Even Audi knows it now. In the press briefing for the
and saloon, the 400hp 2.5-litre turbo engine is described as the "main purchase motivation" for prospective buyers. Not the latest generation Quattro (with a redesigned multi-plate clutch and torque vectoring) and not the freshened up design (including flared front arches that "evocatively link" the car back to the Ur-Quattro), but the big five-cylinder lump out front.
Except it isn't so big any more. Following the TT RS this RS3 receives the latest version of the 2.5, with 33hp more and 26kg less. That's a fair chunk to take out of the front axle, as well as meaning that an A3 is now on sale with 400hp. For the four-door, that means you can buy an A3 saloon with the same power as an E39 M5. Crazy.
And where better to begin assessing the RS3 than with its star attribute? Unsurprisingly given its links to both the TT and the previous RS3, it remains an absolutely stellar engine. While of course the noise is what most will fixate on - add your own WRC analogy now - the engine's characteristics are deserving of praise too. That 400hp peak is delivered from 5,850-7,000rpm, a far revvier nature bestowed on the car than a very undersquare layout (82.5mm bore, 92.8mm stroke) would imply from the spec sheet. So the incentive is there in terms of performance and eagerness - as well as the noise, yes - to rev that engine out. Plus, with 354lb ft from just 1,700rpm, there's more than enough torque to call upon at lower engine speeds. It remains a great engine, and more interesting than the EA888 found in many other VW group hot hatches. As Audi so confidently predicts, it's easy to see why the engine is the main justification for purchasing an RS3.
Hot and bothered
Because, as you might have been able to predict, the rest of the package can't quite match the heady heights of that engine. That's not to say the car is bad - far from it - it's simply that the engine is comfortably the most endearing aspect. It's paired to the same seven-speed dual clutch gearbox as before, albeit now a slightly lighter unit. While still a good gearbox, it can feel just occasionally indecisive and a little too keen to downshift in the racier drive modes. It's a shame that the paddles are the same as you would find on any VW paddleshift too - something more tactile would surely suit better. Just a few years ago this gearbox would have felt superb, though it shows the rate of dual-clutch progress that it now only feels good rather than cutting edge.
As mentioned, the engine's other key contribution to this new RS3 beyond power is the reduced weight over the front axle. And while it would take a back-to-back with the previous incarnation to be sure, this RS3 does feel a tad more agile at the front, diving into corners that bit more eagerly. It's not suddenly transformed the driving experience, but it feels a worthwhile enhancement.
That the front tyres can still be optioned up to a 255-section (from a 235-section as standard, with 235s remaining at the rear) indicates a lot about the driving experience - this remains a car largely dictated by its front end. Despite unique RS3 software for the Quattro multi-plate clutch, despite claims of up to 100 per cent of torque being sent to the back axle and despite the car moving around to an extent on slippy tarmac, the car always feels centred on its nose predominantly.
Lead from the front
That's far from the end of the world, however. With those tyres comes huge confidence, the ability to place a car accurately and carry speed is very confidence inspiring. Let's not forget either that the RS3 recipe has proven a popular one now - if buyers felt that a significant element was missing from the dynamic make up, it would surely have been addressed by now. So fast, precise, and mostly drama free it is.
Trouble being that it would be nice to have a car with more facets to its dynamic character, one able to entertain a little more at no cost to the all-weather speed thing. Look at Mercedes-AMG, for example, with the limited-slip diff option on the '45' cars for a more tenacious front end, or even at other Audis with the Sport Differential; optionally available on cars like our S4 Avant long-termer it has the potential to add true throttle adjustability to the package, though it is of course only compatible with cars using a longitudinal powertrain.
Therefore what remains is largely as you were for the RS3: frustratingly light steering, a fairly abrupt ride (the press material says the set up is "decidedly stiff"; the magnetic ride is probably worth trying) and a really rather nice interior. If that's what the people want...
But what about the saloon? Could that be the car to rejuvenate the RS3, to evoke the spirit of the legendary B7 RS4 saloon and to give enthusiasts a great small Audi? Not exactly. In a limited test drive it felt much the same as the hatch, predictably. The weight gain is negligible (1,510kg DIN for the Sportback, 1,515kg for the saloon) and a 14mm wider track for the four-door is not enough for an appreciable difference. All that being said it offers an interesting alternative to the CLA45 AMG in the very small - disappointingly so, in fact - premium fast four-door market. Hopefully that's a twin-test to organise in the near future.
Putting the boot in
More than that though, the RS3 saloon looks excellent; it's well proportioned and with just the right amount of visual oomph to let you know it's something special. Or you could go the whole hog and have it painted Viper Green, which does look brilliant. Audi is placing particular emphasis on the four-door, suggesting it can succeed in markets that typically prefer a boot - America, China, the Middle East - and help Audi Sport "conquer the world" (Stephan Winkelmann's words) with the five-door Sportback. It's expected that 40 per cent of global RS3 sales will be the saloon, and it would get our vote out of the two for being the better looking and (slightly) more interesting car.
In conclusion then there is much to recommend the RS3, as there was before, though it comes with the existing caveats as well. That there feels to be a touch more dynamic edge is welcome, though it still feels that more could be forthcoming without alienating other owners; let's see how that manifests itself in the UK. Yes, there's that old caveat too. But the RS3 remains an exceptionally brisk, accomplished and very high quality hatchback (or saloon) with a fantastic engine. For many that will continue to be enough, though some may still be left craving more reward.
AUDI RS3 SALOON
Engine: 2,480cc, 5-cylinder turbocharged
Transmission: 7-speed dual-clutch automatic, Quattro all-wheel drive
Power (hp): 400@5,850 - 7,000rpm
Torque (lb ft):354@1,700rpm
Top speed: 174mph
Weight: 1,515kg (DIN)