It’s been a while since Subaru and Audi ventured onto a world rally stage, but the WRX and RS3 still keep the memory alive, right?
EVERYTHING to do with these cars traces back to what happened late one winter’s night in 1981 on a 40km road high in the mountains behind Monaco.
If you’re a rally fan, you’ll know the story. Audi turned up with untried tech. Stage one provided a true test: A massive climb to a 1602 metre summit, then a dizzying drop down the other side. A dazzling count of arm-winding tight turns. Sixteen true hairpins, about 30 more near-as-dammits. Snow and ice.
Neither Audi finished the 1981 Monte Carlo. But the A2 Quattro of course the rules of the sport, so comprehensively did the two works cars smash the opposition over the Col de Turini.
More than just rival teams in that year’s competition took notice. In Japan, a small unknown whose meddling with four-wheel-drive had begun in 1972 with a weird little wagon called the Leone, realised that an initial idea about focusing their tech for rural use would gain all the more cred were they to also take it into motorsport.
Within a decade, Subaru was also rallying; ultimately putting much more silverware on the mantelpiece than Audi ever earned.
Fittingly, too, one of Fuji’s greatest single moments would play out over the route linking the villages of La Bellone-Vesubie and Sospel.
In 2002, works pairing Petter Solberg and Phil Mills, out to set the pace, attacked with huge ferocity. The in-car’s footage is engrossing: Mills’ non-stop patter includes repeated ice warnings. At the end, Solberg reckons he was on the wrong tyres. And yet, 23 minutes, 36 seconds! Their time still stands as the stage record.
Given that it’s years since Audi and Subaru opted out of world-class motorsport, you might wonder whether the RS3 and WRX sedans on test today can claim all that much cred from those days or if, for that matter, they still retain any of that old-school sporting spirit.
Audi RS3 sedan
IF you’re going get all ultra-purist about it, then the RS5 is more of a spiritual successor to those famous Quattros of yore: Similar size, similar design ideal.
Yet if you want to entertain some historical context about what a competition-sorted Audi must have felt and sounded like, then the RennSport Audi A3, with a fat-rubbered tyre at each corner and a turbocharged five-pot engine under the bonnet, has to be much more on the money. Same darty, direct handling, same cylinder count and wonderfully rorty exhaust note.
That such a car exists and delivers quite stunning giant-killing potential some three decades after Ingolstadt’s racing department stowed its overalls and helmets suggests fondness to maintain homage to never-to-repeat days gone past, but reality is that hot hatches are such good business for Audi they’d be nuts not to have this car.
Sorry, did I say hatch? Big news with the RS3 is that it now sizzles in sedan format. In putting the boot in, they’ve certainly not lessened the heat. In original format, the RS3 was searing enough with 270kW and 465Nm, but after a certain rival (okay, AMG) eked more out of its A45, Audi felt need to up the ante further. So, now, 294kW and 480Nm and, in case you were wondering (and of course you were) 0-100kmh in 4.1 seconds. Move over Porsche.
If you’re hatch-hooked, be aware that choice remains. The sedan is here as a alternate, for those who prefer a fully metal back end to one with glass included.
Looks-wise, it’s less of a winner, to my eyes. The RS addenda hangs well on it, no argument; all those performance bits having been wrought with a high degree of design professionalism. You’d swear this car had been born with its big wheels, those fat side sills, the boot spoiler and that massive front spoiler with its cat-swallowing air scoops. Yet while patently steroidal, overall, it just doesn’t look quite as seriously sporty as the hatch.
It’s the same as the five-door on the inside: There’s no way to disguise this is an extensive conversion of a family runabout, but the RS division does its best to lend a proper performance air. The dedication to detail continues and feature additions of a pair of top-quality race-ready bucket chairs and the flat-bottomed, chunky steering wheel finished in leather and Alcantara are awesome. The 12.3-inch Virtual Cockpit is part of the action and so too a seven-inch MMI dash screen set-up; functionality is still excellent even though the graphics on the latter are starting to look a bit dated.
