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Audi RS3: Keep running up that hill, with no problems

A Quattro hatch equally suited to school runs and hillclimbs

The first generation of this class of car were – in both senses of the word – a scream. The RS3 isn’t. When you need it to be it's civilised to the point of being almost indistinguishable from lesser models – if slightly noisier. But when you want it to be, it’s blisteringly fast and staggeringly competent.

Off the road and on the hill, time and logistics meant that we didn't quite get to sample the whole range of RS models, we did have numerous runs up in the RS3 and a couple each in the RS4, RS6 and RS7, and the RS3 felt most comfortable on the tight, twisty turns. The RS7 was ultimately the fastest of the three, in the right hands, while the RS6 was the one we’d most liked to have snuck away with. But the combination of size, power and that new Quattro system made the RS3 the one that gave you the confidence to push from the first run – and, I suspect, it's the one that most normal drivers could get the best times out of.

Inside the RS3

The dash, as you’d expect, is well put together from quality materials. There are some nice touches, too, like the boost gauge inset into the speedo. But it’s just a touch intimidating. The wheel has the gear change switches mounted on it and turning with it, as nature intended, and the indicator stalk sits above and to the left, wipers above and to the right. Below the paddles on the left is the cruise control and on the right is a retro ignition key – no keyless ignition or start-stop button here – and, although it works perfectly well, the overall impression is somewhere between Vishnu and a brushed aluminium and leather Christmas tree.

A slew of radio and menu buttons adorn the wheel and the most eclectic collection of controls imaginable are arrayed across the centre of the dash – below the pop-up satnav screen and above the centre console. The hazard light switch is in the middle. While I’m not sure this endless, faceless row of buttons is the place for it, if it’s got to be there, in the middle is where it belongs.

Then our car boasted, from left to right and in order – and I use the word ‘order’ quite wrongly – parking sensors, a blank, auto start, traction control, another blank, the hazard lights, video screen down and a switch to cycle through the drive modes.

The gear stick is surrounded by yet more buttons – most of them related to the navigation and media system. The controls for lights are the other side of the wheel. When you add in the switches on the doors and the seats, I'm sure there must be fewer controls in the cockpit of a fighter aircraft. Audi’s designers might want to Google "HOTAS" – it’s shorter than "ergonomics".

Like the buttons on the dash, the options list is almost endless. Our £47,950 car had pearl-effect paint (Sepang blue), fine Nappa leather super sports seats (in contrast to the standard-issue Nappa leather sports seats), a comfort and sound package, aluminium "race design inlays", Audi Magnetic Ride with RS Sports suspension, a technology package with the Audi connect option, the matt aluminium styling pack, the "Audi Phone Box", five-spoke rotor design alloys, an "extended mono per interior finish", autodimming, folding mirrors and aluminium roof bars – adding eight grand to the list price. We’d suggest saving £5,000 and just taking the paint, the wheels and the trick shocks and dampers.

Outwardly, it’s a family hatchback and, if you buy one of these rather than a coupe or sportscar with similar going, stopping and cornering performance, presumably you want to lug reasonable loads, as well. Or at least be able to go away for more than two days without filling the boot. Here, the Audi doesn’t do so well against the competition – or the outgoing model. 280 litres is 22 down on the old RS3, although with the seats down you have 1,120, almost 90 litres more than you would have done before. But the Merc has 341 (and 1,157) and the BMW 360 and 1,200. On the plus side, the cargo net in our test car did keep a laptop and camera securely in place when going up the hill.

So back the earlier question – why? The answer is precisely because of the car’s split personality. The other TV ad for the RS3, which shows the car lashed down and straining to escape its bonds, is perhaps closer to identifying what the appeal of this car is. But for the most part, it feels like a slightly stiff, slightly rough-around-the-edges hatchback. Until you want a snorting, growling, hypersonic supercar, that is – and then it doesn't disappoint. ®

Audi RS3: Keep running up that hill, with no problems

In the 90s you could have a supercar or a practical hatchback. Today you can get both.
Price: £39.955 basic RRP

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