EngineTurbo 2.5L I5
0-60 Time4.2 Seconds (62 MPH)
Top Speed174 MPH
Curb Weight3,340 LBS
Base Price$60,000 (Est.)
Others, those in Quattro's special we-like-you countries, bought the RS3 and constantly raved about it, insisting its handling made the Mercedes-AMG A45 look ponderous (because, well, it is), its packaging was terrific, and the noise, they said. The noise. Over and over, the noise.
But ex-Lamborghini president Stephan Winkelmann is now the boss and he's brought with him a worldview that Quattro GmbH never had. And despite being busy changing the letterhead to Audi Sport, Winkelmann found time to think about America. And he must like us because he's moved us to the top of the list. Not only will we get the face-lifted RS3, with its new, lightweight five-cylinder turbo motor crunching out 332 pound-feet of torque and 400 horsepower, we'll get it in a crisply styled three-box sedan. And we'll get it first, before even Germany (where it's built).
The RS3's 2.5-liter five-cylinder has enough power to hurl it to 62 mph in 4.1 seconds and, thanks to launch control, the ability to do so repeatably. It's coming with a 155-mph top speed that can be raised to 174. It's coming with limpet grip from a rear-biased all-wheel-drive system. It's coming with a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission (and don't ask for a stick shift, because they haven't bothered to engineer one). It's coming standard (for the US) with constantly variable magnetic ride dampers, which replace the base fixed-rate steel spring-and-damper setup.
But more than anything else, the RS3 sedan is coming here with that engine. It starts with a sharp braaap as it spins to around 4000 rpm and then a pop and bang that will wake the neighbors. And that's in the quieter default mode. It's like an angry man who always wakes up looking for a fight and, finding he can't get one, barks out the last word anyway.
Except it never really goes quiet. It goes less loud, but not quiet. Quiet is not in the repertoire.
The engine is what dominates this car and the noise dominates the engine. It's always there, always threatening, menacing, bellowing, barking, or popping and burbling. With a 1-2-4-5-3 firing order, the turbo five is a unique combination of belligerent and sophisticated, raucous and operatic, brutal and smooth, and often all of them at the same time. Very few engines in history have had this one's ability to be so many things at the same time and to that list you can add "unforgettable."
It's unashamedly emotional, with Audi Sport comfortable forgoing the outer edges of gristle in favor of making its every breath drip with so much character and richness. The simple act of punching it to the rev limit in third or fourth gear, so you have time to savor more of it, leaves you a bit gooey, yet in some ways it doesn't sound as good as its predecessor, especially at high revs.
The engine's flat torque and power curves mean its delivery doesn't feel linear (because it isn't) and you can smack into the limiter when you think you're still about 1000 rpm short of it, particularly in the middle gears. The sound of the engine rises to its sonorous best early (because that's where people use it most often) and works to hold the note as it gets louder, rather than tweaking the timbre as the revs rise. But that's one of the few criticisms you could make of it.
The old engine used an iron block, but our first RS3 uses the new aluminum one, and instead of ripping out 335 hp like that one (or 355 as in the TT RS Plus), we get 400 hp. Only the bore and stroke dimensions remain in an engine that refuses to share a single bolt with the one it replaces.
It has the indecency to also be more frugal, and it's lighter, too, shedding 57 pounds where it counts – over the front axle. No carmaker has had more experience with trying to entice handling finesse out of nose-heavy fast cars, so it saved some weight with aluminum, another 40 pounds by using a magnesium oil pan, and another couple by hollow-boring the crankshaft.
With both direct and indirect fuel injection, variable valve timing and lift, and a turbo that can stuff in up to 1.35 bar of air, it's also immensely strong, almost all the time. It has you covered if you want to mess around from low revs, reaching peak torque at 1750 rpm and still punching it out at 5850. Not coincidentally, 5850 rpm is the exact spot in the rev range where it also hits peak power, which it's still delivering at 7000 rpm.
There's the seven-speed dual-clutch transmission further along the powertrain, and then it gets to the hang-on rear differential, which can swallow up to 1,475 lb-ft of torque and that all now runs a simple-to-use launch control system.
Audi can't tell us how much default torque it sends to the rear axle, because that's a constantly moving target, but the engineers tried to make it rear-biased to offset the 58:42 front-to-rear weight distribution.
The launch control is ridiculously easy to use. With the traction control off and Sport mode engaged, you just stand on the brake and throttle pedals simultaneously, let the revs build the boost pressure, and step off the brake. And then the RS3 is gone, at a rate so fast that you're pulling second gear to stop it from smashing into the rev limiter almost as the car starts rolling.
