The way cars have progressed over time makes your head jolt. Literally. With the output of some models such as the all-new Chiron bordering on the ridiculous (1,479bhp...), it’s hard to believe that there was a time when cars didn’t even make 1bhp. The Benz Patent-Motorwagen of 1886, largely agreed to be the very first car ever, had a one-cylinder four-stroke unit that could only muster up 0.75 horses. But back then, this was a groundbreaking new invention and considered fast and exciting. It was a plaything for the rich — and complicated to drive (Henry Ford came along and simplified the car and made it accessible so the average man could have one), but fast forward to today, and even the most mundane family hauler likely comes with a Sport mode.
Speed is in-built in the human psyche; we’re not a rational bunch, we like danger and we’re always seeking thrills. Going faster is at the forefront of almost everything we do. It isn’t a surprise that the cars we make are getting faster. Speed isn’t just desirable, it’s inevitable. There are muscle cars with over 700bhp (they made around 250bhp in their heyday) and hypercars like the aforementioned Bugatti with well over 1,000. But it isn’t just the usual segments where mind-warpingly quick models exist.
Hatchbacks have spawned the hot hatch, and these have an almighty turn of pace about them. In fact, some of them are so quick that they can match supercars of the not too distant past in straight line acceleration at least. The Golf R Clubsport, Merc A45 AMG and the BMW M135i are just a few neck-snappingly quick examples that could run far costlier supercars close. Likewise, the brand-new RS 3 Sportback. The tricked-out Audi offers performance that is comparable to a first-generation R8 thanks to its turbocharged five-cylinder 2.5-litre engine with 367bhp. That may be hard to believe, so we got a 2013 model R8 to see if it could still teach Stuttgart’s latest a thing or two about power and drama. Being a supercar isn’t just about gluing you to the back of the seat when you prod the loud pedal. There is much more to it than that...
The first-generation R8, which was a supercar fit for a superhero, was incredibly engineered. It was beautiful. And it was amazing to drive. Like other supercars, it was a nice way to tell everyone how much money you had. Rich petrolheads loved it but so did those who couldn’t afford the wheel cap. It appealed to everyone because it was outrageous, it stood out from the crowd and just like Ferrari, Lamborghini, Bugatti et al, it allowed you to dream big. When you were a kid, these brands likely played a massive role in your formative years. When I was about 10, I had posters of the Countach and Testarossa on my wall. I didn’t know anyone who had a framed photo of a Ford Fiesta...
This R8 is still razor sharp in the corners, has bags of grunt and eats up the road with unbelievable haste. The 4.2-litre V8 makes a very healthy 414bhp and it can reach 100kph from rest in just 4.6 seconds. It sounds incredible, too, what with the engine just inches from the back of your head. It sure gets the blood flowing. And, when you’re done thrashing it to within an inch of your life and pull over, turn it off, fall out and let it tick itself cool, you’ll turn back more than once to take in its aesthetic beauty. The RS 3? You park, get out, push the key fob to lock the doors and never look back once. Why would you? It’s just a hot hatch after all, not nearly as deserving a second glance as the R8, in spite of the aggressive body kit and hunkered-down stance. But, it is quicker to 100kph than the R8 by three tenths of a second, so maybe out of respect, you should. It has 465Nm of torque. Its top speed has been electronically limited to 250kph. There isn’t a doubt that the blown five-pot can do much more but it’s been pegged back for your own good. And because it has four-wheel drive, it means you can catapult out of corners doing three-digit speeds. This car is rapid even on sandy roads in spite of the fact it has to contend with 1,520kg of mass.
Perhaps best of all, it isn’t intimidating to cane unlike the R8 and therefore, you get more out of it. At the back of your mind, you know you have to treat the R8 with a bit more care and attention or it’ll be wrapped around that lamp post before you know it. You tend to blow caution to the wind with the RS 3. Performance is more than manageable what with all manner of gizmos such as the brilliant magnetic dampers that constantly adapt the suspension to specific driving conditions, working away in the background to keep you at one with the road. Riding on a set of 19in wheels with massive tyres that clamp down on the tarmac, it has what feels like unlimited grip. You really can’t shake it no matter how hard you try. That four-wheel drive system allows you to put the power down without any wheel spin, or unnecessary drama; floor the throttle, hold on tight to the steering wheel and you’ve disappeared into the horizon in seconds. The anchors are massive and bring proceedings to a sudden halt too, which means you can go harder safe in the knowledge you’ll stop quicker.
The seven-speed S tronic cuts through the cogs way before you can say “whoaaaa!” when you first floor it; in Dynamic mode, it shifts lightning quick and every time you flick the paddles the tips on the sports exhaust system let out a loud crackle and pop. You don’t even have to work it hard what with peak torque available from just 1,600rpm to get the best out of it, but it isn’t without its issues. When you have the pedal to the metal, it feels a tad low on interaction. The speedo might be displaying 200kph but it doesn’t feel like you’re doing more than 100kph. You sit up high in the RS 3 and from the vantage you’re afforded from the padded drivers’ seat, it doesn’t seem like you’re on the verge of losing your licence. It gives you a bit of a false sense of security.
One hundred kays in the R8 on the other hand feels like 200kph and you’re constantly looking out nervously for the next speed camera so you can ease off the throttle. Even when you’re cruising, the R8 feels as if it’s trying to break the land speed record. In stark contrast to the RS 3, you literally sit on the road in the exotic. The lower you are to the ground, the faster you appear to be going.
Not fooled by your seating position? Well, then the way the 4.2-litre V8 hisses and screams and strains at the leash will have you thinking you’re at the redline when really, the tach is hovering at three grand. The sensation you get from behind the wheel of it cannot be mimicked by the RS 3 — even if it does a sterling job in replicating its pace. The R8 is responsive and powerful, and downshifting isn’t necessary as you’ve got so much torque and it’s spread throughout the rev range. But there’s no casual coming-and-going in a supercar. You can’t trundle to the shops in the R8 and pick up a pint of milk and loaf of bread without a group of iPhone wielding kids posing with it for selfies. It draws so much attention to itself and that is part of its charm. Cars of this ilk are the celebrities of the automotive world.
Performance figures from a lot of hot hatches today were out of the question 15 or 20 years ago but now, some hopped-up superminis are lapping the Nürburgring quicker than full blown exotics ever did, and they’re not exhausting to drive either. There are many reasons for this vast improvement — far superior drivetrains, better aerodynamics, stickier tyres and of course, our own need for speed. But if that was overtaken by your need to breed, then it’s good to know the RS 3, Audi’s practical road missile, can also handle the school run. Its two-door rivals from the other end of the spectrum, however, will have done their job in finding you a soul mate in the first place.
Outrageous performance doesn’t cost you well into the millions anymore — the price of power has been slashed by the RS 3 and these other venerable little beasties. They’re comparable to exotica of yesteryear but although they’re blessed with extreme pace, there’s no danger of them taking over our bedroom walls. In this ever-changing landscape, one constant remains; we’ll always dream and drool over supercars and so, as good as the RS 3 is, it doesn’t have the magic, sparkle or sheer drama of the R8. They don’t call them supercars for nothing...