I noticed there was some disquiet when a Mr M. Bird returned his verdict on the latest Audi RS3. An Audi that's good to drive? Impossible, seemed to be some people's view. Well, I've spoken to him since and he's quite adamant: he really, really likes it. But here's the thing, all this talk that Audi couldn't make a driver's car if they contracted out the design to Adrian Newey and asked Red Bull to build it is, quite frankly, utter hogwash. In the past, maybe that was true. When every model had its engine mounted forward of the front axle - pretty much poking out of the grille - tragic understeer was a given. But you know what the classic example of that was? The Audi Quattro, which everyone thinks is brilliant.
It might have had world-beating traction on dirt but I've driven a Quattro on the road and, well, the best I can say about it is: each to their own. Growing up, I never looked twice at a Matchbox Audi, either, and I've never owned one myself - mainly just Jags, BMWs and Mercedes. I had an A4 as a company car back in 2005. I quite liked that because it looked smart and had a nice interior, but it wasn't fun. Why am I telling you this? Because I'm pointing out that I am not an Audi fanboy. I judge cars on what they are like, and not on any legacy - good or bad.
The truth is there have been some really good Audis of late, which shouldn't be a surprise. After all the firm's R&D budget makes NASA's look like mere housekeeping - although Dieselgate took a chunk out of that. Moreover the modern generation of Audis - and to an extent I'd include the previous RS3 in this - tend to be set up in a way that appeals to me. I like a neutral balance rather than overt oversteer, but before that marks me out as boring, think about it this way: watch Lewis Hamilton on a hot lap when he's got a car really dialled in. Does he have a heap of oppo everywhere? No, because any racing driver with that kind of rear-limited car would arrive in the pits and say to their engineer "it's undrivable; sort it out."
Now I'm not a better driver than Lewis Hamilton and I drive mostly on the highway, so I'd like something similar - a car that moves a little and predictably, please. And one that steers like the old RS3 would do me, too. It didn't have heaps of feel, granted, but that's a problem you could level at most BMWs. Actually, most cars, other than the Type R, selected AMGs and GT Porsches. But in terms of weight build up, the steering 'tune' (i.e. the EPAS mapping) was great, feeling progressive with just enough gentle holding torque. It arguably knocked many of Ford's steering set-ups into touch, and that's a manufacturer that generally gets positive reviews, sometimes despite the way its cars drive. So the RS3 has earned an open mind.
Matt B drove a left-hooker Sportback on the roads in Greece, while I'm in Munich in a right-hand-drive saloon, although not one that's strictly UK spec in terms of equipment. The mechanicals are right, though, and so are the roads: stretches of derestricted Autobahn en route to mountain passes. Just the way it should be. The saloon, of course, offers the same turbocharged 2.5-litre five-cylinder engine, peaking at 400hp and, for this generation, a wider powerband, from 5600-7000rpm. There's also a broader spread of torque, too - 369 lb ft from 2250-5600rpm.
Then there's the biggest upgrade of all, it's secret weapon if you like: the much-talked of RS Torque Splitter. This allows a fully variable torque split at the rear, using two electronically controlled multi-plate clutch packs - one for each driveshaft. It can push additional torque to the outer rear wheel, to help turn the car, or, if you do want to hang the arse out, there is a setting that shoves up to 100 per cent of the shove to the outside rear wheel for a bit of controlled drifting. Just like the Golf R, basically. Other changes over the previous RS3 include the 5mm taken out of its wheelbase and the 38mm added to the front track, while the rear track is just 1mm narrower. An unwelcome addition is weight: this has shot up by 285kg, making this saloon 1,575kg. It doesn't feel it on twisty roads, but more on that later.
The first stretch of driving was along the Autobahn, and the car I was driving had the optional RS Dynamic Pack, which adds ceramic brakes, adaptive dampers and a sports exhaust. Oh yes, and a delimited top speed of 180mph. Well, it would've been rude not to, right? As far as performance goes, it's fair to say I tested it exhaustively and enthusiastically, and my conclusion is you won't be left wanting. There is a bit of languidness for the first couple of thousand rpm but, from then on, it's properly fast. This wonderful engine pulls relentlessly to 7,000rpm in most gears, to the extent that you can forget 62mph as a yard stick - that's been and gone in 3.8 seconds. The tonne is breached not long after and the RS3 doesn't need an inordinate stretch of derestricted motorway to see its maximum reached, either. That's all good, then.
And when the throttle is wedged open wide you've got the noise to revel in as well. I had the sports exhaust turned down, because I prefer things au naturel, and then you get all the competing five-cylinder harmonies without it sounding fake. It just sounds rich and melodic. There are some unusual noises as well - the kind you wouldn't ordinarily expect to hear in an Audi A3 - some mild transmission whine (maybe that was just this car), and the sound of the mechanicals moving under the bonnet - the faint hum of belts and the like. That's all fine by me and it's not an uncomfortably loud car; at sensible cruising speeds, there's no more wind and road noise than you'd hear in a regular A3 with low-profile tyres.
