After years of wistful gazing across the pond, reading glowing reviews that use words such as tyres and bonnet, and even being tantalized with a 2011 First Drive ourselves in Europe, Americans will finally be able to throttle one of the most highly anticipated performance cars in recent memory—the Audi RS 3—sort of. “Yeah? What’s so great about it? It looks like an A3 to me.” Remember that silly little ray gun given to Will Smith’s character, Agent J, in Men in Black? Remember what a big boom it made when he finally fired it? It actually had a name, and this is the automotive equivalent of the Noisy Cricket. Little package, big boom. It’s not the nuclear-powered all-wheel-drive hatchback we were hoping for, which was promised at least once by Audi. Instead, our first RS 3 will be a compact high-performance sedan based on the Audi A3, which has been highly rated in its own right since its migration to the excellent MQB platform. Of course, there’s already a more potent S3, so what more could we want? How does one more cylinder and an additional 108 horsepower sound? The RS 3 is an order of magnitude greater than the S3, and not just because of the power rating.
We can distinctly remember how outrageous it was when Dodge announced that the 1992 Viper’s 8.0-liter V-10 would produce 400 horsepower. At the time, the highest-output Corvette ZR-1 made 375 horsepower with a quad-cam 5.7-liter V-8. Twenty-five years later, an engine with half the number of cylinders and just over a quarter of its displacement has the same 400-hp output. Sure, 10:1 compression and turbocharging at 19.6 psi (1.35 bar) manifold pressure gets most of the credit for the RS 3’s prodigious 161.3-hp-per-liter power density, but the RS 3’s aluminum 2,480cc inline-five is the culmination of numerous other upgrades above the car’s previous iron block. Incidentally, that power density puts the RS 3 just above a twin-turbo Nissan GT-R (157.9 hp/L) and just below the twin-turbo BMW M4 GTS (165.5 hp/L). The RS 3’s engine is a serious bit of kit. The new engine also features a lighter crank, a magnesium oil pan, port and direct fuel injection, variable valve timing, and, of course, that larger turbocharger. Despite these credentials, it’s a smooth-revving little monster of a motor.
We tested the previous iron-block inline-five turbo (good for 360 hp) in the 2012 Audi TT RS and already compared the new one in the 2017 TT RS to the rally car that changed everything: Audi’s all-wheel-drive Ur-Quattro coupe. Besides the glorious and unique sound of it, especially with the optional sport exhaust system, it’s the linearity of how this new five-cylinder engine puts power down that’s unusual. There’s some barely noticeable initial lag as the single large turbocharger spools up, but from 1,700 to 5,850 rpm, there’s a line as straight as a tabletop that produces a constant 354 lb-ft of torque. If it were possible to squint your ears, you could almost hear a Viper’s V-10. Also, unlike some high-output turbo-fours, power isn’t as peaky and doesn’t even seem to wane at the 7,200-rpm rev limiter. It feels every bit a 400-horsepower engine everywhere above and below the 5,850-rpm peak output.
Porsche’s PDK seven-speed double-clutch automated manual transmission is the undisputed industry benchmark, but the standard seven-speed S Tronic automated manual in the RS 3 is a close second. Its seamless shifts in Drive and Sport Drive, its logic, and its manual-mode’s quickness and smoothness are just about as good as it gets. Yes, it does belch and burp with every wide-open throttle upshift, as it should. We only wish Audi had spent a little more money on the steering wheel–mounted shift paddles. Audi conservatively claims that with the car’s standard launch control, the RS 3 will accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in 4.1 seconds. Phsaw! We’ve already clocked an S3 (9.9 pounds/hp) at 4.4 seconds, so we’re going to say the RS 3 (8.8 pounds/hp est) will do the deed in 3.8 seconds or better when we get one to test.
