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What’s this, then?

On paper, probably the hottest production hot hatch on the planet. The Audi RS3 Sportback’s four fat tyres are fed by no fewer than 362 turbocharged horsepowers: 27bhp more than its predecessor, well north of the 297bhp VW Golf R. Oh, and an entirely coincidental seven horsepowers ahead of its sworn arch-enemy, the similarly 4WD, similarly turbocharged, similarly five-door Mercedes A45 AMG.

You’ll recognise the hardware. Audi’s 2.5-litre five-cylinder makes more power than in any previous application, courtesy of a revised turbocharger and intercooling. All that go reaches the road through a permanent four-wheel-drive system fed by a seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox.

That hardware, says Audi, is good for a 0-62mph time of 4.3 seconds, but don’t forget Ingolstadt is notoriously conservative with its timing kit. We’d guess a sub-four sprint is realistic. Top speed, delimited, stands at 174mph. That’s not hot hatch pace, that’s supercar pace.

Based on the MQB underpinnings of the current A3, the RS3 sits an inch lower to the road on wider tracks front and rear. It’s only available in Sportback - Audi-speak for ‘five-door hatch’ - guise for now, but the RS guys admit they’re investigating other body styles.

Enough preamble. How does it drive?


Is that a word? And also, really?

Yes and yes. Really quite sidewaysly. Apparently a touch riled by accusations that its previous RS models – and the old RS3 in particular – have always been too nose-led, too understeery to satisfy The Dedicated Helmsmith, Audi has set its boffins to giving the quattro set-up more of a push-me than pull-you attitude, proudly boasting that the RS3’s rear-mounted, hydraulically actuated mulit-plate clutch can apportion 100 per cent of the available torque to the rear axle if necessary. The promotional spiel even makes heady mention of ‘performing controlled drifts’. This is not a phrase you will often read in official Audi material.

And can you perform controlled drifts?

You actually can. ESC switched off, initiate flailing Scandinavian flick, and the RS3 will indulge you with great long steady-state drifts, holding near-impossible angles while the five-cylinder pings itself into the limiter. It is, all told, rather damn magical.

I sense a ‘but’ hoving into view…

OK, there is one tiny, tiny ‘but’. As you may have spotted from the photos, we were only permitted to test the RS3 on ice, on a great frozen bowl way up in the Finnish Arctic circle with a grip coefficient considerably lower than even the most elusive bar of prison-shower soap. If a car can’t get sideways out here, it won’t get sideways anywhere.

Therefore we can, sadly, tell you nothing of how the RS3 might cope with Britain’s uniquely pitted tarmac – and, let’s be honest, fast Audis haven’t to date been renowned for their cossetting ride quality – nor whether it’ll retain that more rear-biased feel on, say, a sticky track rather than low-mu surface.

Audi reckons the improved rigidity of the MQB-based A3 has allowed it to employ a slightly more forgiving default damping set-up than some of its previous efforts. True, the RS3 felt very smooth on very smooth ice, but then again that’s hardly surprising.

Anything else you can’t tell us?

Oh yes. We can’t tell you whether the variable-ratio electric steering will afford any idea of what the front wheels are up to, though judging by Audi’s past form and what little we could ascertain from the ice pan, you’re unlikely to be talking Lotus Elise levels of feedback here.

So what can you tell us?

We can tell you the turbo five sounds as juicy as ever, throbbing and yowling its familiar, retro burble. Audi wanted to keep the RS3’s soundtrack natural, eschewing the current trend for piping Happy Noises through the car’s speaker system. In fact, the only aural enhancements are the butterfly valves in the exhaust. Your ears require these to be open at all times.

And we can tell you that throttle response feels fabulously sharp. With maximum torque – 343lb ft, no less – available from just 1625rpm, the RS3 serves up a proper gut-punch of power from any revs.

Any more?

We can tell you, too, that the double-clutch box (no manual option is available) seems much crisper and less hesitant than the frequently laggy transmission in the A45 AMG. The RS3’s four-wheel-drive system, too, appears more fluent at juggling power than that of the AWD Merc, which often seems determined to remain front-wheel drive until it becomes utterly necessary to send power to the rear axle. The RS3 gives you more options at the back.

Of course, the Audi isn’t so prone to wanton oversteer as, say, the rear-drive BMW M135i. This is, after all, a four-wheel-drive hot hatch dedicated to finding grip at all costs. If you’re doing nothing but spinning the rears, the Quattro system will push power to the front axle in a bid for purchase, and requires a bit of man-handling to provoke into a slide. And that’s with traction control off: engage the electronic safety net and the RS3 will nudge you back to the straight-ahead far earlier. However, all this is probably a trifle arbitrary.

How so?

Because grip. Our test RS3 wore standard winter tyres rather than any daft studded rubber (never should those two words appear next to each other in a sentence fit for a family website), but found impressive purchase on everything but sheet ice. Grip levels on even the slipperiest of tarmac should be mighty.

Out in the real world, discovering significant understeer or oversteer in the RS3 will likely be prefixed with the popping of several brave pills, and likely be suffixed with a significant repair bill.

How much does it cost?

UK prices are yet to be finalised ,but Audi says the RS3 will clock in around £40,000, a hefty chunk above the £30k Golf R (our hot hatch of 2014, of course). And that’s before you start plumbing in stuff like the optional carbon ceramic brakes and adaptive damping.

Yes, with that extra power we’d expect the RS3 to do the Golf in a straight line, but it’ll have to go some to match the all-round, all-road abilities of the sublime VW, particularly on broken British lanes. We’ve sampled enough of the RS3 to suggest it’s got the hardware for the B-road fight, but does it have the polish? We’ll have to wait for the thaw to be sure…

What do you think?

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