Sportback | £39,930
Maximum speed: 155mph | 0-62mph: 4.6 seconds | Overall test MPG: 31mpg
Power: 335bhp | Torque: 331lb ft | CO2 212g/km