A five-cylinder turbocharged engine, quattro four-wheel drive and relatively compact dimensions put Audi's legendary RS2 squarely in mind when you glance over the RS3’s specification sheet, but there are key mechanical differences between this car and its spiritual forebear.
For starters, the RS3 takes the A3 Sportback as its basis, which means its engine is mounted transversely under the bonnet. That engine is coupled to a part-time four-wheel drive system driven by a rear-mounted, electronically controlled wet clutch.
The system sends the majority of power to the front wheels by default, until wheel slip suggests it’s required at the rears. And it can do that very quickly, as we’ll soon discover.
The suspension, by MacPherson struts at the front and a four-link arrangement at the rear, shows significant purpose. It is lowered by 25mm over a standard A3 and, at 1564mm, the front track is more than 40mm wider than even the last S3’s. It also has 370mm front disc brakes, shrouded by 19-inch wheels with 235/35 R19 front tyres (and slightly smaller rear ones).
The result is a car which feels like it has been developed for, and on, immaculate asphalt. And although that makes it an effective way to travel at speed on motorways, most roads aren’t like that.
Across typical, more challenging surfaces, the RS3 is much less impressive. It rides with a woodenness and heaviness, with a feeling of heft and an inability to keep its body flat. It isn’t crashy but it lacks dexterity and every significant lump in the road is amplified in the cabin. A BMW 1 Series M Coupé, itself no paragon of suppleness, is a much more composed cross-country machine. So are Audi’s S3 and TTS.
You’ll note that we don’t include the TT RS in that group, because it, too, rides with the flat-footedness of the RS3, albeit with even more harshness. It’s this inconsistency that Audi could most do with addressing.
Conversely, on a circuit the RS3 is far more capable than we’d have expected, given its 1640kg (as tested) kerb weight and its feeling of inertia on the road. It was particularly impressive on our wet handling track, finding deep reserves of lateral grip and even (if the ESP is switched out) a surprising amount of throttle adjustability. Here, it was almost nine seconds a lap quicker than the 1 Series M Coupé. The RS3’s impressive pace, if not its flexibility of cornering attitude, continues on the dry circuit.