Are you surprised that this model might struggle to achieve as the optimum family choice? Didn’t think so. The seating is really sorted for four even in the standard A3 sedan, and only after those up front have made a concession for rear legroom that is basically all the harder to achieve at RS level, due to front seats taking up more room. But heck, it’s hardly likely to be utilised as an Uber, right? Boot space is pretty good, being 335 litres as standard, rising to 1175 litres with the rear seats relieved of their passenger-carrying duties. But blah, blah, blah. That’s not what you’re here for.
This engine. We know it so well. And yet, we don’t. Because Audi assures the five-cylinder for 2018 is much more than just a reprogrammed version of the fiery wee marvel that’s been served previously. Redevelopment means exactly that: A lightweight alloy crankcase (it was compacted graphite iron previously), plasma-coated cylinder bores, 6mm-smaller main bearings for the crank (now hollow-bored, to save a kilo of weight) and a magnesium sump are enhancements that cumulatively deliver a 26kg weight reduction, the benefit of which becomes apparent when hitting the bends.
With some expensive small cars, you get the impression that the massive premium they carry over most like-sized (or even equipped) mainstream fare is to pay for extravagant brochures, but in this instance I can assure it’s all probably gone into ensuring optimal engineering. Mainly under the bonnet.
I don’t know whether there’s any historic reason why Audi still sticks with a five-cylinder, but it’s brilliant that they have. This such a characterful engine and, moreover, such a impressively ferocious one.
The explosiveness of the acceleration is simply stupendous, but the unrelenting tidal wave of oomph beyond that initial punch is just as impressive. Its urge is amazing for a 2.5-litre and exercises to the point where achievement of speeds well beyond the legal limit is almost a thought process. There is little turbo lag and, more importantly, you’re also riding a very tall wave of torque from a broad rev spread.
The soundtrack is central to its cheeky charisma; aincreasingly booming (but never boomy) rumble climbing to cackle on the overrun and barking on each upshift. As in the hatch, what 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.
So far, so relatively familiar for hatch fans. So, again, why swap shapes? The answer comes when you start to push hard. Assuming you’re driving with an empty boot, a three box shape straight away delivers less weight aft of the back wheels and, now, there are fewer kilos above and ahead of the front set, too. So, although the RS3 is still a bit of a chunky thing overall, the sedan nonetheless straight out feels better-balanced, more neutral and, overwhelmingly, more athletic than the alternate edition.
With such stupendous grip and traction always on hand, the RS3 has always been one of those cars in which, the worst the climatic and surface condition, the better it feels. Behind the fundamental of four-wheel-drive is a stack of 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.
Yet when scything into a challenging corner, the sedan wastes no time in demonstrating that it is even sharper-witted, being for one far less affected by understeer than its sister machine.
If anything, in fact, it delivers something that the hatch has never enabled: A cheeky hint of oversteer; just enough to make you wind off a touch of lock to compensate. It would be intriguing to back-to-back both models through an identical cornering exercise. Seat of the pants perception is that the four-door would be just that little bit tidier and nippier.
In any event, it just makes a car that has always been enjoyable feel just that little bit more special still. The sedan also allows Audi to have another go at lending the variable Dynamic steering some real feel – it’s not truly natural but is more consistent in operation – and the ongoing work with its Magnetic Ride dampers has also been worthwhile. Rigid body control is still patently a priority, but it does deliver some genuine suppleness outside of the racetrack-ready sport mode. The brakes are awesome, too, and the seven-speed direct shift gearbox is a fully willing participant for hard-out driving.
So, yeah, all in all it has the feel of a car that would probably acquit quite well if it was thrown into a competition arena – by which I mean a racetrack rather than a rally stage.
Everything about how the RS3 is engineered and outfitted suggests that Ingolstadt no longer gives any particularly consideration to the arena where the Quattro adventure all began. That wide rubber, alone, makes it a skittish thing on gravel - more often than not you’re floating atop the stones rather than digging in. Beyond that, you just know it’s just too polished and impeccably finished for that kind of thing.
Too expensive, too: The hit for this experience comes to $106,900 before even considering the pricey options such as carbon brakes and deeper bucket seats.
Still, as an exercise in putting extreme performance into a petite and preened package, the RS3 continues to establish itself as a very memorable and special treat.
FUNCTIONAL similarity? Tick. But the glaringly obvious fundamental difference between Fuji’s flier and the Ingolstadt offer is this.
