Audi-RS3: It's old-school mettle

Small, nimble, smartly turned out and super fast ... the Audi RS3 was born for NZ roads.


Small, nimble, smartly turned out and super fast … the Audi RS3 Sportback was born to run on the New Zealand roads where its famous forebear earned world-beating status.

For: Stunning and unflappable performance, well-sorted chassis, fantastic pedigree.

Against: A touch too firm and boomy for everyday family use, small fuel tank; track-suited tyres wrong footwear for gravel.

Score: 4.5/5

A SMALL hatchback with tremendous grunt achieving stupendous grip and dynamic ability through being meted four-wheel-drive … don’t tell me that doesn’t conjure up memory of a very exciting past period of motorsport?

Well, if not for you, then for me. Perhaps rallying piques my interest is because the very first international one I witnessed was staged here in New Zealand in 1981, the year when everything about the sport changed forever.

And yet, of course, all that Group A stuff is history now. I’m not saying the World Rally Championship today isn’t exciting, yet what now races is really quite different to what we had then. And to what the RS3 is now.

The formula that created this RennSport division car’s famous forebear, the one that so completely rewrote the rules and bashed up the BDAs and so on with its fancy-pants four-wheel-drive and turbocharged five-cylinder engine, no longer applies.

And, of course, aside from all of that, Audi no longer cares to play competitively in the snow, gravel and mud.

While it’s still great that the RS3 can trade off the off the spirit and achievements of its great grandparent, the Quattro S2, and others that followed, it does seem a bit of a shame that this car will never follow those famous forebears to which we owe so much – had it not been for these cars, would we have ever seen those legions of Evos, Imprezas and Cossies? - into the battle of competition.

At the same token, it’s hard to argue the RS3 misses any particular point. The fact that Audi has revived the concept of a compact, big-lunged five-pot four-wheel-drive car of quite stunning giant-killing potential some three decades after it hung up its racing helmet suggests its intent races further than playing out some sort of homage to never-to-repeat days gone past.

And, to be fair, even the knowledge that its talents will never be put to good numbers-on-the-door, gravel and snow-churning use doesn’t diminish the thrill of excitement that unfolds when you start to push the RS3 Sporthatch.

Regardless that $99,900 is a lot to pay for an A3, the return in pure performance punch – outputs of 270kW and 465Nm were world-beating until the previous top dog AMG 45 from Mercedes Benz was recently returned to pump out slightly more, 0-100kmh in 4.1 seconds and a top speed of 250kmh (or 20kmh more if you spend a bit extra for some software retuning) – plus the sheer tonnage of at-extremis thrillpower this car so effortlessly delivers certainly keep it on the boil with enthusiasts.

Styling, image:

It’s an inevitably irony about hot hatches: Even those with no particular motorsport genetic or direction nonetheless affect an appearance that suggests they’re just a door number short of being set for full-blown competition.

To be fair about the RS3, the numerous enhancements that turn the already quite sporty-looking standard A3 Sporthatch into something altogether tougher still have been wrought with a high degree of design professionalism.

The end result is that very little about the kit looks like a cheap ‘add-on’; you’d swear this car had been born with its big wheels, those fat side sills, the hatch-mounted boot spoiler and that massive front spoiler with its cat-swallowing air scoops and that all this was removed to create the lesser A3s, and not the other way round.

It’s the same on the inside: The feature additions of a pair of top-quality race-ready bucket chairs in very expensive carbon fibre and the flat-bottomed, chunky steering wheel finished in leather and Alcantara seem so well-suited to the cockpit (though I’m perplexed that Audi puts the leather on the bit you grip and uses the furry Alcantara for visual appeal. On race cars, it’s the other way around).

The air of quality and dedication to detail is important, of course, when you’re out to leave impression that this is a dedicated performance car – like a Porsche 911, for instance - and not, as is really the case, an extensive conversion of a family shopping basket. Obviously, if you park the RS3 next to an A3 or the intermediary S3, the game is pretty much up, even though it is obviously a lot meaner looking than those kissing cousins. Seen in isolation, though, the RS3 looks really quite steroidal and special. And anyway, just to hammer home the point, there’s an exhaust soundtrack that hammers home the point. Something I’ll get back to.

The huge rims and rubber – it comes standard with 19-inch wheels but ours had the optional asymmetric setup, with wider rubber fitted to the front wheels - is one obvious point of distraction, but what really distinguishes it is the squat stance: The front track is also 24mm wider than that of the former RS3 and it rides almost 4cm than a standard A3.

It’s not a car that could be called outright beautiful - there’s just something about the Sporthatch that makes it look slightly too long – yet it does really capture attention, without looking too street punk chintzy, as per so many of Japan’s equivalents.

Powertrain, performance:

Did Audi really develop a five-cylinder engine for this car simply to maintain a historical reference to those original rallying Quattros? Hard to say, it probably does the RS3’s credibility no harm to suggest they might well have done so.

Even if that happenstance or otherwise link did not exist, the powertrain’s performance credentials would be enough to keep the RS3 in a very special category.

Those power and torque outputs from this 2.5-litre are huge for a car of this size and even though the rally cars packed even more in their ultimate Group B format, there’s no shame: Technically-speaking, what we have now is far superior, not least in respect to efficiency but also reliability. The works team generally had to refresh their engines after every round and potentially replaced them after several, whereas the RS3 engine can expected to take its punishment for years and perhaps hundreds of thousands of kilometres without showing the strain.

My experience of an original Quattro – the fabulous Malcolm Stewart car that is now among the most relevant works machines not in company hands  - was restricted to simply sitting in it while it idled, but I daresay the punch out of the RS3 when it kicks off from stationery might well leave the rally car eating dust.

