There are plenty of quality small cars in the world.
But the ones that pack a punch worthy of a Sunday drive without sticking out like a sore thumb for the rest of the week are harder to come by, especially if you value right-foot satisfaction enough to seek out a car that’s pushing 400 horsepower.
Toward the top of that list at the moment is the Audi RS 3, which landed in North America just two years ago despite being available overseas since 2013. AMG models of the new Mercedes-Benz A-Class are on the way but haven’t arrived yet, and the 2020 Jaguar XE has been announced but not with any models in the same power range at launch. This leads to numerous and inevitable comparisons between the RS 3 and the only major competitor it currently has, the BMW M2 Competition
The M2 is newer, especially in its most recent Competition guise, and the RS 3 is nearing the end of its current generation with an updated version of the hatch that’s sold elsewhere expected to be revealed sometime this year. But that doesn’t mean that everything about the BMW is automatically better – the RS 3 has plenty of eminently redeeming qualities, and it’s worth taking the time to weigh them before making a decision.
Five Cylinders of Fun
Inline five-cylinder engines aren’t overly common, but Audi’s comes with a turbocharged displacement of 2.5 litres and packs a 394 hp punch to go with its 354 lb.-ft. of torque fully available between 1,700 and 5,850 rpm.
That’s just a tick underneath the M2 Competition’s 3.0-liter turbocharged inline six, which makes 405 hp and 406 lb.-ft. of torque between 2,350 and 5,230 rpm.
So, yes, the BMW’s on-paper figures are higher. I also happen to enjoy its sound a little more, though everyone’s different on that point. But what’s interesting when you put these two cars side by side is that in straight-line speed, the Audi wins the race from zero to 100 km/h at a published speed of 4.1 seconds, which routinely comes out even faster in real-world testing. The BMW, by comparison, clocks in at 4.2 seconds with its seven-speed dual-clutch transmission. (I couldn’t do any of this testing myself, unfortunately – this is a road test only with no track component.)
This brings another point to light, though, which is that the M2 Competition has that DCT available as well as a six-speed manual option, while the RS 3 comes with a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic only. If people would buy it then they would sell it, though, so the people who love to row their own gears but not enough to live with doing it in stop-and-go traffic have clearly spoken with their wallets.
One more fact worth pointing out: the RS 3 comes with all-wheel drive only, while the M2 Competition is rear-wheel drive across the board. If you’re choosing between them for a year-round daily driver, most people will count that as a point in Audi’s column.
Fuel consumption isn’t usually of grave concern in a car like this, but for what it’s worth, I averaged 10.7 L/100 km over a week that was roughly an even mix of city and highway driving. That’s more or less in line with the NRCan ratings for the 2018 car of 12.4 in city driving, 8.3 on the highway, and 10.5 combined. The 2019 figures haven’t yet been published.
Built to be Driven
This, as the name suggests, is one of those cars that gets better as it’s pushed harder into the band where the power hits peak, the gearbox is happiest, and the razor-sharp steering and standard custom-tuned magnetic dampers combine into handling that feels like it’s on rails on a smooth patch of asphalt. The downside is that the ride even in comfort mode can be teeth-rattling in casual driving on the rougher roads that are more common around Canadian cities, and a fair bit of external noise finds its way into the cabin, a side effect of the current car’s lack of updated sound deadening systems.
Although Audi design rarely changes much on the outside – the RS 3 has a unique front fascia, rear bumper, diffuser, and wheels to differentiate it from A3 and S3 models, but not a whole lot else – the interior is another place where the age of the car shows through relative to its competition. The dashboard has some nice vents and optional carbon fibre accents, but the right side is dominated by a single panel of black. The screen is the older Audi style that lifts out of the dashboard, which declutters the space when it’s stowed but looks tacked on when it’s deployed – and relying on those electric components to outlive the car isn’t the most comforting prospect.
One Well-equipped Grade
One of the nicer things about the RS 3 is that it comes with a solid amount of standard equipment and packaging that is simple to deal with.
Android Auto and Apple CarPlay are both standard – and if Android Auto is important to you then the A3 family is the only option in the segment. The gorgeous stitched and perforated sport seats are included and are heated, though power adjusting isn’t available. The three-spoke sport steering wheel with paddle shifters and Alcantara inserts is equipped, too, but it doesn’t come with heating.
Other key inclusions include the very cool fully digital instrument cluster, 19-inch alloy wheels with performance tires and ceramic front brakes, LED exterior lighting, a panoramic sunroof, on-board navigation, and a Bang & Olufsen sound system. For a higher price, different wheel designs, red brake calipers, a fixed sport suspension with a carbon fibre engine cover and an increased top speed of 280 km/h, a black optics package, or some additional safety and convenience features like active cruise control, automatic high beams, and lane assist and emergency brake assist can be added.
Were it my own money on the line, there’s so much up in the air in this segment at the moment that I’d wait a year or two if I could to see how its options expand. If I had to decide today, though, as beautiful as the Audi is to punch the throttle on and how well-equipped it is, its interior design, stiff ride, and lack of a manual transmission would lead me to lean on first blush ever so slightly toward the M2 Competition
. However, with pricing on that not having been announced yet, it’s still entirely possible that the 2019 RS 3, as a powerful yet capable and suitably sedate-looking daily driver, could emerge as a significantly better value.