Regardless that Subaru stopped searching – at factory level at least - for rally glory in 2008, if there’s one car that still seems in search of a special stage, the WRX is still it.
The original idea of this story was to gauge if the standard WRX – the black car seen with the test RS3 - could measure against the Audi.
To ensure a proper like-with-like showdown, the version selected was a Premium outfitted with the market-preferred constantly variable Lineartronic tranny that, though not like a DSG in absolute execution – being cogs versus cones - is similar in fundamental paddle-shift, just-two-pedals operation.
Good idea? Wishful, more likely. It quickly became apparent that for any of the good reasons for thinking a boggo WRX could take on an RS3 – decent power, decent poise, massive price advantage - are kyboshed by a gearbox that isn’t.
Lineartronic makes the WRX pleasant for street and easy-going open road driving. But it’s not the right thing to release that ‘World Rally eXperimental’ spirit. The engine is willing and, with 197kW/350Nm, pretty able. The tranny … erm, less so. To take the RS3 down, we’d need a bigger gun. Enter the WRX STi.
Call it old-school, but not with distain. If you want a WRX to fulfil the job that it was originally designed to do, then the edition that fits out with Brembo brakes, centre differential control and a rear vision mirror-filling rally spec rear wing – plus the kudos of being the most successful car in the New Zealand rally championship – is still ‘the one’.
At $64,990, the STi still stands as a pretty impressive bang-for-buck buy, not simply because it represents quite literally as a two-for-one against the Audi. On the strength of this evaluation, I’d suggest it presents a better cash credibility than is offered by that $55,990 SLT WRX in respect not just to kilowatt count but also purity of performance.
Hitting the hard roads in the STi was much less an exercise in frustration than with the Lineartronic WRX; while the latter definitely has some kapow, it is much less an absolute performance weapon. In some ways it is, quite possibly, the most mellow rendition of WRX in the 25 years since Fuji Heavy Industries gave birth to a turbocharged, all-wheel-drive cult classic. Too harsh? Yup, I did hate having to say that.
It’s down less to what the engines produce than how their outputs present. Both cars now format with the curious three-mode SI-drive system that varies drivetrain performance from pedestrian to punchy, yet even though their potency sharpens significantly when in the most aggressive Sport Sharp mode, that has less effect on their engagement than the transmissions themselves.
With a 6.3 seconds 0-100kmh acceleration claim, the WRX SLT is still among the quicker hot fours, yet such is the nature of the cogless shift that it just doesn’t feel as alert as the stopwatch say. Whereas the STi, which is purely manual (because Subaru cannot engineer a Lineartronic to cope with its extra torque), simply smashes off … away from the line and onward through the gears.
Handshifting the STi up through its cogs neatly does ask for some practice, because the clutch is heavy and abrupt and the gears are very closely spaced; by comparison, the shift operation through the SLT’s pre-sets is all the sweeter, because all it asks is that you gently pull back on the flappy paddles. Every ‘gearchange’ is quick and slick.
The problem is, there’s much less sense of involvement. You cannot rev the engine as hard as you could can with the manual because the system simply won’t allow it (it’s so self-protecting that it’ll auto shift up, and refuse downchanges if sensing the revs are too high, even in the manual mode) and, of course, being CVT there’s no engine braking. The latter ruins some of the fun when you’re wanting to charge hard into a corner and keep up the revs. Something the STi encourages every time.
That’s the drivetrains ticked off. What about the chassis? In this respect, the models are more equals. The STi is firmer and, because of its bigger brakes, fatter tyres and that adjustable diff, can be formatted for harder corner, yet fundamentally, both types of WRX are equally well planted. A curious and quite likeable aspect to the WRX is that, even though Subaru officially swore off special stage play 10 years ago, it still has the indelible feel of a car that would happily provide a way back into the sport.
The STi, as expected, is all the more honed and it certainly has the aptitude to hold with, if not seriously harass, the RS3. But max attacking in this car always demands so much more of the driver. For sure, with three pedals and a stick to shift gears, it is quite literally more hands (and feet) on; but on top of this the clutch is heavy and bity, so too the brake pedal. The gearshift tight close-gated and reluctant to slot cleanly when cold. It demands concentration. On top of this, the car fights you; mostly through the steering but also the chassis. It’s just rather raw; pitching, banging and crashing over bumps and ruts that the RS3 – and, in fact, the standard WRX- simply sail across. And very loud. Road, wind, engine noise.
