"A car built to deliver raw pace and power, which is also entirely suitable for everyday driving." That's how Audi describes its current RS3 Sportback TFSI quattro, a 394hp beast of a thing with an equally beastly showroom price of over £46k - and that's before you start tacking on the extras. Ah, if only there was an RS3 that would deliver that perfect hit of performance and practicality that many PHers long for, without making their wallets as dry as a moth sandwich.
Luckily, there is. It's called a used RS3. It doesn't have to be a ghastly RS3 lookalike with a 1.4 petrol or a 2.0 diesel lump cowering behind an RS grille either. We're talking about proper RS3s here, starting at £15k. Yes, £15k.
A bit of background. Between the iconic rally-bred quattros and the small-run 1994 RS2 Avant (a collaboration with Porsche), the first small Audi 'S' car with genuine zip was the 1991 S2 Coupe. Powered by a 2.2-litre straight-five with around 220hp, it was capable of 0-60mph times in the low 6-second bracket. The first hottish small Audi of the modern era was the 1999 S3. This 3-door hatch was actually slower than the old five-pot S2, its 207hp Golf 1.8 20-valve turbo four giving it a 0-60 time in the mid-six seconds.
But even with successively uprated S3s generating 222hp from 2001 and 262hp from 2006, Audi's 'S' performance offerings remained in the shadow of BMW's M-Series cars. The answer was a proper rebirth of the RS ('RennSport', German for Racing Sport) range, marked by the 2010 launch of the RS3 Sportback (8P).
By then, the regular non-RS five-door, five-seat Sportback had been tickling pundits' fancies for six years, winning many awards for its classy combination of style, practicality and quality. The RS3 badge added unreal performance to this well-developed mix, presenting a more sophisticated option to the reclined seat/baseball cap/vape cloud vibe of a lowered and dump-valved Mk 4 Golf. It was a lot more expensive than a Mk 4 Golf, mind. The 8P model that went on sale in 2011 was £39,900. Still, that was more than £7k cheaper than the S-tronic TT RS.
Reverting to the time-honoured turbocharged straight-five, the RS3's 2.5-litre motor (as used in the TT RS) produced a 335hp plateau of power between 5,400 and 6,500rpm, with 332lb ft of torque across a near-4,000rpm spread that began at just 1,600rpm. Running through a 7-speed S tronic box and a quattro AWD system, the first RS3 knocked off the 0-62mph dash in 4.6 seconds and returned an official average fuel consumption of 31mpg.
On April 16th 2015 a new RS3 Sportback (the 8V) was born - quite literally apparently if you were one of the TV creatives responsible for this extraordinary (and not in a good way) ad. By this point the straight-five engine had been jacked up to 362hp/343lb ft and the 0-62 time had been cut to 4.3 seconds.
The latest RS3, launched in 2017 and on sale from 2018 as either a Sportback or a Saloon, is a 394hp/354lb ft monster that will crack the 62mph mark from rest in 4.1 seconds (although at least one UK website saw sub-4 times on test - and that was in the wet). The official top speed is still limited at 155mph, but if you lob another £1,600 at your friendly Audi dealer he will instruct one of his white-coated henchmen to tap some keyboard buttons and unlock another 19mph.
That's all well and good, but we reckon that with prices for 335hp gen-one cars genuinely starting at below £15,000 (post-'15 362hp cars will be at least twice as much), and bearing in mind their excellent tuning potential, a pre-owned gen-one RS3 Sportback is a brilliant choice not only for the discerning PHer with bodies and cargo to move, but also for those with nothing to shift but themselves.
So, what are the RS3's downsides? There must be some, surely? Let's put on our designery steel-rimmed specs and have a look. As ever, what follows are things that can go wrong, not things that necessarily will go wrong.
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Bodywork & Interior
Very little to worry about here. It's an Audi. Your biggest concern will be finding the colour you want. Daytona Grey, Misano Red and Cornflower Blue are well liked on RS3s. The front wings are made of CFRP (carbon-fibre reinforced plastic) and accommodate tyres that are wider than the ones on the back. The flared arches are susceptible to stone chipping.
Inside, nappa leather was standard, with Alcantara options for the wheel and other bits. Ideally you want the optional Recaro CS sports 'bucket' seats, as the standard ones leave a bit to be desired in terms of side support when you're exploiting the RS3's grip.
Engine & Transmission
When the RS3 made its first appearance in 2010 it was the most potent fast hatch on the market. Its high-character direct-injection five-cylinder engine ran a big intercooled turbo at up to 1.2 bar and was linked to a part-time (Haldex) four-wheel drive system (not the 'permanent all-wheel-drive' that Audi put in its RS3 brochure) driven by a rear-mounted, electronically-controlled wet clutch.
