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First drive: Audi’s latest RS3

What is it?

The Audi RS3 is a key pillar in the hot hatch segment, having set the trend for some time now. It’s just been updated for 2017, and this brings even more power — now close to 400bhp — as well as a quicker 0-60mph time of 3.9 seconds. That puts it close to supercar territory, in a car that will just as happily trundle down to the shops as it’ll eat up B roads.

There’s a lot to like about the new RS3, but it does have some serious competition in the forms of the Mercedes-AMG A45 and BMW’s M2, both of which are supremely capable and — much like the RS3 — hugely fast. Deliveries are set to commence in late September, but we’ve been given a chance to get behind the wheel before the hot Audi hits showrooms.

What’s new

There have been a fair amount of changes made to the new RS3. Externally, there are LED lights at the front and rear, with dynamic rear indicators which strobe when activated giving a real impact to the back of the car.

The front grille is framed with an aluminium-look surround, while dual exhausts at the rear give some indication of the RS3’s performance. However, the Audi’s relatively understated looks is one of its most appealing traits, as it underplays just how fast it is. That said, it still has arches that are now wider by 20mm over the previous-generation car.

What’s under the bonnet?

Here’s where some of the biggest changes have been applied. The large, 2.5-litre turbocharged petrol — the only five-cylinder in the segment — has been revised, meaning faster acceleration and better economy. The engine is 26kg lighter than its predecessor, and this is down to its use of a lightweight alloy crankcase — the older unit was cast in iron. Audi engineers have gone even further in the pursuit of lightness, hollow-boring the crankshaft to make it a full kilogram lighter, as well as making the crankshaft bearings smaller.

The changes may sound small, but they make a big difference. Power is still sent to all four wheels via Audi’s legendary Quattro system, with between 50 and 100 per cent of the power capable of being sent to the rear wheels. This gives a rear-wheel-bias which does well to eliminate some of the understeer that has so plagued Audis of old.

What’s it like to drive?

First and foremost, the RS3 is fast. Make no bones about it, the way it sets off is nothing short of remarkable. Even in the wet — and our Buckinghamshire test route was sodden in a typically British-weather-in-summer way — it manages to find a huge amount of traction, even under full throttle. It’s an impressively quick car, but that was to be expected considering its close to 400bhp power output.

The ride, especially on standard steel springs, is very firm. It can make the RS3 feel unsettled — particularly around town — though interestingly the quicker you go the better it becomes. That said, we tested a car fitted with the optional adjustable dampers and, when set to comfort, this made the RS3 a good degree more compliant and better suited to bumpy, undulating country roads.

The steering has also been beefed up a fair amount, but there’s not a huge amount of feel. Again, we found that this was best left in its lighter setting, as the ‘Dynamic’ made gave it an unnatural amount of heft, leaving it feeling a little unwieldy.

So the question remains: does the RS3 still understeer? Well, it’s a mixture of yes and no. Enter a corner too quickly, and the RS3 will still push on as you’d expect. However, apply a bit of throttle and it will bring itself back in tighter, even showing hints of oversteer at times. It’s a car that remains best driven neatly, though, and it’ll happily do that thanks to plenty of traction.

The RS3 is well accomplished at covering ground exceptionally quickly in all conditions, and the combination of four-wheel-drive and a smooth-shifting seven-speed dual-clutch automatic ‘box makes for a car that shouldn’t leave many drivers wanting more involvement.

How does it look?

You have to admit that the RS3 is a smart looking thing. Understated yet performance orientated enough to be a true RS, it’s a very well-judged car. It’s also available as a saloon, and this model looks sleeker still — though it’s worth remembering that it can’t offer the practicality levels afforded to those who choose the standard five-door hatch.

What’s it like inside?

As usual, the RS3’s interior exhibits the level of build quality and fit-and-finish that we’ve come to expect from Audi. You now get the firm’s excellent virtual cockpit display, which comprises of a 12.3-inch LCD monitor fitted where you’d traditionally find the analogue instrument binnacle.

A lovely three-spoke ‘RS’ steering wheel has also been fitted and, though a small addition, makes a huge difference. It’s not too thick, and has been trimmed in alcantara giving you plenty of grip. As one of the first points of contact between car and driver, it adds far more confidence in the car than you’d expect.

The five-door hatch RS3 benefits from 280 litres of seats-up boot space — a lot of room is taken away by the four-wheel-drive system — though this can be extended up to 1,120 litres by lowering the rear seats.

What’s the spec like?

Given the RS3’s £43,300 entry price, you’ll no doubt be pleased to hear that there’s a good degree of standard equipment on offer. You get LED headlights and rear lights included, as well as the previously mentioned virtual cockpit display. Sports seats are included as part of that price too, along with RS’s bespoke braking system and a full satellite navigation system.

However, our test car, when fitted with options such as a panoramic sunroof (£1,075 extra), an increased top speed limiter (£1,600) and a sports exhaust system (£1,000) weighed in at a hefty £56,380. This a huge amount of money for a hot hatch, and goes to show just how ‘premium’ cars in this segment have become.

We’d recommend the adjustable suspension (£995) and the sport exhaust system as two standout options to pick, but in reality the RS3 is a perfectly well-specified car without having to tread anywhere near the options list.

Verdict

The RS3 is a car whose very nature is dominated by performance figures. However, it’s far more than that. Impeccably well-suited to the UK market, it’s a car which can return almost anything you can throw at it. Yes, with options it is expensive, but stay away from too many extras and the RS3 is one of the best value cars on the market today.

■ Facts at a glance

Model: Audi RS3
Base price: £44,300
Price as tested: £56,380
Engine tested: 2.5-litre turbocharged petrol
Power (bhp): 395
Torque (Nm): 480
Max speed (mph): 155
0-60mph: 3.9seconds
Economy: 34mpg
Emissions (g/km): 192