Audi RS 3 review
by Tom Stewart (3 June 2011)
It almost goes without saying that the long-awaited RS 3 is stupendously speedy, has impeccable handling, colossal grip, brick wall braking and all the practicality and refinement that you'd expect from a five-door hatch from Audi. But despite all this I find myself feeling somewhat ambivalent towards it.
Sometime in the early nineties I drove Audi's first RS road car – the RS 2 – on an unrestricted German autobahn and at a high-speed proving ground, and was in awe of its unique combination of sub-5 seconds 0-60mph acceleration, 160-plus top speed and estate car practicality.
Then, in the early noughties I drove a first-generation S3 on the autobahn and reckoned that an indicated 160mph was surely more than ample for a small three-door hatch, especially one bearing mere S (for Sport) logos rather than RS (for Rennsport).
But that was then and now is now, and though some ten years later I'm at least as impressed by the new RS 3's even greater capabilities, I'm a little less awestruck. Whether this is because – following a couple of RS 4s and RS 6s, the TT RS and the RS 5 – the RS moniker now carries a little less gravitas than before, or whether it's because the constabulary and society in general is now even less tolerant of the kind of performance these cars can oh-so-easily deliver, I'm not sure.
What I do know is that, unless you take your RS 3 to a racetrack, a hillclimb, an autobahn or the mountain section of the Isle of Man's TT course, then a fair chunk of the £39,930 required will have been spent on performance surplus to requirements.
Despite this, every one of the 500 right-hand drive RS 3s bound for the UK is already sold (deliveries start in July), but I suspect that many of those future owners will have allowed their hearts, rather than their heads, to sanction the purchase. And here's what they'll be getting.
As the flagship of the second-generation and soon-to-be-replaced A3 range, the RS 3 is powered by the 2480cc five-cylinder turbocharged TFSI engine first seen in the TT RS. Transversely mounted, it makes 335bhp with 332lb/ft of torque, and it's coupled to a seven-speed S tronic dual-clutch transmission with normal (D) and sport (S) modes.
Power is transferred to a permanent all-wheel drive system that under normal circumstances feeds 80% to the front wheels but can direct more to the rear if required. The quoted figures are 0-62mph in 4.6 seconds with an electronically limited 155mph top speed. (Think at least 170 without the limiter.)
The RS 3's chassis sits 25mm lower than an A3's, it has a wider track and rides on ultra low profile, 19" Continentals (235/35 front, 225/35 rear). Braking is handled by 310mm internally ventilated discs at the rear with ventilated and drilled 370mm discs gripped by four-piston, RS-branded calipers at the front. The ESP system is very tolerant of "sporty" driving, and it can be deactivated either partly or entirely.
Those are the basic facts and figs but, impressive though they are, the RS 3 on the road is more than the sum of its parts. Put simply, this car is ruthlessly efficient, not so much in terms of fuel economy and CO2 emissions (although 31mpg combined and 212g/km aren't too shabby), but in how it drives and delivers its performance.
The engine is wonderfully responsive and strong, and thanks in part to the quattro system, searing acceleration and supercar-quick overtaking manoevres are the RS 3's bread and butter. In fact, it takes a conscious effort to accelerate slowly – even moderate throttle applications have you pinned to your seat – but at the same time the engine remains completely unflustered while pottering through town.
The dash-mounted Sport button is supposed to alter both the exhaust note and throttle response, although disappointingly it has little effect on the former (more noise please, Audi) and makes no discernable difference to the latter.
The dual-clutch transmission is a masterpiece. Gearchanges are lightening quick and so smooth as to be barely perceptible. If you want to play tunes with the paddles you can, but auto in D mode is fine 99% of the time. Were I about to try for pole position on the Nordschleife (dream on) then I'd select auto in S mode and leave it there. It's that good. So good that, like it or not, manual shifting, whether by paddle or stick, has become superfluous.
With 19" wheels and almost non-existent tyre sidewalls you'd expect the RS 3's ride to be on a par with the Flintstones' car, but though necessarily firm (the faster you go the better it gets) I never found it uncomfortably jarring. That said, this press launch was held in southern Austria's lower Alps where the roads are mostly pretty smooth, so I'm prepared to eat those words should the ride prove tortuous on UK roads.
The RS 3's steering and handling is effectively beyond constructive criticism, while grip is, as previously mentioned, colossal. Getting the tyres to squeal takes commitment and determination, while provoking even a trace of understeer really requires closed roads and the ESP being turned right off.
The optional, manually-adjustable front bucket seats as fitted to my test car might seem a bit OTT, but if you drive the RS 3 at even 70%, then you'll appreciate that they're pretty much essential, although at £2045 for the pair they don't come cheap.
Fortunately, the RS 3 is well-equipped as standard with a mid-level multimedia system with satellite navigation, Bluetooth and so forth, but to further spec an RS3 with costly and weighty options is rather to miss the main purpose of this car, which, as I see it, is to cover ground blisteringly quickly.
As for those 500 future RS 3 owners; they won't need talent to go fast, but I hope they have self-discipline in at least equal measure to their new car's formidable capabilities. If not, I fear trouble awaits.