The S-tronic 7-speed dual-clutch gearbox has launch control as standard. Put it in Sport (which boosts exhaust noise and sharpens throttle response), press hard on the brake and mash the throttle to disengage the clutch and hold the engine at around 3,500rpm. Then simply step off the brake for low-4sec 0-60s all day long. Anyone can do it. If you do it a lot though, and especially if your RS3 is modded, be prepared to replace driveshafts on a fairly regular basis.
Jerkiness in gearshifts, intermittently going into neutral or losing reverse (usually accompanied by a 'PRNDS' gear display or even an illuminated EML) is bad news as it is very likely a problem with the mechatronic unit. This is a known issue with the VAG DSG trans, and leaving it in the hope that it will miraculously sort itself out is not an option. Luckily it is not essential to go to a main dealer to have this fixed at enormous expense, as an S-tronic specialist gearbox rebuilder will do it for about half the price. It'll still be anything up to £1,300 plus VAT though. Flashing traction control lights needn't be a worry, though, as they need hardly any excuse to go off.
Fluid changes are important. Enthusiast owners will tell you to change the oils for the S-tronic (which has a filter, apparently but it's not changeable) and Haldex (with filter) more often than Audi suggests. Think 60,000km or 38,000 miles. The Haldex setup is an earlier version of that found in the Mk 7 Golf R and it will get cacked up in a surprisingly short time if you let it. The brake fluid should be refreshed every couple of years, and the engine oil as often as you can afford, really: 5,000 miles is the top limit for many, and that's using only the best. Oil changes aren't hard to do on these cars.
Suspension & Steering
RS3 road testers loved the car's performance and its ability to find traction in just about any situation, but they were less impressed by the Audi's inert electromechanical steering and tight-lipped chassis. This is probably the RS3's weakest area. Its suspension (MacPherson struts at the front and a four-link setup at the back) was 25mm lower than the standard A3's, which meant it looked the part, but in fairness it was better suited to smooth asphalt than it was to the kind generally found on British roads. Even so, RS3 owners who have also had Golf Rs tend to rate the Audi over the VW on ride comfort.
Hard drivers may experience some understeer. One recommended fix for this (apart from bigger tyres - see the next bit) is an 034 rear anti-roll bar from suppliers such as AwesomeGTI. These ARBs take about an hour to fit and nicely tighten up the rear end without compromising ride comfort.
Wheels, Tyres & Brakes
As mentioned earlier, the RS3 has wider tyres on the front 19-inch alloys (235/35 R19) than it has on the rears (225/35s). Experiments - deliberate or accidental - revealed that not only can you run the backs up front and the fronts at the back, you can run 255s on the front with no need for any special VCDS coding as the Haldex is much less sensitive than the quattro diffs. Some say that 255 fronts were actually an option when new, and some owners have fitted 255s all around without major rubbing issues, as long as the rolling radii are close to OEM spec. Fitting Bilstein B16s liberates a bit more space for big rubber, and the names to go for there are Michelin Pilot Super Sports or Goodyear F1 Asymmetrics. Good winter tyres make the RS3 amazing in, well, winter.
Any performance car with great handling will tend to go through brakes, and the RS3 is no exception. Audi has put out more than one revision on these cars. The front ventilated brake discs are 370mm, the rears are 310mm, the calipers are four-potters - and the OEM pads are notorious for squealing. Owners who have switched to Ferodo DS or Premier pads report good results. Reyland Motorsport in Redditch have a reputation for good advice if you fancy swapping out the OEM discs.
Alloys are easily curbed and the diamond-cut rims cost upwards of £150 each to refurb.
The RS3 8P is more than just a smart and practical (up to 1,000 litres of luggage space) alternative to hot BMWs, there's another big plus. Ask any switched-on engine tuner to nominate cars that lend themselves to improvement and there's a good chance they'll mention the RS3 somewhere in their answer. The 2.5 TFSI unit was voted International Engine of the Year for four years straight. This is a strong and serious car with plenty of tuning headroom. It's also a little more understated than the later RS3s, which will appeal to some.
Gen-one RS3 Sportbacks (2011-2013) have always been quite rare even when they were new, as they were only on sale for a couple of years. Even though the first UK quota of 500 cars was snapped up in 2011 and had to be supplemented by another 250 in 2012, you might think that 2019 prices starting from under £15k are remarkably low for such a high performance limited edition car, especially when you look at the prices of comparable BMW 1Ms. £15k will only get you a leggy example, though. Low-milers will be £23k-plus.
Running costs for the performance are very acceptable. In normal use you'll get mpg figures in the high 20s, low 30s when taking it steady, and low 20s when you're not or if you spend all of your time in town. The very nature of the RS3 means that many will have been mercilessly ragged, and sometimes on a cold engine too, plus there are a few 'damaged repairables' out there, so the usual stuff about service histories isn't enough on its own to boost buyer confidence. That's a risk you take in this market, though. All you can do is make sure all the upgrades have been done, then cross your fingers and plant your right boot.
Search for an Audi RS3 here
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