IN A QUEST to remain at the pointy end of the hot hatch horsepower pyramid, Audi and Mercedes- Benz have been locked in a battle of numbers for more than half a decade. The Audi RS3 packed 335bhp when it first appeared back in 2011, before being edged out by the even more powerful 355bhp Mercedes A45 AMG just two years later.

This battle has continued, with further power hikes for both cars in recent years. But despite their monumental straightline performance, neither has delivered the grin-inducing driving experience of the very best hot hatches. While less pricey cars such as the BMW M140i and Ford Focus RS offer a real sense of playfulness, the RS3 and A45 have always felt heavier footed and less fluid. With this new RS3 Sportback packing 32bhp more than the outgoing one, giving a total of 394bhp, Audi is clearly back to playing Top Trumps. But that’s not all that has been changed. The updated RS3 also has a wider stance and a lighter five-cylinder engine (from the TT RS), plus its four-wheel drive system has been fettled in the hope of making the handling a little more entertaining.

Scorching acceleration
With 354lb ft of pulling power available from just 1700rpm and a slick-shifting dual-clutch automatic gearbox, the RS3 is seriously quick off the mark. From rest, 62mph arrives in a claimed 4.1sec. Few cars in any class are capable of delivering such effortless performance as this one.

That said, the RS3 doesn’t deliver the same high-rev rush that you get from an M140i or a Honda Civic Type R. The fact that the engine is so strong at low revs means there’s little reward for revving it hard, and the automatic gearbox tends to dither a bit when you ask for a sudden burst of acceleration. The lighter engine does yield benefits when it comes to the car’s handling, though. With less weight over the front end, the RS3 turns in to corners with more zest than the car it replaces. And with (optional) adaptive dampers fitted, body control is exceptional, with the car resisting body lean even when cornering at high speeds.

Bespoke RS touches
The regular Audi A3 is impressive enough inside, thanks to lots of soft plastics, well-damped switches and beautiful chrome accents – and it’s more of the same in the RS3. The minimalist design is head and shoulders above both BMW and Volkswagen for quality.

Some might find the dark grey interior too restrained, but there are touches to indicate that you’ve forked out for an RS model. The flatbottomed steering wheel is a lovely thing to hold, embossed RS logos on the cross-stitched leather seats add class and, in line with the rest of the facelifted A3 line-up, the interior can be enhanced with Audi’s Virtual Cockpit digital display.

There’s generous room for two adults in the front, and the standard heated electric sports seats are surprisingly comfortable yet also supportive when cornering hard.

Talented but pricey
The new RS3 is a talented car, with incredible all-weather performance, a class-leading interior and a truly brilliant infotainment system. It also makes a stonking noise when you drive it hard, yet it’s comfortable enough to make it a practical everyday runabout. However, the RS3 becomes harder to recommend when you consider how much it’s expected to cost. Insiders reckon that this Sportback could be priced as high as Ј45,000 – a lot of money, considering that the outgoing car started at less than Ј40k.

Will that be enough to put people off buying one? Probably not. But if we had the choice, we’d save the better part of Ј13,000 and buy a BMW M140i – a car that is ultimately more involving, cheaper to run and equally practical.