Some will say that’s too much of a challenge; others will find it invigorating. Eager, but edgy has always been the WRX way, but compare with the new Impreza, which has migrated to the brand-new platform the racers won’t see until next year, and you’ll find the faster cars are prone to a lot more understeer and much less easy to hold on line.
Grip-wise they can sit on a knife-edge. The 245/35 Advans are as good as you can get, but even top tyre tech can achieve so much. The STi’s nose-first habit can be tempered by setting the active differential in manual then winding it right back to effect a degree of rear-end bias; but as with the WRX the trick to keeping it from slewing also always comes down to when and how much throttle is used.
You’ll be tempted to use a lot, often, because it’s a fantastic engine, strong in pull and keen to exert that strength right to the 7000rpm redline, with a fulsome, bombastic urgency.
It bangs in a smack-in-the-back surge that’s hard to forget. At least, when you need to haul up in a hurry, it’s no issue: Six-pot front and two-pot rear Brembo brakes, with cross-drilled rotors, are a heck of a thing.
Styling and fitout-wise, the 2018 Subarus are not much different to their predecessors. Changes to the exterior include subtly restyled LED headlights, new front bumper and foglight bezel design, and restyled 18- and 19-inch alloys for the WRX and STI, respectively. The update cars can also be identified by their painted brake callipers: Red for the WRX, yellow for the STi.
Inside the changes are minimal, with the door switch panel, instrument panel centre, gear shift surround panel and steering centre bezel all finished in black moulding for the WRX and high gloss black in the STI.
The cabin design does seem quite dated and, though fit is not as shonky as it used to be, there’s a sense of cost-consciousness and make-do. Subaru used to give these models cheap interiors for good reason; most of the time all those bits were biffed when the cars were transformed for competition use. That doesn’t happen now, but the habit of using hard plastics seems hard to break. The latest Impreza and XV interiors are streets ahead.
Subaru has been trying to incrementally add sophistication to its rally car for the road, but it can only do so much. WRXs all now get reversing cameras, heated door mirrors and LED foglights plus adaptive LED headlights and daytime running lights, a 5.9-inch infotainment system, dusk-sensing headlights and rain-sensing wipers. Yet only SLT cars have a form of Eyesight, and even then it’s not the full scale effort. They also lack the electronic architecture to allow for such stuff as Apple CarPlay on the large central touchscreen. There’s a digital panel between the dials and another atop the dashboard to mimic performance readouts, but again neither are latest edition.
So, yeah, in so many ways it is starting to slip behind. And yet, when you read that Subaru is about to call time on this car – nothing official yet, but enough whispers to suggest it’s soon to happen – there’s a real pang. This car has meant so much, for so long, it’ll be hard to see it go.
Anyone seeking to get a sense of what these brands achieved in the halcyon days of their global rallying capaigns – not World Rally Championship, in Audi’s case (theirs was a pre-WRC effort) – should steer straight to the STi.
Even though the shape has changed and it has picked up some comforts, this car is still very much the real, old-ways, hard-as-nails analogue deal in how it attacks the road. Adoption of more even pipe lengths pretty much nixed the Subby sound on the standard WRX, but a ghost of that thrub still remains on the STi, more refined but definitely not faked. It’s a glorious note that sums of the brilliant absurdity of it all.
The RS3 is fantastic, too, but there’s obviously less sense of history to it; parked up at the end of a rally stage, it’s just another car, albeit a very special one. It is an incredibly accomplished driving package; no argument, and perfectly shaped, provisioned and powered for New Zealand secondary roads. Shame about the price of admission.
Where does that leave the WRX SLT? I can understand, entirely, when Subaru felt forced to create this model. Demand for easy driving is ever increasing and, for sure, the Lineartronic delivers this as capably as it does in Subaru’s mainstream fare. Yet its implementation all too obviously brings this Achilles to heel; to win the battle for greater acceptance, they’ve lost the phwoar. It would be unfair to call the SLT edition WRX lite, but it’s definitely not the experience you buy into with a manual. I could not help but wonder how much more stirring this car would be had Subaru take the same gearbox route as Audi.