With 395bhp and a £45k price, the new Audi RS3 is the heavy hitter of the hot hatch class. Only the Mercedes-AMG A45 can stand in its way
*** Note : £1 = $1.32 (correct at time of post)
Audi RS3 2.5 TFSI quattro
List price £44,300
Target Price £44,300
Now the world’s most powerful hot hatch; five-cylinder engine dominates its character
Mercedes-AMG A45 4Matic
List price £41,830
Target Price £39,740
An A45 on steroids, with a potent 2.0-litre turbo engine and four-wheel drive to take on the RS3
At what point do you consider a car to be fast? Not just sprightly or swift, but face-meltingly rapid. It’s a difficult question to answer, because the goalposts, along with our frames of reference, keep moving.
For example, in 1991 the iconic Lotus Carlton super-saloon, with its 377bhp six-cylinder engine, was deemed by the tabloids to be “too fast for public safety”. Today, the less powerful car in this test of ‘humble’ hot hatches, the Mercedes-AMG A45, matches the Lotus’s power and eclipses it for straight-line speed.
That’s right: thanks to a good old-fashioned arms race headed by Audi and Mercedes-AMG, modern hot hatches are now as neck-snappingly quick as entry-level supercars from the turn of the millennium. A 395bhp Ferrari 360 Modena wouldn’t see where the new, equally powerful Audi RS3 Sportback had gone in a drag race.
But don’t go thinking these cars are scary or intimidating to drive; far from it. With sophisticated four-wheel drive systems, advanced electronics and, in the case of the RS3, optional carbon-ceramic front brakes, these mega-hatches should be super-secure, no matter what the weather.
However, unshakable traction and point-to-point pace don’t necessarily equate to a rewarding driving experience. So, which one of these money-no-object hatches is capable of plastering the bigger grin on your face?
Driving – Performance, ride, handling, refinement
In a world full of speed cameras, bumbling cyclists and seemingly endless traffic jams, the likelihood of being able to exploit either car’s full potential very often is slim. And yet, like owning a pen that can write in space, or wearing a watch that can function at 4000m under the sea, it’s nice to know that, in theory, your car can perform mind-warping miracles – ‘miracle’ being an apt word to describe the otherworldly performance of the RS3.
Powered by a charismatic 2.5-litre five-cylinder engine, the RS3 rockets from 0-60mph in a scarcely believable 3.9sec. Visceral savagery at its finest, the RS3’s monster power delivery relegates the turbocharged 2.0-litre A45 – once the fastest car in its class – to second best. Not that 0-60mph in 4.4sec could ever be considered slow. Both cars have quick-shifting dual-clutch automatic gearboxes, with the A45’s being slightly sharper on downshifts.
The RS3 may be quicker in a straight line, but it’s no match for the A45 when it comes to handling. With slightly vague steering and grabby brakes, the RS3 is more of a blunt instrument than the delicate A45, wanting to run wide through corners and therefore sapping confidence. The A45 is easy to place exactly where you want it, thanks to a responsive front end and feelsome, precise steering. As a result, the A45 produced the quicker lap time around our 0.9- mile test track.
The A45’s intrinsic balance makes it a lovely thing to guide down a twisty B-road, yet it also deals with sharp-edged potholes significantly better than the regular A-Class, thanks to the well-judged adaptive suspension (£595) fitted to our test car. The RS3 is far firmer on its standard sports suspension, although ride comfort remains well on the right side of acceptable for such a focused hot hatch. Adaptive suspension is available for £995. Mind you, the A45 is the noisier motorway cruiser. The boominess of its optional sports exhaust never quite fades into the background and there is quite a bit more wind noise from around the windscreen pillars than in the RS3. It’s by no means unacceptable, but it can’t quite match its rival’s impressively hushed ambience.
Behind the wheel – Driving position, visibility, build quality
A good driving position is crucial in a hot hatch. Thankfully, the RS3’s is tough to fault, with the optional wing-backed Super Sport seats (£795) fitted to our test car being both comfortable and wonderfully supportive. Combined with an Alcantara-wrapped steering wheel that has a wide range of height and reach adjustment, it’s easy to find your ideal driving position.
That said, you sit even lower behind the A45’s wheel and Recaro sports seats are standard. They’re more heavily bolstered than the RS3’s pews and, despite having less padding, are still surprisingly comfortable on long journeys – although our test car did have optional four-way adjustable lumbar support (£895 as part of the AMG Exclusive Package).
The RS3 is much classier inside, though, with a plethora of soft-touch plastics, well-damped switches and plenty of metal accents. Granted, some might find the predominantly dark grey interior a little too restrained, but the £895 optional RS Design Pack (which adds red accents around the air vents and contrast stitching) brightens things up a bit. The A45’s interior is, to be frank, a bit low-rent.