Besides the increase in output from 360 to 400 horsepower, one of the biggest benefits of the aluminum engine is the weight savings. Some 57 pounds have been taken off the nose of the car. What this does is make the steering rack’s 14.6:1 overall ratio very alert and responsive. Move the wheel 0.5 inch from center, and the RS 3 goes there right now. As with the best systems, the ratio quickens the more off center the wheel is turned. Our mountain pass drive had a mix of medium- to high-speed corners. In the quick ones, the car felt dead steady and held a line without the need to adjust the steering one bit. If we wanted to tighten the line, we bled throttle. Widen the arc, then add throttle. Part of this is due to torque vectoring with brakes, the other part is just damned good suspension/steering/driveline calibration and obvious integration. At the limit in the slower corners, there is a hint of gentle understeer. However, with the car set in Dynamic drive mode (affecting throttle, transmission, all-wheel drive, and suspension, with RS-specific sport stability control), lifting off the throttle momentarily tucked the nose in and even kicked the tail out. Any rally fan knows the next step was to apply a generous amount of throttle to allow the all-wheel-drive system to do its thing. The Haldex clutch-based system is noticeably rear biased and allows the RS 3 to hold a slight slip angle quite nicely—even more noticeably with ESP fully defeated—but there is always a huge amount of control available.
What a pleasure to drive an all-wheel-drive sedan that isn’t set up merely for slippy, slushy trips to the ski slopes. Although it certainly would be able to sort that out, too, this car is primarily set up to be driven hard in the dry. Rather than mere reactionary response, there’s some proactivity built into the AWD electronics, and it really shows. What a blast, and no doubt a nod to Audi’s Quattro rally-racing glory days.
Standard suspension is front strut/rear multilink with magnetorheological dampers all around. The damping characteristics among Comfort, Normal, and Dynamic modes are very distinct, yet even in Dynamic mode, there’s still a good deal of compliance not present in the optional Dynamic Plus package that uses firmer steel suspension and traditional multivalve dampers. Even in their softest setting, there was some gut-jiggling harshness on less than perfect roads around town. That package is intended to be the track-ready setup and as such also includes carbon-ceramic front disc brakes.
Will it be Worth It?
Worth the wait? Certainly. We’ve been chomping at the bit since 2011 when the RS 3 was introduced to the rest of the world. There will always be a market here for niche high-performance cars. When the Audi RS 3 sedan arrives this summer, you can bet initially there will be a very high demand for it. Had Audi decided to bring the RS 3 Sportback (four-door hatchback, shown above), our American predilection for sedans might have found fewer takers, and so that will remain overseas for now.
Will it be worth the money? With pricing and packaging still being determined as we write, Audi PR’s best estimate is that the RS 3 will be priced at between $55,000 and $60,000, or about $5,000 to $10,000 more than a comparably equipped S3. This price is right on top of a similarly focused 365-hp 2017 BMW M2 ($55,595) when equipped with a double-clutch automated manual transmission and two fewer doors. The RS 3 will be a bit more expensive than a 375-hp Mercedes-AMG CLA45 4Matic. Even adding adaptive suspension brings that car’s price up to $51,725.
The RS 3 is at least as engaging to drive as an M2, if not more so, and it offers more confidence with all-wheel drive. On a racetrack, the BMW might have a slight edge. On a sketchy mountain road, our money is on the Audi. In terms of everyday practicality and livability, the RS 3 makes the CLA45 look and feel like a project car. Where that Mercedes-AMG feels like a peaky, harsh front-driver with the rear wheels driven as a bolt-on addition, this Audi feels like a powerful rear-drive car with front wheels gnawing at the pavement only to save your bacon.
There’s an overall coherence and competence baked into the entirety of the RS 3 that’s hard to put into words. In this class, there really are few analogues for the Audi RS 3. This is what makes it so special and such a long-coveted addition to the U.S. market. It’s one of those once-in-a-decade performance cars enthusiasts will be talking about for some time. There’s something to be said for the stealthy sleeper sedan look, but we just wish the RS 3 looked as badass as it truly is. If it had blistered/box fenders, a carbon roof, or the Sportback(!), that would be an unmistakable sign that this is no ordinary A3/S3. Regardless, we can’t wait to test one on American tarmac and see what sort of defense the opposition will have for the Noisy Cricket. We’re suspecting not much.
