Is it third time lucky for the RS3 as a driver's car?

By Matt Bird / Tuesday, October 26, 2021 / Loading comments

Enthusiasts aren’t meant to like the Audi RS3. Too heavy, too inert, too plain to drive despite the performance on offer. That’s how the script goes, at least. For the most recent generation, though, Audi’s hot hatch was a lot more agreeable, delivering the crushing performance it’s always been famed for with a somewhat less heavy-handed dynamic character. Reasonably subtle, searingly fast, immensely grippy and very far from bad to drive, it wasn’t hard to see why the 8V RS3 found fans.

Indeed, nobody would have blamed Audi for producing a very similar car this time around. The RS3 recipe – five-cylinder wallop, all-weather traction, a nice interior – has served it so well for a decade, so why change it now? Well, change it Audi has, and if not in dramatic fashion, then at least in ways that ought to increase the RS3’s appeal to enthusiasts. Obviously the engine, gearbox and drivetrain continue, but there are chassis tweaks that augur well for the driving experience. And which aren’t just Drift Mode (we’ll get to that, promise). Things like the increase of negative camber at the front, some bespoke hardware and the Nurburgring lap record all point to an RS3 that ought to be more than just a hero of TikTok drag races.

In styling terms, the RS3 is clearly a more overt performance car than it once was; a shame for anyone who like the Q-car approach of earlier models, but understandable in showier times. Though subtler colours are still offered, the grille in particular rather gives the RS3 game away (expect it to be ultra handy for clearing the outside lane of the M40). In person, the RS3 is more attention grabbing than ever, with flashier wheels, DRLs that spell ‘RS3’ when you unlock (seriously) and a bulkier bumper than ever before ensuring everyone will know what has just warbled past. It’ll be up to buyers to decide whether that’s good thing or not.

You’re never left in any doubt the RS3’s intentions inside, either, although at least other people don’t have to see colour-coded air vents and the ‘Audi Runway’ rev counter. Minor gripes aside, it’s actually a pretty good set-up, with a low driving position, thin Alcantara wheel and a few precious buttons denied to stablemates. With seven driving modes now, too – Efficiency, Comfort, Auto, Dynamic, RS Performance, RS Individual and RS Track Rear (the drifty one) – having physical buttons is certainly an advantage. Even if the tiny gear selector and apologetic paddles are grating.

Here is where you’re probably expecting a gripe about so many modes, but it says much of the RS3’s innate quality that it feels good even mooching about in Comfort. Good as in cohesive and satisfying, each input corresponding to exactly the output hoped for. It’s taut, alert, yet accommodating even at ordinary speeds. When the press conference talks about going through eight different suspension geometries for get the front axle to feel right, you get the impression that details were sweated over like maybe they haven’t been before. And it shows, with steering that’s well weighted regardless of mode and a front-end response perfectly in tune with the lock applied. Obviously throwing 265-section tyres at the front end of anything would help turn in bite, but the approach here feels more methodical. This is an Audi where the outright grip – considerable though it is – is not the be all and end all.

Then, of course, there’s the rear axle to think about. The RS Torque Splitter is technology we’ve already seen in cars like the Golf R, and works in broadly similar fashion. Which means Drift Mode requires a fair bit of commitment on the road (though perhaps a bit less here because of the extra torque), and the real enjoyment comes from the RS3 straightening up under power, or just smearing wide, of long bends. Using throttle applications that would have pushed you towards the scenery in previous iterations now bring the RS3 alive, which is probably the first time that word has been deployed to describe a modern-day five-cylinder Audi. But with a front end of such tenacity and a throttle-adjustable rear, it’s become a very different experience. A much better one.

