The D_TRB Review: Audi RS3 Saloon
The five-cylinder engine from the TT RS finds its way into a saloon body, But is it more fun than the coupe?
Say ‘fast Audi’ to someone and the word ‘Avant’ almost as much as the word ‘quattro' will probably be key to the images conjured. Rapid load luggers just seem to be synonymous with the four rings. Yet if you say RS4 to me, I can’t help but think instantly of a swollen arched B7 RS4 saloon. In Misano red, since you ask. It’s a car I hold in both high esteem and great affection as I drove one quite early in my motoring journalism career. I still remember the way the bolsters on the bucket seats inflated like they were giving you a slow, but meaningful hug after some bad news. I can also recall holding the flat-bottomed steering wheel a little more tightly when I first experienced that glorious naturally aspirated V8 kicking hard at 5000rpm.
Why mention this? Well, because the proportions of the new RS3 Saloon (it’s also available in the familiar Avant-esque, but apparently less USA-appealing, Sportback body shape) remind me very much of that iconic RS4 and ever since I saw one for the first time I suppose I have been hoping that it would elicit similarly fond feelings when I drove it.
Instead of a longitudinally mounted V8 under the bonnet the RS3 has a transversely mounted, turbocharged five-cylinder, but the numbers make for an interesting comparison. At 394bhp, the new RS3 Saloon is 20bhp down on the old RS4, but in terms of torque it is the clear winner with 354lb ft available all the way from 1700rpm compared to the high-revving V8’s 317lb ft at 5500rpm.
The end result of this is a car that will do 0-62mph in just 4.1 seconds (over half a second faster than the old RS4) and 0-124mph in a mere 14.3 seconds. I didn’t do any measured runs but I did do about a dozen launch control starts (about eight of them back-to-back at one point while we were filming a video which you’ll see soon) and they all felt absolutely on the money, with a perfectly judged grip-to-slip ratio off the line. The RS3 also sounds fantastic when you launch it, holding it on the brakes with the revs bouncing off their artificial limiter - just like a rally car waiting for the final light to go out at a stage start.
The five-cylinder is a brilliantly characterful power plant with its distinctive 1-2-4-5-3 firing order and it has real punch, but it is definitely an engine that is happiest in the mid-range. Yes, it will rev to over 7000rpm, but the point where it feels natural to pull the paddle and change up is around 5,900rpm – just when the torque begins to descend from its plateau – as beyond that it begins to sound strained and slightly harsh. Keeping it in the sweet spot is easy enough to achieve, with the seven-speed double clutch S tronic ‘box slicing through shifts like a chef chopping chives, but it’s worth noting nonetheless.
Ironically, all the updates to the engine probably play more of a part in the handling of the RS3 than the straight-line performance. With an aluminium block, a hollow crankshaft and various other smaller changes the 2.5-litre engine has lost a healthy 26kg compared to the five-cylinder in the previous generation RS3. And having less weight over the front wheels can only be a good thing.
The old RS3 always felt rather flat-footed on turn-in to a corner. Nothing would seemingly budge it from a slow-in, fast out approach to bends. Now, however, the new Saloon can be flicked into corners with much greater alacrity. In fact, on the surprisingly slippery roads of the Dhofar region of Oman, the RS3 was an absolute hoot. The slightest trail brake into down hill bends would see the tail trying to overtake the rear. The ESP Sport setting is nicely judged to let you have some fun without going full Blomqvist but even with ESP totally disabled it was remarkably easy to control.
It felt more adjustable under power too. While supreme traction is still the general MO of the quattro system, you nonetheless get a greater sense of the power being sent through the rear tyres rather than the front as you exit corners. A little lift mid-bend to transfer the weight then get on the throttle aggressively with the tail already swinging and you can even encourage and hold power overseer. What I’m trying to say, is that the new RS3 is capable of being fun rather than just effective. Which in turn makes it more fun than the TT RS with which it shares this engine.
The test cars came equipped with passive dampers rather than the optional Magnetic Ride items and I can see no real reason to spec up. A well-judged single-rate spring and damper combo is generally more pleasingly transparent in its behaviour when you’re driving hard and the RS3 was taut but never uncomfortable on the many miles we did transferring between the more interesting sections of road.
All in all, the new RS3 is incredibly appealing. If I’m being picky then I would like the option of a manual and to my eyes the arches need just a touch more blistering (like that old RS4). But I love the Alcantara wheel, I feel a frisson of excitement every time I hear the five-cylinder start up and I like the entertaining way it handles (at least on the polished tarmac of Oman). In fact it’s probably my second favourite car ever to be launched in Viper Green.