Quattro’s superhatch is back with 400bhp. Enough to see off the 380bhp A45?
Not short of proof the world’s gone crackers in 2017, are we? If you’ll forgive me, welcome to one more: a 780bhp hot hatch twin test. A £110,000 shopping car one-on-one. That’s absurd, isn’t it? Bonkers. Even if you think the Germans have no right to be meddling with hot hatchbacks – a noble trade surely best left to the French, and Essex – you’ve got to respect (or wince at) the engineering going on here. And the monumental prices you have to pay to own it.
Yes, when you add up the various numbers developed by the nine cylinders and two turbos the 2017 Audi RS3 Sportback and Mercedes-AMG A45 share between then, you get some silly results. But it’s better if you split them. Two very different machines, these. And there is a winner.
Words: Ollie Kew
Photography: Mark Riccioni
These are familiar shapes now; the RS3 freshly facelifted, the A45 now homing in on retirement, two years after being tweaked. Back in 2015 it was boosted from 355bhp to 376bhp, got shorter gearing and faster changes, and some choice options: a locking diff, Comfort/Race-switchable suspension and a naughty exhaust. Each of those changes made the A45 sharper to hoon and nicer to live with, and had the entirely coincidental side-effect of knocking the then-new Audi RS3 off its ‘Most Powerful Hatch On Earth’ podium. Don’t make Audi angry. You wouldn’t like Audi when it’s angry. Mercedes, look what you made us do…
Angry Audi set about its 2.5-litre five-cylinder engine, which sings like an opera prodigy but weighs in even heavier. Swapping the steel block for an aluminium one, hollow-boring the crankshaft and shrinking its bearings saved 26kg versus the old engine, while the lighter internals and reduced friction upped power by 33bhp and 11lb ft. So, you’ve got less weight dangling precariously out over the front axle, constipating the car’s appetite for corners, and there’s more poke to haul it down the straights inbetween. With 394bhp and 354lb ft, the new RS3 is the undisputed most powerful hot hatch money can buy. And capable of a claimed 4.1sec 0-62mph sprint (that’s very conservative), it’s also the fastest.
So it should be, for £42,815 before options. The A45 starts £1,040 cheaper, but both of these particular cars have a few choice extras we’ll mention along the way. This A45 was £52k and the Audi almost £57k, and wasn’t even fully specced.
It’s the Mercedes that immediately feels exceptional inside, despite a standard A-Class having a cramped, cheap cabin and the regular A3’s being the coolest, crispest cockpit of any hatch. Sure, the A45 keeps the bottle-top air-con knobs and a console so dated it might as well have a clockwork radio instead of DAB, but look at the touchpoints. Solid metal paddles, identical to an E63’s. A new mode switch with Comfort, Sport, Sport Plus and Individual settings, and on this car, lucky enough to get its must-have AMG Dynamic Plus Package box ticked (£1,395), a Race mode. Faster gearchanges, more noise, and the pack adds a limited-slip front diff and adaptive suspension. Left in Comfort, it’s as supple as the RS3 is in Dynamic (with £995 Audi magnetic dampers). But it’s livable, and better than the old car.
You can do without the red garnish. The seat is ultra-supportive, goes low, and lets you pinch the bolsters in and out just so. The pedals have been set by someone who likes to left-foot brake, which is extremely nerdy, but a worthy clue to AMG’s intent. You even get a unique gear selector on the console. All the touch points have been AMG-ified, using expensive materials, so it feels wonderfully bespoke.
Compare that titillating approach to the RS3’s. Its optional ‘Super Sports seats’ cost £795 and have no inflatable cuddly bolsters. Modes are swapped with a nondescript plastic button next to the parking sensor toggles. You get a rearranged Virtual Cockpit graphic, and sure, this car’s got some optional Alcantara, but the paddles are plastic and the gear lever is boggo A3. Suppose those gorgeous pumped-out wheelarches didn’t come cheap. On the outside, the RS3’s stance is miles punchier than the A45’s which hangs all manner of try-hard optional aero off a standard A-Class bodyshell in a terribly un-Benz fashion.
Start the Audi and you redefine what makes each car feel special. Where the A45 blares into life angrily, its 2.0-litre four-cylinder yelping uncouthly, the RS3’s 2.5-litre in-line five is smooth, expensive, and menacing. Instead of turbocharging a stock S3 motor to 400 horsepower – as Audi Sport is easily capable of – it set about its thirstier, dirtier, and heavier five-pot purely for the idiosyncratic joy of it. I love that bloody-mindedness. There’s something less stressed about it, as if the AMG is right at the ragged edge of what its cylinders can develop, whereas the Audi isn’t as close to its mechanical limit.