Audi claims 4.1 seconds to 100kmh when using the launch control (or around 4.3s without), which is faster than the current Porsche 911 GT2 and also that AMG 45 hatch, and there’s no reason to suggest this is embellishment. It is simply ferocious.

While this edition has 55kg less mass to move than the previous model, thanks to the new MQB chassis and other weight saving strategies, and also benefits from being married to a swift-shifting seven speed automated manual, as much as anything else it’s the engine’s sheer oomph that keeps it feeling so sharp.

It remains explosive once on the move, to the point where achievement of speeds well beyond the legal limit is almost a thought process. As in, you just think about it and the car responds. That won’t wash with the judiciary, but is true nonetheless. Mein Gott, it is fast!

The key is not just what it has but how it is used. Despite a specific output approaching 112kW (150bhp) per litre, there is little turbo lag and, more importantly, you’re also riding a very tall wave of torque from a broad rev spread, from 1625 to 5550rpm. So basically, it’s a double-barrelled shotgun blast from kick off and seems to continue in unrelenting style not just right up to the redline but slightly beyond.

The best gauge of the car’s pace, if you don’t have the time to continually watch the speedo, is by tuning into an exhaust note that is just as I recall it from watching those works car dominate the 1981 NZ Rally. Not just in tone but also intensity: How this car gets away with being as loud as it is surprises me – but delights, as well, because the soundtrack is central to its cheeky character.

The degree of noise can be tweaked; the exhaust system proper comprises two huge pipes, each with a flap behind the muffler. They can be left closed for relatively stealthy progress in "comfort" mode  or they can be held open when you choose Dynamic in the Drive Select menu, in which case it delivers a huge booming rumble plus, cackle on the overrun and barking on each upshift.

The mischief-minded will always drive as often as possible in the latter setting, though beware that the system is so sound-centric that was sounds race circuit brilliant to the front seat occupants can, perhaps because of the location of the mufflers, be almost painfully too loud for anyone in the back seat.

Driving appeal:

Basically, it’s just like a roller coaster; there’s enough flexibility to contain it with the first part of the ride – the bit when you clatter up to the point of highest ascendancy – but, once it tips over, with little more than a toe tweak being required, from thereon it’s a screaming thrillblast that simply gains in intensity.

With four-wheel-drive, plus so techo trickery like passive torque vectoring (which brakes the inside wheels when understeer develops), standard magnetic ride (active damping), the ability to move 100 percent of drive rearward if necessary (with ESP in sport mode) and variable ratio steering (two turns lock to lock), it is extremely well sorted for expressive driving expeditions along secondary roads.

It’s true to suggest that cross-country driving provides the best measure of the fun factor; on main roads and around town it’s still characterful, but to a much lower degree.

The drama peaks when you select Dynamic mode, which stiffens suspension, and heightens responsiveness of steering and transmission, and flick the stability control to Sport, which allows for some degree of tail-flick to accompany the all-paw scrabble.

Driving it hard, it responds in kind: Some Audi chassis’ feel inert and wooden and many quattros lack for good steering feel, but this isn’t among that ilk. If anything, the sense of seat-of-the-pants controllability and balance is reminiscent of the first RS4, which was heavier and less immediately responsive but of similar dimension. But, like that forebear, it’s a car that be driven on the throttle alone; find the apex and modulate the pedal pressure until you feel the front tyres bite, then hammer down and it’s out of the corner and running hard.

With 60 percent of the weight up front and 40 percent rear, understeer is not quelled wholly despite the best efforts of the torque modulating software and those super-grippy tyres, of course, and there’ll be times when you run too fast into a bend; but either way the brakes are a cool-headed accomplice. Ceramic carbon stoppers are a $12,000 option that would hardly seemed necessary here; the standard eight-pot calipers acting on large wavy vented discs are more than sufficient.

The gearbox is also a willing participant for hard-out driving, though I did think the paddle shift could do with having a more precise feel; it’s just not quite as ‘snicky’ as you would imagine a sports gearbox to be. Sometimes, too, it seems slow on downshift.

One minor issue to keep in mind is that, mainly because of the tyre choice, it’s very skittish on gravel; more often than not your floating atop the stones rather than digging in.

The other bugbear is the fuel burn. Well, not so much that – I mean, it’s a performance car, so there’s a certain realism to the economy – but the fuel tank size. The RS3 has a standard tank, which though perfectly sorted for the diesel engines that most A3 buyers go for it Europe, is a bit on the small size for a rocket ship that when driven with enthusiasm will not see better than 13.5 litres 100km.

Ultimately, too, while the five-door Sportback offers more functionality than a three-door hatch would, this model might struggle to achieve as the optimum family choice. The seating is really sorted for four and even in Comfort setting it still comes across as a loud-voiced, firm riding feral wee thing.

How it compares:

The like-priced AMG A45 is the most obvious rival outside of the VW family and it’s worth considering as an alternate. Mercedes’ hasn’t the same rallying heritage but their car is of equal brilliance. Otherwise, there’s the $28,000-cheaper VW Golf R - also all-wheel-drive and on the same chassis, but perhaps not as playful and, in any event, more likely to be considered as an alternate to the next step down $81,900 S3.

Then again, from where I sit, the S3 doesn’t get a look-in. It might cost a one fifth less than the RS3, but it’s barely half the car that this new flagship is. What’s most appealing about the RS3 is that, of all the RS products here, it’s the one that instantly feels best-suited to our roads. You’d think it had been created specifically for our conditions.