MOTORING

Audi RS3 Sportback: A family-friendly hot-rod

By Deon Schoeman 4 May 2018

We all know how impractical sports cars can be. How temperamental – and how expensive. But what if that red-hot machine was also versatile and spacious enough for family motoring?

Every petrolhead lusts after a sports car: the kind of no-holds-barred performance machine that turns heads, burns rubber, rips tar and upsets the neighbours every time you start it up.

Sadly most of us don’t have the means to buy such a monster at the age we really want it. And by the time we can afford to be a little indulgent in our choice of wheels, the more pragmatic considerations that go hand-in-hand with family life often put paid to any sports car plans.

So, no Ford Mustang. No Porsche Boxster. No Jaguar F-Type. And certainly no Ferrari 488, Lamborghini Huracán or McLaren 570S.

No wonder everyone from Porsche to Maserati and Lamborghini has an SUV in their model range these days: it gives well-off wannabe sports car fans the chance to own a practical, family-sized vehicle with the cachet (and at least some of the urge) of a real sports car.

However, not everyone wants a high-performance SUV – after all, they tend to be large, tall and heavy. Ostentatious, too …

Enter the Audi RS3 Sportback – a car that’s compact and wieldy by SUV standards, and offers the space and practicality of a family hatchback and the surefooted composure of quattro all-wheel drive.

More important (from a petrolhead’s perspective) is the high-revving, turbocharged five-cylinder engine under the bonnet. Delivering a racy 294kW of muscle and a stonking 480Nm of torque, it’s a thoroughbred performance mill.

With only 1,510kg of high-tech metal to propel, the engine ensures lusty, sports car-standard performance. It despatches the 0-100km/h dash in a smidgen more than 4sec, and it’s still champing at the bit when it hits the 250km/h speed limiter.

Also worth noting is the RS3 Sportback’s tautly tuned sports suspension, its dinner plate-sized disc brakes – and an exhaust note that can go from burble to growl to an angry, slightly off-beat roar at the slightest prod of the loud pedal.

Some might consider the RS3 Sportback too understated, but in a country where consumption is often all too conspicuous, a little subtlety is no bad thing. There’s something deliciously undercover about its seemingly humble hatchback proportions and four-door configuration.

But let your eyes feast on the chunky sheet metal for more than a few seconds, and you’ll soon realise that this is not your average A3. Most notable are the big alloy wheels and the fat tyres with profiles so low, it looks as if the rubber has been painted onto the rims.

Those wheels make the RS3 look even wider and lower, aided by a bespoke sports suspension that reduces the hatchback’s ride height until it hugs the tar with menacing intent.

The gaping gloss-black grille and deep air intakes, the gaze of the slim LED headlights and the large oval exhaust tailpipes jutting from a pronounced diffuser are all unique RS3 traits, as are the red-painted eight-pot callipers clamping those large front disc brakes.

Add extended sills, extensive colour coding, and a pronounced rear roof spoiler, and you don’t need the subtle RS badging to confirm the performance pedigree.

That theme is continued inside, with high-backed, diamond pattern-quilted leather bucket seats that promise both cosseting comfort and support. An Alcantara-trimmed flat-bottomed steering wheel provides a reassuringly direct interface between car and driver.

Further confirming the RS3’s racy intentions are the alloy pedals, the red stitching and crimson-detailed air vents. The rest is classic Audi: contemporary and ergonomically efficient, with more than a touch of class.

The marque’s Virtual Cockpit, which replaces conventional dials with a configurable TFT display, is an option – but really should be standard in this league. The same goes for the satnav.

Still, the list of included features is reasonably comprehensive, extending from remote central locking and electric windows and mirrors to an infotainment system that offers USB connectivity, Bluetooth-powered hands-free telephony and audio streaming, multispeaker sound, and more.

The good news for family motorists is that the RS3 doesn’t shirk its more practical responsibilities. The rear bench seat is still split, and folds down to extend the useful 335 litre-luggage compartment to a generous 1,175 litres.

The rear hatch opens wide, making access to all that space easy. And talking of accessibility, the Sportback’s four-door layout means that entry and exit for rear passengers is equally convenient. Legroom and headroom are good, if not exactly expansive – but then, the RS3 is still nominally a compact hatchback.

As for safety, the RS3 Sportback’s active and passive systems provide a reassuringly comprehensive level of protection for its occupants, should things go wrong.

So, let’s accept that the Audi RS3 can live up to the prosaic expectations of family motoring, at least as far as space, comfort and safety are concerned. But does it also deliver on the performance promise of that RS badge, and the high-tech drivetrain?

It only takes a few kilometres of twisty country road to validate the RS3’s considerable dynamic capabilities. Like its RS3 sedan stablemate – and its more hardcore TT-RS sibling – the Sportback slingshots off the mark, and punches its way towards the horizon every time you give it stick, almost regardless of gear.

There’s a visceral ferocity to the way this Audi reacts to throttle inputs, accompanied by the engine’s growling crescendo. You don’t need the sport display’s G-force gauge to confirm just how hard you’re being pressed into that high-backed seat, nor the speedometer to qualify the surrounding scenery’s blur.

If anything, the RS3’s cornering is even more impressive. The quattro system’s all-wheel activation is executed with real finesse these days, precluding any heavy-handed four-wheel understeer, and allowing a precise dissection of corners and sweeps.

The steering is equally accurate, if not quite surgical, allowing the driver to point the nose at the apex without protest, and delivering sufficient feedback to make the process an intuitive one. There’s a satisfying unity of purpose between car and driver that allows the RS3’s considerable limits to be explored with confidence.

The RS3’s attitude remains flat and planted, displaying a resolute composure that builds confidence at every turn. Naturally, the ride is firm to the point of becoming uncompromising when encountering bumpy surfaces, but never to the detriment of the Sportback’s composure.

Doesn’t sound quite like a tame family hatchback, does it? But of course, you don’t have to drive it like Walther Röhrl when mom and the kids are in the car, either. The greatest challenge is not to delve into the RS3’s performance potential at every opportunity.

Switch the dynamic drive system back to comfort, short shift the seven-speed S-tronic gearbox (or even leave it in auto), and you could well be in a more benign variant of the A3 Sportback.

It’s that split personality – the ability to swap between hardcore sports car and swift family hatchback – that makes the RS3 such an attractive proposition. Admittedly, it’s a little firmer and a lot faster than your average A3, but it’s still an A3 at heart.

What the Audi RS3 Sportback therefore offers is essentially two cars for the price of one. Then, the R900,000-plus asking price (easily raised to beyond the R1-million mark by ticking some of the options boxes) makes a lot more sense.

Yes, it’s still a lot of money for a hot-rod hatchback. But what a hot-rod it is … DM

PROS

Delivers much more sports car talent than you’d expect. Hatchback-style versatility, too.

CONS

Not an easy car to drive with restraint.

VITAL STATS

Audi RS3 Sportback
Engine In-line five-cylinder, 2 480cc, turbo
Power 294kW @ 5,850 – 7,000rpm
Torque 480Nm @ 1,700 – 5,8500rpm
Power-to-weight ratio 194.7 kW/ton
Gearbox Seven-speed S-tronic, quattro AWD
Wheels/tyres 19-inch alloy, 235/35 R19 tyres
0-100 km/h 4.1sec
Top speed 250km/h (limited)
Fuel tank capacity 55 litres
Fuel consumption (claimed) 8.4 litres/100km
Operating range (claimed/tested) 655km
CO2 emissions 189 g/km
Retail price/as tested R903,500/R1,071,876
Gallery

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