One thing that hasn’t changed is the 2.5-litre engine. Which is good. A small RS Audi without the inline five would be like a pub without beer – kind of hard to see the point, no matter how nice the surroundings. It remains tuneful, potent and engaging, perhaps showing its age now with some lag, although that makes its rabid upper reaches all the more exciting. Exhaust rumble doesn’t seem quite what it was, either, though in its place is a more engaging soundtrack onboard, with chuffs and whistles alongside the unmistakable five-cylinder sound. Suffice it to say the International Engine of the Year award winner (nine years in a row for the 2.0- to 2.5-litre category) definitely still has it. The seven-speed DSG isn’t feeling quit so sharp, however, throwing in shifts both up and down when not expected and not always the most responsive to manual requests (though it will no longer kickdown or change up in the appropriate mode, thank goodness.) If the RS3 has the more likeable engine, the AMG A45’s eight-speed DCT – from memory, at least – is the superior transmission.

There’s a heck of a lot of adjustability in the RS3, and now probably isn’t the time to be definitive on what suits best. Notable points include a usable, enjoyable Dynamic mode, with neither steering nor suspension overly aggressive, an Efficiency setting that will have that incredible engine coast whenever possible, and an RS Performance that’s really best left for track. On this test it felt right to have the powertrain and torque splitter as vocal and alert as possible, the steering and suspension one step down from max attack (but they’re both decent cranked up) and the ESC slackened off a tad. There, with the usual caveats that come from driving a new car abroad, you’ll find a brilliant fast Audi. For once the behaviour of the steering, brakes, damping, torque splitter and assists all feel like people who care have spent time on them, and invite you into the process of driving rather than merely tolerating your presence. It’s a mega hatch, seemingly, of depth, intrigue and quality.

And a Drift Mode, of course. To Audi’s credit, a designated area was set aside for tyres to be sacrificed, and, as promised, this RS3 really will oversteer. It’ll spin if you’re really bad. Like many of these state-of-the-art systems, it feels a bit counterintuitive because it needs so much throttle, but start slow, steer hard, punch that gas like you’re a Fast & Furious extra, and it’ll give you a bonafide powerslide, requiring measured correction (but still lots of throttle) to maintain. And you know what? It’s tremendous fun, coaxing a car famed for ploughing on into silly oversteer angles. Of course it’ll have next to no application on the road, and it chomps through all four tyres, but it ought to make wet roundabouts fun. Or, er, designated off-road venues, of course. Keep an eye on YouTube for some fails coming soon, however – it’s not a lazy, easy effort drifter by any means…

There’s circuit time in the new RS3, too, with the Trofeo R tyre that UK buyers sadly won’t be offered. Plus ceramic brakes that only the most committed will surely opt for. Thus equipped it is, against expectations, fairly brilliant. Damping that seemed so impressive on road remains resolute on track, the front end has enormous purchase, and the Torque Splitter can really be felt doing its thing on corner exit, ensuring understeer never dominates. Perhaps the assists are a bit strict in this environment, and the gearbox even more obviously sluggish – but anyone who takes this Audi on track (at least in something approaching this spec) is going to really enjoy it. Wonders will never cease, eh?

It’s hard then to think what more the new RS3 could have achieved. Those who want what the model has always offered will be pleased by the looks, performance and interior design; those who want a hot hatch that’s properly good to drive – as previous RS3s have never quite been – will be over the moon that the box has finally been ticked. Of course we won’t know for certain until the first right-hand-drive cars are unloaded in a greasy, autumnal Britain, but everything so far bodes extremely well for the enthusiast. Not least the fact that we can’t wait to get back behind the wheel.


Engine: 2,490cc, five-cylinder turbo
Transmission: 7-speed dual-clutch auto, four-wheel drive
Power (hp): [email protected],600-7,000rpm
Torque (lb ft): [email protected],250-5,600rpm
0-62mph: 3.8 seconds
Top speed: 155mph (174mph and 180mph optional)
Weight: 1,570kg (DIN unladen)
MPG: 31.4
CO2: 205g/km
Price: £50,900 (standard Sportback; standard saloon £51,900. RS3 Carbon Black from £55,550, Launch Edition from £56,900 and Vorsprung from £58,650)

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