It launches with a tiny chirp of front wheel spin – maybe 10 degrees – and then it feels like it shoots enough torque to the rear diff to win every arm-wrestling contest, ever, combined.
The seven-speed dual-clutch is brilliantly fast and almost flawless for real-world fast driving. It makes short work of quarter-mile sprints, whipping through upshifts without dropping momentum, and it also has a wonderful crack from the exhaust every time. It only loses some composure in Dynamic mode in urban situations, where you can convince it to clunk just a little at light throttle. But only sometimes, and only when you actively force it.
The transmission shifts smoothly in Comfort and the default Auto mode, but quickly and proactively in Dynamic, grabbing lower gears under braking and holding on to them until the car straightens on the exits, and it's almost flawlessly in sync with you on winding roads. It's even intuitive to use in its manual mode, with paddle shifters that work far more intuitively than the shifter's backwards manual gate. There might be seven forward cogs in the box, but it's really more like a close-ratio six-speed with a fuel-sipping highway gear sitting above them all.
Make no mistake, it's a stupidly quick little car in a straight line and plenty of grown-up muscle car drivers are going to be left to ponder about those rapidly receding LED taillights. Audi's engineers even suggest it should be realistically quicker than 4.1 seconds to 62 mph in favorable conditions, and when I asked what "favorable conditions" meant, I was told: "not raining."
It defies the size of its turbocharger on open and winding roads, where it responds quickly and easily to the throttle on everything from quick closes to subtle balance-shifting nibbles to the full boot stomp.
The RS3 rides an inch lower than the stock A3 sedan, on 235/35-19 Pirelli PZero tires, with the asphalt contact managed by magnetic-fluid dampers that work beautifully. The fixed-rate units we also tested are about four pounds lighter and more accurate in demanding work, but there are cities and whole states in the US where, frankly, you couldn't live with their stiffness and the rear-tire noise they help generate. The magnetic system negates all of that and makes the RS3 a broader-spectrum machine.
Besides the fixed-rate dampers, there's another trick the rest of the world will get that won't be coming here. As an option, their RS3 will get fatter front tires (255/30s), which turn a push-to-neutral handler into a looser handler. Audi Sport development boss Stephan Reil suggests it's really to give it more front-end grip, but he says it with what amounts to a wink.
The sedan arrives at corners with immense strength and security, with eight-piston front calipers washing off the speed, and there is enough turn-in grip to enjoy the show in relaxed concentration. If you push the car when it's slippery, it will slide the front initially before becoming more neutral as the diff gets to work, letting the back swing out ever so gently and predictably, then it will let you hold the slide on the throttle and, almost imperceptibly, help you to straighten it all up again. In the Dynamic mode, the RS3 slides a surprising amount, with the computers trusting the hardware to fix things first and only chiming in when it looks like it's about to go badly wrong. Turning off stability control sends the safety net away completely, so you can slide as long and as far and as wildly as you like.
At its heart, the RS3 is an MQB car (like the VW Golf), so while it's capable of whipping through corners far quicker than the CLA45 AMG, and doing it without frightening anybody, it doesn't respond like a Cayman (unless it's sliding). Its origins handicap it in the twisting bits, but the dullest part is a steering system that is accurate but has all the delicacy of an Ikea meatball.
The upside is that while the suspension is taut, it's not uncomfortable, and it seems to work better the more energy you put through the springs. Push the car hard and faster and you can expect it to ride better. It's reasonably plush in Comfort mode, so much that it should actually make a useful cross-country cruiser.
That's helped by a magnificently clean, crisp, and sharp interior, dominated by the 12.3-inch Virtual Cockpit multimedia screen-cum-speedo, complete with a new RS mode to collate and show off your pedaling prowess.
The unique front seats have manual adjustment to save weight and height. They're diamond quilted with contrast stitching and are enthusiastically bolstered and tremendously grippy in the most trying of circumstances. All of this and it's a five-seat sedan with decent luggage capacity.
Audi can't tell us how much it will cost yet, except to confirm it will probably be about $60,000, plus or minus $5,000 (final pricing will depend on the equipment list, which is also far from locked in), with a choice of two distinct 19-inch alloys. The top-of-the-line S3 sedan lists at $43,850 plus options, if that helps you to figure where the RS3 sits. And it's by far the cheapest car Winkelmann has ever launched as a CEO.
Audi Sport will still build the RS3 in hatch form (but not for us), which will join the sedan in European showrooms in August or September. Our first RS3 will be here before that, earlier in summer. For once, the US gets something cool before everyone else.