Audi’s Multi Media Interface (MMI) shows how an infotainment system should be done. The rotary dial between the front seats that controls it has a touchpad on top that recognises your handwriting and allows you to input sat-nav addresses quickly and accurately. The fact that the display (which lowers itself into the dash when it isn’t required) is positioned close to your line of sight means you don’t need to divert your eyes far from the road.
Like the RS3, the A45’s infotainment system is controlled using a rotary dial. However, the menus are rather confusing to navigate; there are several layers to negotiate and lots of long sub-menus. However, the optional Comand Online system (£995), with its 8.0in screen, is an improvement over the standard 7.0in Garmin-powered unit. A brilliant Harman Kardon surround sound system is part of the £1895 optional Premium Package.
Space and practicality – Front space, rear space, seating flexibility, boot
Hot hatches aren’t often bought primarily for their practicality, even if both cars in this test come with five doors. However, it’s important to remember that one of the key attributes of a hot hatch is that they demand fewer compromises than similarly priced sports coupés. Therefore, the fact that the RS3 offers fractionally more rear head and leg room than the A45 is not something to be sniffed at.
The RS3 also has a far more usable boot, thanks to its extra length and wider aperture; it managed to swallow five of our carry-on suitcases, whereas the A45 could manage only four. The big lip at the A45’s boot entrance is annoying when loading and unloading heavy items, too.
Both cars come with 60/40 split-folding rears seats. Once the seats are folded down, neither car has a completely flat extended load bay, but the RS3 remains the more practical of the two, thanks to a height-adjustable floor that reduces the load lip and ensures there’s no step up to the rear seats when they’re laid down.
Official boot capacity 335-1175 litres Suitcase capacity 5
RS3 has a better-shaped boot, while there’s slightly more leg room in the rear and more head room throughout. Interior is quite restrained, despite red accents; wing-backed Super Sport front seats are a must-have option at £795.
Official boot capacity 341-1157 litres Suitcase capacity 4
A45’s boot is roughly the same size as the RS3’s, but a high load lip and a narrower aperture impede access. Up front, excellent standard Recaro sports seats sit you lower than in the RS3, but the interior isn’t as classy overall.
Buying and owning – Costs, equipment, reliability, safety and security
Few buyers will choose to pay for either car outright, but if you do, the A45 will leave a significantly smaller dent in your bank account. Not only is it a cheaper car to begin with, but Mercedes is also willing to offer a hefty discount. Audi dealers, on the other hand, were unable to offer any discount on the new RS3 at the time of writing.
The same price disparity between the two cars remains when looking at PCP finance deals. With a £5000 deposit down and a mileage limit of 10,000 miles a year, the RS3 will cost you almost £70 a month more than the A45.
Insurance premiums are higher on the RS3, too, as are fuel costs. However, the RS3 is predicted to be worth significantly more than the A45 if you sell after three years, while servicing costs are lower. All told, then, the RS3 actually works out slightly cheaper to own.
Ferociously fast, luxurious, reasonably practical and secure in all conditions, the RS3 has a lot going for it. But if you’re spending £45,000 on a hot hatch, you probably want it to be truly engaging to drive, and despite the changes Audi has made, the RS3 still places unflappable performance ahead of flamboyant fun.
The A45, on the other hand, feels like a wonderfully well-engineered machine, with incisive steering and an intrinsic balance that gives you the confidence to push it hard. Yes, the RS3 has a more exotic, charismatic engine, but if you want a grin-inducing driving experience rather than just the quickest hot hatch you can buy, the A45 is the better choice.
1st – Mercedes-AMG A45
For Entertaining, incisive handling; sportier driving position; more compliant ride
Against Poor infotainment; cheap-feeling interior; so-so practicality
Specifications: Mercedes-AMG A45 4Matic
- Engine size 4cyl, 1991cc, turbo, petrol
- List price £41,830
- Target Price £39,740
- Power 376bhp @ 6000rpm
- Torque 350lb ft @ 2250-5000rpm
- Gearbox 7-spd dual-clutch automatic
- 0-60mph 4.4sec
- Top speed 155mph
- Claimed fuel economy 40.9mpg
- CO2 emissions 162g/km
2nd – Audi RS3
For Bonkers performance; engine note; classy interior; slower depreciation
Against Straight-laced dynamics; grabby ceramic brakes; firmer ride; pricier to buy
Specifications: Audi RS3 2.5 quattro
- Engine size 5cyl, 2480cc, turbo, petrol
- List price £44,300
- Target Price £44,300
- Power 395bhp @ 5850-7000rpm
- Torque 354lb ft @ 1700-5850rpm
- Gearbox 7-spd dual-clutch automatic
- 0-60mph 3.9sec
- Top speed 174mph
- Claimed fuel economy 34.0mpg
- CO2 emissions 189g/km