It’s also faster. I mean, the A45 is a really quick car, snapping through its shorter gears with ravenous appetite. And it likes to rev out: there’s lag, you don’t get much below 3,000rpm, and it wants to hit the 7,000rpm limiter every time. But the RS3 is devastating. This is a phenomenally fast car, not just off the line, but in gear. It’s not caught out as often as the A45, which will leave you at the mercy of a pouncing diesel if you’re two gears too high when the overtake opportunity opens up. The Audi downchanges faster with a cleaner throttle blip than the Merc, but loses out on the brakes, which don’t have the pinpoint modulation of the A45’s huge discs. Adding ceramics would’ve pumped this RS3’s price beyond £60,000…
Shedding friction has cut swathes of lag from the RS3’s motor, which never used to feel like it had the torque band Audi protested it did. This time, it feels every one of the 354lb ft is present and correct from (get this) 1,700-5,850rpm. And at the exact revs torque tails off, full power arrives, and is maintained until the dash lights up green-yellow-red at 7,000 and you grab another insta-change.
Is it a difficult, brain-consuming car to drive very, very fast? No.
Does it deserve huge respect for democratising the same power as a Ferrari 360, and converting it into performance that’d obliterate a 458 Italia on the road? For me, emphatically yes. Wow. What a powertrain.
Let’s pause quickly for some numbers: both cars are limited to 155mph but Audi will take that to 174mph for £1,600(!) The AMG does 0-62mph in 4.2 seconds, which is reasonably accurate, and the Audi is a sub-four car all day long. Mercedes claims 38.7mpg to the Audi’s 34mpg, but on test the AMG offered 28mpg overall and about 23mpg going quickly. The RS3 breezed past 32mpg on the motorway, but instant readouts were in the teens when it was rinsed. It did 28mpg all in.
After the RS3’s relentless onslaught, the A45 is less polished and professional, but so special. It’s like a little tarmac rally car. It’s not ashamed of the engineering going on underneath – you hear the four-wheel drive system faintly whirring and chuntering as you mooch around, and get more of a tingle from that highly-strung motor fizzing into the cabin. And you don’t so much as turn it into corners as hurl it at them. When you do, interesting things happen.
There’s a slither of understeer, then the front turns so tightly the inside rear wheel pops high into the air. The car settles into a neutral ‘come on get your foot down, you wuss’ stance earlier than the RS3, but when the gas is stamped on, it’ll four-wheel drift just a touch. Lift off the throttle and it’ll turn even tighter.
It’s too simplistic to say the RS3’s an ‘engine car’ and the A45 is a ‘chassis car’
You’ve got a lot more to manage in the A45 – lot of delightful little inputs to make and react to – but it’s no slower through any given bend and it’s listening far more intently to the driver. The RS3 didn’t care you planted the throttle several seconds before it was strictly sensible. It just belted round the bend and obliterated the exit. This car is almost rude, it’s so accelerative. Disdainful.
Now the engine isn’t fashioned from Victorian streetlamps and nuclear waste, this RS3 has finally come of age. If you lift off the throttle, it will tighten its line a little. It’s far keener to change direction than the old one was – you don’t feel like you’re interrupting its runaway train momentum all the time. If Audi Sport had had this five-pot when the RS3 originally arrived, the RS3 would’ve been a bigger force to be reckoned with in the recent hot hatch power struggle.
It’ll be fascinating to see how the Germans respond to the Focus RS’s drift-happy all-wheel drive next time out, because gimmick or not, that car got a lot of people talking and a waiting list second only to the Ford GT’s. These two, effectively front-drive cars with infinite traction on demand, aren’t the latest, greatest thing any more. And AMG has already proved it’ll build cars with disconnecting front driveshafts so folks can go a-tyre-wreckin’. Can’t see Audi following suit, but if Audi Sport could inject the alive-beneath-you sense of a Golf R into a body this handsome with an engine this terrific, you’d have a sensational bit of kit. And at last, they’re on the right path.
It’s too simplistic to say the RS3’s an ‘engine car’ and the A45 is a ‘chassis car’. The A45 also has a manic, rabid engine. It is the more exciting car here more of the time – you can just impose yourself more on its attitude. Such a special little car, this. Still feels outrageous that it wears a Mercedes-Benz badge – its character is more ‘lovechild of a Nissan GT-R and one of those nutty Mitsubishi Evo 8 FQ MR OMG editions’. On points, and on merit, it covers off the Audi.
But what I was more surprised by was just how likeable the vastly improved Audi is, with its lighter, boosted engine and searing pace. At last, we’ve got a good RS3. Probably shouldn’t have been so blindsided by that – the world’s gone mad in 2017.