It wasn’t all that long ago that Audi brought out the B7 RS4 with its snarling 414bhp V8. Fast forward a few years to 2016, and the German firm released an RS3 saloon coming within 20bhp of that output using three fewer cylinders and a 1.7-litre drop in displacement.
In the meantime, D-segment super saloons haven’t stood still either. All the major ones are now in the ‘500 club’, with the Mercedes-AMG C63, BMW M3 Competition and the Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio all developing exactly the same power figure - 503bhp. But is that strictly necessary? Having brought the latest RS3 saloon back to the UK following its duties on a launch event in Munich (in case you’re wondering why that big UK sticker is slapped on the boot), we thought we’d get it together with ‘our’ Giulia Q longtermer to find out.
Although it’s one class down from the Giulia, an A3 saloon is only 15cm shorter, meaning the RS3 feels no more compact. The interior isn’t necessarily any better or worse than the Alfa Romeo’s - both cars have some less-than-plush material choices, although the Audi cabin has superior build quality. The Italian claws in back with its lovely physical dials and gigantic column-mounted shifters (compared to some nasty little plastic tabs in the RS3) giving us a dead heat.
Before long, there’s only one piece of interior trim in the Audi I want to prod - the start button. Waking up the warble-tastic inline-five and its 1-2-4-5-3 firing order Audi loves to talk about, we’re off. With 395bhp the 2.5 is well over 100bhp under the Alfa’s V6, and its 369lb ft torque figure lags some 74lb ft behind. But the deficit never feels as big as that.
There are three reasons for this. Firstly, the Alfa needs to be revved to extract its full potential, with peak power not arriving until 6500rpm. In the Audi, that mark is nearly 1000rpm earlier. So, unless you’re properly on it in the Giulia, you’re missing out on the full berries, even if you are experiencing all the torque - that’s there from 2500rpm, only just after the RS3.
Secondly, you need to find an appropriate time and place to deploy that figure, and the third big factor here is the all-wheel drive system. It’s the reason the RS3’s 0-62mph time of 3.8 seconds is actually a tenth quicker than the Giulia Q’s, and the reason why you can be confident all 395 of those brake horsepowers will be deployed whenever you fancy. The Giulia on the other hand struggles for traction even in the dry.
What’s particularly frustrating, and as we noted in our Alfa Giulia Quadrifoglio vs BMW M3 xDrive twin test, is the lack of an ‘ESP sport’ mode. Instead, you can either leave everything on and contend with the electronic stuff frustratingly holding the engine back in the first few gears, or switch everything completely off in ‘Race’ mode.
No such issue for the RS3, in which you can bin the stability control entirely in the knowledge that the all-wheel drive system has your back. Powering the front axles too doesn’t completely erase the fun, though, with the new torque splitter device allowing for a lot more movement from the rear than experienced in previous RS3s.
Switching to the Alfa, it only takes a few corners to recognise what this car does better in terms of the driving experience. The steering’s similarly numb, but considerably faster and more consistent than the variable-ratio rack in the Audi.
Plus, that rear-wheel drive attitude makes for a much pointier-feeling car in the bends. There’s just something right about the way the Giulia feels on a good road, even if the RS3 tends to cover ground faster and with greater ease.
The less accessible power output frustrates initially, but on those occasional moments the V6’s full anger is unleashed, there’s a noticeable increase in drama. Plus, it sounds better. There’s a naughty, raspy quality to the Giulia’s exhaust note, and as much as I love the offbeat burbly thing the RS3 has going on, the five-pot is noticeably more muted these days thanks to the inclusion of a petrol particulate filter.
Although the Giulia uses a conventional eight-speed automatic rather than a dual-clutch gearbox as in the RS3, there’s little between them in terms of shift time. The Alfa’s also much more aggressive when swapping cogs, with a noticeable thump in your back with every shift, accompanied by a fantastically obnoxious ‘fart’ from the quad exhaust. Joyous.
It’s this general sense of fun that the Audi can’t quite match, even if it’s a more entertaining, satisfying car to drive than its more one-dimensional predecessors. The Alfa is also a more exotic feeling thing, perhaps thanks to its Ferrari links - it was developed by the bloke behind the 458 Italia, and although never officially confirmed, its V6 is widely understood to be Maranello’s V8 minus some cylinders.
You get a more exotic price tag too, of course - in this configuration, ‘our’ Giulia Q is £76,445 (the MY20 version we were running initially had even more glitz and was £83,295), versus £61,460 for the RS3 in this spec. The latter is well-appointed in this Launch Edition guise and has only one option - Python Yellow paintwork.
These are quite different cars for different people. A straight-up comparison was never the point of all this - we’re merely hoping to answer that original question of ‘how much is too much’. The conclusion? Modern super saloons like the Giulia Quadrifoglio have indeed gone a little too far in terms of power.
It’s telling that the Alfa only very occasionally feels faster than the Audi. Yes, adding all-wheel drive - as BMW has done with the M3 - helps, but then you ended up with an extremely quick car that only allows for annoyingly brief applications of full throttle. On the times you can lay down the full 503bhp in the Giulia, it is magnificent. But as proven by the RS3, perhaps we’d all have been better off if things peaked with that 414bhp RS4.