UPDATED 08/10/22: This review has been updated with test results.
yes Audi RS3 there is a drift mode. And yes, it allows even the most restless among us to participate in cackling-inducing shenanigans that were once exclusive to rear-wheel drive vehicles. But really, the trick is the rear differential that the RS3 shares with the Volkswagen Golf R is most beneficial on the track, as the chunky sedan’s Nürburgring time of 7:40.8 convincingly demonstrates.
While the genetics are undeniably evident, the RS3 has been honed into something completely different this time around, and that’s a lot more serious when it comes to picking lap times. Its rugged appearance sends a message before you even sit on it. These uniquely flared fenders hold tires that are 265mm wide at the front and 245mm at the rear, compared to the previous generation RS3’s extra 255mm and 235mm respectively. People on Audi The sport put a lot of thought into making this thing turn around. What you don’t see are the RS3-specific spindles and hubs, front subframe, control arms or anti-roll bars. Compared to the S3, the front track is two inches wider, and there’s an extra degree of negative camber up front (along with an extra half-degree of negative camber in the rear). So if you thought you’d buy an S3 or Golf R and do some modifications here and there to make up the difference, you won’t.
Even if you came close, you’d still be underpowered by the cylinder and its half-liter displacement—not to mention the 2.5-liter’s wonderful character. The fact that Audi is building a five-cylinder engine at all is probably worth noting, and that’s a good thing. Featuring a unique soundtrack and layout in defiance of this era of sameness, the amazing and award-winning engine is turbocharged to 401 horsepower and 369 lb-ft—seven more ponies than the previous model, but 15 additional lb-ft. There’s a bit of turbo lag at low revs—nothing egregious, just not the ton of torque you’re familiar with from the marque’s naturally aspirated four-cylinder engines. Either way, the slight lull is more than made up for by the run to the redline, where the RS3 pulls and pulls. . . and pulls. . . and pulls. . . to gear up.
A seven-speed dual-clutch automatic is the only transmission offered. It is stronger than the S3 and does not have a single gear ratio. More than a few times we caught it a little behind on downshifts—manual is best when you’re chasing lap times. From there, an open differential sends torque to the front wheels as before, while at the other end of the drive shaft, two independent clutch packs replace the previous Haldex single clutch. By disconnecting the inside rear wheel, the system can effectively direct rear torque to the outside wheel, helping to mitigate understeer or encourage the aforementioned drifting antics in RS Performance control mode. As before, the front wheels are driven all the time.
With launch control engaged, our 3,639-pound test car sprinted to 60 in 3.3 seconds, beating the 2017 RS3 we last tested by a tenth of a second, despite the new version weighing 92 pounds more . Stay in it and the quarter mile flies by in 11.8 seconds at 117 mph. However, the magic of the engine’s dual-clutch launch control programming, combined with the engine’s higher torque peak – 3500rpm versus the old RS3’s 1700rpm – is evident in the 5-60mph time of 4.7 seconds is actually o.4 seconds slower than before.
In practice, the RS3’s mechanical guile provides the best of both worlds. If you rush into a turn at too much speed, reliable understeer makes for an easy escape. Alternatively, get the input speed you want (which is a bit hot for this car), hit the throttle earlier than you think you should, and let the electronics shuffle the torque and pull you out. Driving the RS3 with aggressive aggression pays off.
The handlebars have the right thickness and provide precise control. The large width of the front tires is easy to distinguish even through the damping of the electric steering rack, which translates in the palm of your hand as “rough steamroller” rather than “nimble little sedan.” Your task is to confidently pull the steering wheel, press the gas and drive to the next turn. Unfortunately, grip levels are down slightly from the old RS3, at least on the stock Pirelli P Zero PZ4 summer tires that were on our test car. Around the slick, the new RS3 stuck to the pavement with 0.94g compared to the 0.98g the 2017 model produced on similar Pirelli tires. Likewise, its 167-foot stop from 70 mph on stock iron rotors is 10 feet longer than we’ve seen before from the optional carbon-ceramic setup. To combat this, Audi now offers track-oriented Pirelli P Zero Trofeo R rubber for $450.
If you’re going to take your RS3 to the track – and you should – you’ll probably find its setup a fair compromise. The suspension feels perfectly damped for road driving, which is quite a feat given its competence on the track. In Comfort mode, the rebound feels precisely in sync with waves and depressions, especially at high speeds; in the most aggressive Dynamic setting, we found the shocks too stiff for use on rough Midwestern roads. Adjust the vehicle’s RS Individual mode accordingly.
The RS3 starts at $59,995. It’s well-equipped, but there are a few temptations, from the $5,500 Dynamic Plus package (lightweight carbon-ceramic front brakes, increased top speed to 180 mph) to the $2,750 Tech package (better navigation, traffic sign recognition, Bang & Olufsen audio and projection display). We recommend the RS Sport exhaust for $1,000—to better hear the 88-decibel sound of the turbo five—and you can price your RS3 over $70,000 if you want. But we hardly think that’s necessary to enjoy what this boisterous little car has to offer.
Is the RS3 worth it? There’s no doubt that this car has been thoroughly optimized for track performance, and that level of attention is rarely seen at this price point. Set up S3 as close as possible and you’ll still spend $50,000. BMW’s redesigned M2 has not yet appeared, and Mercedes-AMG CLA45, although very close in price, has one less cylinder and is not as serious about turning laps on the track. For the right person, the RS3 can be a gem. And even if you don’t expect to be unleashed on the racetrack, you’re still buying the exclusivity of a five-cylinder engine.
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