A Little hRStory
Audi corporate builds the A3 and S3, and as such, they must follow rules. Rules that homogenize, rules that keep people comfortable, rules that intend to keep people safe from themselves, and rules that take most but not all of the best fun away. Audi Sport (formerly quattro GmbH), on the other hand, builds only the RS (RennSport) cars, which don’t have these restrictions.
Audi Sport traces its roots back to the discontinued Group B Rally series (too dangerous), disbanded IMSA GTO (too fast), current German NASCAR (or as they call it, the DTM Championship), and an annual French country road race called 24 Heures du Mans. Currently, Audi Sport’s core team of just 140 hand-picked rule-bucking engineers pretty much get to design the engines, chassis, brakes, and other under-the-skin hardware they want and implant them in unsuspecting production cars. As such, they compete with BMW’s M division and Mercedes-AMG for hardcore enthusiasts’ attention and loyalty. (You’ll find German go-fast division loyalty and fanaticism much like Americans’ for sports teams, beer, or pickups.) Over the years, and from the top down in the U.S. market, the RennSport production-car repertoire has included the R8 supercar, RS 7, 6, 5, 4, and TT RS coupe/convertible. They offered the RS 3 Sportback, 2, and RS Q3 sport utility in other markets.
The One That Got Away
In 2011 and 2012, quattro GmbH built the RS 3 Sportback, a compact four-door hatch that could rip the lungs out of most outright sports cars costing many thousands more. “Nestling under the bonnet is the same 2.5-litre turbocharged five-cylinder engine that you’ll find in the TT RS, and in the RS3 it drives all four wheel via a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission… The engine is epic too. The turbo’d five-pot sounds great, whistling and warbling, and making a hard-edged growl at high revs. And it makes the RS3 seriously quick,” is how CAR magazine put it. Built from the same platform as the VW Golf, the all-wheel-drive hatch was powered by an RS 3–exclusive turbocharged 2.5-liter iron-block inline-five engine making 340 horsepower and 332 lb-ft of torque. Every enthusiast worth his or her salt wanted this car, or at least wished his or her Golf were this car. Lower, wider, and featuring lightweight materials and unique styling details, that hot hatch was capable of a 4.5-second sprint to 60 mph with the aid of its ultra-quick automated manual transmission. In 2015, power increased to 360 hp, torque to 343 lb-ft, and the 0–60 time dropped to 4.3 seconds. This was the car Audi promised the now-hangry U.S. enthusiasts. Alas, it never was to be.
Finally, late in 2016, Audi Sport made it official: We would have our long-awaited RS 3 late in 2017, probably as a 2018 model. (We just learned that there will be a small number of 2017 RS 3 sedans making it to our shores in the summer before the 2018s arrive, so officially 2017 will be our RS 3’s first model year.) For our patience, we were rewarded with an all-new all-aluminum 2.5-liter engine, now making 400 horsepower, but only in sedan form. No wagon or hatchback.
With the exception of the Audi Allroad, luxury-branded hatches and wagons (Sportbacks and Avants in Audi parlance) just won’t sell in sufficient numbers in the States to warrant trying, according to Audi’s research. A sedan is a better bet for the high-performance model. In fact, Audi says that bringing the RS 3 sedan to the States is the only reason it will continue producing it. We saved the RS 3! Let’s hope BMW M and Mercedes-AMG don’t start thinking this way, or they’ll restricting imports of E63 S wagons and GLA45 hatchbacks, and comparisons like the GLE63 S versus X6 M sport utilities won’t happen. Although prototypes and homebuilt Touring versions exist, BMW has yet to produce an official M3 or M5 wagon. We can keep dreaming. Let’s hope Audi joins in soon so more folks can appreciate the full bandwidth of RS badged high-performance vehicles.