I also really enjoyed the way it rides. It's been elevated to standards way beyond mere hot hatches (yes, I know we're talking about a saloon, but you know what I mean). Indeed, the RS3 so good in this respect that it goes some way to explaining why you're being asked to spend over £50k, because clearly there's some quality componentry at play. Slacken the dampers off in Comfort and it has all the compliance you could want in a performance car, even down ratty, town roads. It's so good that the majority of the time I left it in Dynamic, which is at the other extreme, because I don't mind a stiff car, as long as it's not bouncing you relentlessly and thumping around. The RS3 does neither of those things. The adjective that comes to mind is sophisticated; the balance between suppleness and tautness beautifully struck.
As the kilometres plied on, I did have one concern. Even at V-max the RS3's superb damping means it's stable and controlled over bumps but, just a couple of times on the motorway, the car skipped slightly sideways - thankfully at more normal speeds, so it wasn't too unnerving. At first, I put this down to a cross wind or a channel well-worn into the road, but I realised it was the diff - when you step on the throttle with a slight steering angle it just nudges you sideways. The more I noticed it the more it annoyed me. It felt completely unnecessary, and I was thinking "Matt's got this all wrong; this car's got an inherent issue." Until I had a look through the settings and realised the diff was in its tightest setting for road use (but not the drift mode) so I set everything up individually - steering light, throttle aggressive, damping high etc - with the diff in the midway mode.
It felt much better, not just on the motorway but on open A-roads, too. Then can a mountain pass: a glorious, 20km-stretch of road that just didn't stop turning. It was strewn with tight harpins, chicanes and hardly any straights, and, as it ascended, snow started appearing at its peripheries and the surface glistened with moisture. So I just gave the diff a tweak, back to Dynamic, and the RS3 came alive. This was the point that I stopped admiring the RS3 and realised that it is a belter of a car, and that Matt got it absolutely bang on.
I cannot think of many better cars for that road, and not because the RS3's near-endless traction made it safe, but because it's bloody awesome. The steering is precise and fills you with confidence and, on the way into tight corners, with the diff now wound-up, you get a nice amount of rotation to assist you. If you leave some trailing throttle on through the corner, the drivetrain keeps pulling the nose in tighter and, as the corner opens up and you get on the power, the result is a lovely slide that feels completely predictably. There's something agricultural about it, too. It feels mechanically rough at times, but in a good way: the drivetrain thumps occasionally under extreme use, like a racing car that isn't preoccupied with refinement. Significantly, you need to learn its intricacies to maximise all the tools that are at your disposal, but it responds brilliantly well to be being manhandled. Naturally, it does carry loads of speed, but this feels like a by-product because, unlike a racing car, its main goal seems to be about having fun.
The other amazing thing is that it felt completely useable and not too fast for such a tight, twisting road - and remember, it has 400hp, the road surface was damp and the air temperature -2.5 degrees centigrade. I overcooked it once, by taking a touch too much speed into a lefthander that tightened more than I expected. Still, there was no drama. I just held the brakes on, which are strong and fade resistant even on the steep downhill sections, to keep the weight on the nose. It turned in without the rear crying enough and requiring opposite lock that would've run me wide.
For balance, there are some bits about the RS3 that I don't like. The seven-speed S tronic is good but not exceptional, with a tendency not to downshift when you want it to. The digital dials look a bit silly in the racier mode - too much like the instruments of an X-Wing Starfighter for my liking. I don't think it's a pretty car, either. Although what I dislike most is the interior: the quality isn't a patch on the previous A3 and the design is horribly angular, cold and unwelcoming. You can make your own calls on that front, though.
I don't know whether it's better than the latest A45, because, truth be told, that a car has eluded me until now - every time one has been available for assessment, the stars haven't aligned, and I've not been able to get into it. Nevertheless, regardless of whether this RS3 is better or worse, I can tell you that for my money Matt's assessment was spot on: it is brilliant. So much so, that I fully expect it to go down in history as one of the high points of this decade - not least because it is the last of its breed. Still, what a way to bow out.
SPECIFICATION | AUDI RS3 SALOON
Engine: 2,480cc, turbocharged, inline five cylinder
Transmission: 7-speed dual-clutch automatic, all-wheel drive
Power (hp): 400 @ 5,600-7000rpm
Torque (lb ft): 369 @ 2,250-5,600rpm
0-62mph: 3.8 secs
Top speed: 155mph (180mph derestricted)
Weight: 1,570kg (unladen)
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