Is the RS 3 saloon secretly the best Audi?
It might be – but emissions laws have dulled it a little…
It’s fair to say that the Audi RS 3 has been a bit overlooked recently. After all, it’s the baby member of Audi’s hit-and-miss RS range of sehr schnelle Autos, and the big daddies such as the all-new RS6 tend to hog the limelight with their imposing 600bhp V8 wagon silhouettes.
But it’s arguable that this, the RS 3 saloon is the sexiest car in Audi’s entire line-up. The A3 saloon has always been a pretty shape. It doesn’t look quite as long as the A4 saloon (cos it ain’t), nor as humdrum as the A3 Sportback. It’s an interesting middle ground and its relative rarity makes it all the more interesting to look at. Smother it in Audi’s Ara Blue and the RS 3 saloon becomes a proper head-turner. You can almost imagine it sidling up to its BMW mates in the pub and politely asking when they’re going to lose the Dad bod.
It’s not all mouth and no trousers either. The RS 3’s endowed with the latest version of Audi’s famous turbocharged 2.5-litre, five-cylinder engine, which puts out a whopping 400hp and 480Nm of torque to all four wheels through a part-time Haldex four-wheel-drive system and a dual-clutch automatic gearbox.
With a recent – and slightly disappointing – test of the identically engined TTRS fresh in our minds, can the RS 3 claw back some points for Audi’s go-fast division?
Bring the noise! Erm…
Those big oval exhausts don't emit as much noise as they used to
Sadly the first impressions aren’t just disappointing, they’re a bit worrying. Firing up the RS 3’s engine from cold elicits an immediate bong and a warning light on the dash: “Engine speed limited to 4,800rpm”. It transpires this isn’t a polite German man in the dashboard coughing respectfully from behind his moustache and telling you ‘das Auto ist ein bisschen kaputt’, but rather a poorly worded warning that the redline is reduced while the engine is cold.
The first time I saw this I thought I'd broken the car – but RS 3 owners will see this every time they start from cold
BMW’s M and Hyundai’s N motors deal with this problem in a far smarter way by simply dropping the redline visually on the rev counter and gently turning off the accompanying ‘you can’t go here’ lights until you have access to the full rev range when you’re up to temperature.
Once everything’s warmed up things do improve, and it’s not long before you can start exploring the engine’s full repertoire of wonderful noises. The five cylinder symphony alone is enough to make the RS 3 feel special. It transmutes from a complex, barrel-chested laryngitis-ey growl at low revs into a proper rally car sound as you go through the mid-range. Sadly, however, like almost every performance car on sale in 2019, it’s nowhere near as dramatic as it used to be.
Getting cars through Europe’s tough WLTP emissions testing has meant some pretty dramatic changes to how exhaust systems are engineered, and the RS 3 – like pretty much everything else – has been given a sound-killing petrol particulate filter. I have fond memories of a 2015 RS 3 blasting through the night-time streets of Munich crackling, popping and yelping its way over tramlines and past tourists who’d had one too many litre-size beers in the Hofbrauhaus. Including me.
Sadly, on this car with no performance exhaust fitted, I didn’t hear a single crackle, pop or cannon-esque whoomf in more than 500 miles of driving. It wouldn’t raise an inebriated cheer from anyone stumbling out of Milch Bar after its excellent 90s night (every Thursday, students get in free). And it’s a real pity because this rudeboy drama is a huge part of the RS 3’s appeal. If you want the proper unadulterated five-pot noise you need to buy a pre-facelift car made before early 2019.
Bring the speed! Erm…
The same watered-down-for-emissions niggle lingers when it comes to acceleration too. The RS 3’s 0-60 time of 4.1 seconds sounds fast, and it is, to a point. But the numbers actually suggest it feels faster than it does. It’s the king of launch control, no doubt, but the only real ‘wow’ moment comes at the top of first and second gear after a full-bore launch from a standing start. There just seems to be a bit of shove missing from the roll-on acceleration, and it may just be rose-tinted bum cheeks, but the pre-facelift car felt faster.
At this point, you might think we’re giving the RS 3 a bit of a drubbing after its meeting with Europe’s most boring regulations-people. But rest assured, the rest of the package is still wonderful.
The Haldex four-wheel-drive system does actually give you the sense it’s sending a lot of power and torque to the rear wheels when you plant the accelerator out of a bend. You feel the back tyres pushing you rather than the front tyres tugging you forwards. It’s a sensation that has been promised for years in press conferences from manufacturers trying to impress us with their Haldex tuning skills, but I’m glad to say Audi’s finally cracked it.
It's a pretty shape, isn't it? The Ara Blue 'Crystal Effect' paint is a £775 extra, and well worth the money
Let’s pretend I didn’t try launch control at 6am in a wet Tarmac National Trust car park. But if I did, the RS 3 saloon definitely launched hard and with that slight crabbing sensation that you get when a car’s sending proper amounts of torque to the back tyres. The only other Audi I’ve ever experienced that sensation in is a V10 R8. It’s a small thing, but it’s a fun sensation and one that makes the RS 3’s £47,285 asking price seem reasonable.
It's nicer than your house
I probably needn’t talk too much about the interior – it’s typically sublime Audi. The part-Alcantara steering wheel feels the perfect thickness, and the suede-like bits actually cover the portion of the wheel you hold, unlike the Megane RS. Audi’s Virtual Cockpit was first to the digital dash market and it’s still the best, most intuitive and sharpest-looking of its ilk. It’ll still delight any of your passengers who have never seen it before.
The only interior niggles come from the fact that the A3’s basic interior architecture is getting on for seven years old. This means there’s nowhere for a wireless charging pad for your phone. And the central infotainment system rising from the dashboard feels a bit gimmicky and slow to ascend to the heavens. But these are minor flaws.
The RS 3 is further proof that you don't have to stop buying fun cars when you breed
As a whole, the RS 3 saloon feels like the perfect home for Audi’s five-cylinder engine. It’s no longer the bundle of exciting, unstable dynamite it once was, but in a saloon body it makes a lot of sense – this isn’t a car that’s professing to be a hardcore two-seater sportscar like the slightly dull TTRS. And as such you drive it like a sports saloon. Slow into corners, very fast out of them, with a slight shove from the back tyres. It looks absolutely stunning inside and out, and is a much friendlier car to live with day-to-day than an A35 AMG. And, by getting the saloon over the RS 3 Sportback, you’re making a classy and rare choice. It’s still one of Audi’s best RS cars, which also makes it one of the best fast cars you can get.
Let’s just hope there’s an aftermarket tuning company out there who can help rediscover the RS 3’s drama. Just don’t tell the polar bears.