Audi Sport reaches for more power, and a new bodystyle, for the facelifted RS3

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It may be hard to say exactly when the letters ‘RS’ on the rump of an Audi stopped identifying the German firm’s particular performance machine of the moment and started distinguishing a model in a performance sub-brand – but it plainly happened some time ago.

The easy answer would be 1999, when the original RS2 Avant was succeeded by the B5-generation Audi RS4 Avant.

Wow, what an engine, which, by the way, also sounds brilliant

But that’s also the simplistic answer because, for another decade after that point, the Audi factory tuning house formerly known as Quattro GmbH was very careful never to have more than one RS on sale at a time.

Buyers could trade one in against the next and production could be handled in-house by the outfit that has since changed its handle to Audi Sport.

The trigger for change was the original Audi TT RS of 2009, which became the first Audi RS to be built entirely away from Audi Sport’s Neckarsulm premises.

By 2012, there were no fewer than five RS cars in simultaneous production. The RS brand as we now know it was born and at its bottom rung was the original Audi RS3 Sportback mega-hatch.

An all-new MQB-platform RS3 arrived in 2015 and now comes what is effectively a mid-life facelift for the car – albeit an usually wide-ranging one.

As part of this nip and tuck, the RS3 gets the usual styling and equipment tweaks. But it also gains a brand-new all-aluminium five-cylinder engine that supplies it with an eye-popping 394bhp – a peak output almost unknown to cars in this part of the performance market, save for a handful of very rare-groove and highly tuned Japanese options.

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The other notable thing the RS3 receives as part of the update is a three-box profile and a separate boot; which is another way of explaining that, alongside the five-door Sportback version, Audi Sport now offers a four-door RS3 Saloon, whose mechanical make-up is mostly identical to that of its sister car.

Mostly, but, as we’ll go on to explain, not entirely identical.


Audi RS3 front grille

Audi can rightly claim to have been there at the birth of what we now call the mega-hatch niche.

The original Audi RS3 Sportback was one of the first go-faster five-doors to punch its way through the 300bhp barrier, back in 2011.

Fitting wider front tyres than it has on the back to make up for 4WD system’s shortcomings ought to have rung alarm bells at Audi Sport years ago

There have been plenty more like it through that hole in the wall since then, though – and compared with one or two of its more recent competitors, the new RS3’s drivetrain in particular is starting to look a little bit lightweight.

Where the Ford Focus RS gives you a clever clutch-based torque-vectoring rear power split device and the Mercedes-AMG A45 now allows you, as an option, a limited-slip front differential, the RS3 sticks with its established, Haldex-type four-wheel-drive system.

It juggles torque between the front and rear axles dependent on available grip, and although it will move that torque towards the rear wheels more quickly in some driving modes than others, it also falls back on conventional open differentials and brake-based electronic torque vectoring to marshal the driving force between the loaded and unloaded sides of each axle during cornering.

The RS3’s new all-aluminium 2480cc five-cylinder turbocharged engine may be the perfect cover for that slight shortcoming.

Weighing 26kg less than the old iron-blocked five-pot and using both direct and indirect fuel injection, it produces 394bhp from 5850rpm to 7000rpm, as well as 354lb ft all the way from 1700rpm to 5850rpm. That power finds its way to the road via a seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox.

Whether it’s starting with an Audi A3 Saloon or Sportback, Audi Sport’s suspension modifications for the RS3 are materially identical.

Both RS3s ride 25mm lower than their A3 counterparts and have axle tracks widened by 20mm up front and 14mm at the rear.

But the RS3 Saloon starts with a couple of key dynamic advantages over the five-door, having a roof line that’s 12mm lower for a slightly lower centre of gravity, and a rear track that’s 14mm wider. The saloon is also longer and marginally heavier than the hatchback, but latterly only by 5kg.

Both RS3 siblings come with 19in alloy wheels and have passive variable-ratio ‘progressive’ power steering (whose ratio simply quickens off-centre) as standard.

Mixed-width forged 19in rims with a wider tyre footprint up front are an option, as are RS sport suspension springs with adaptive dampers, carbon-ceramic front brake discs and an active RS sport exhaust.

Our test car had all of the above options save for the adaptive suspension and it weighed 13kg less than the four-cylinder Focus RS we tested last year: 1567kg, distributed 58/42 front to rear, which was also more favourable than the Ford’s.


Audi RS3 interior

The fundamentals of the Audi RS3’s cabin haven’t changed a great deal as part of Audi’s mid-cycle overhaul.

You’re getting a little bit more equipment as standard than you might have two years ago, as well as a little bit more life and colour splashed around the place if, as our test car had, your car has Audi’s £800 RS Design Pack fitted.

I do like a part-suede steering wheel, but I prefer one where the same upholstery’s used. Means you can pass it through your hands more consistently

That gets you a welcome helping of red stitching for the seats and various other bits of leather upholstery, some red edging for its seatbelts, red accents for its air vents and garishly branded RS3 floor mats.

If another manufacturer were trying to sell a performance car based on a hatchback available for little more than £20,000 at over twice that price, we’d be watching very closely that the car in question was up to snuff in terms of perceived quality.

The material class of the RS3’s cabin is beyond question, though. It feels tactile, solid and upmarket exactly where it’s intended to and the smattering of richer than average materials – the Alcantara sections on the steering wheel, extended leather on the door cards and centre console and shiny metallic sports pedals – all do the trick in lifting the ambience that bit above the ordinary.

You do sit slightly perched at the controls, farther above the car’s belt line than you’d ideally like, and with necessarily bent knees if you’re long-legged.

In a hot hatchback, an ergonomic compromise like that is still typical, but in a saloon, customers have a right to expect a more recumbent position.

Second-row space is more than adequate for smaller adults and growing teenagers, but a bit mean for a larger grown-up.

As for cargo volume, the saloon bodystyle gives you a boot that’s 170mm longer than the Sportback’s and identically as wide but also only 430mm deep. By saloon standards, it’s a fairly small boot, at 315 litres. A Jaguar XE 3.0 S gives you 140 litres more.

The RS3’s standard infotainment offering is a strong one. You get Virtual Cockpit as standard, which means there’s a 12.3in display screen where your analogue dials might otherwise have been, and you can configure that screen to show navigation mapping, your chosen radio station, trip computer information or any number of other things. And because this is an RS, there’s a special display mode with a central tachometer.

You also get Audi’s MMI Navigation Plus navigation system as standard. It teams up with Audi Connect (also standard) to provide online traffic updates for your route and excellent dynamic route guidance.

With Audi Connect, you get an on-board data sim for live information on things like fuel prices, flight times and weather updates.

The RS3’s infotainment system is well laid out and very usable. The system is beginning to show its age in the apparent lack of processing power here compared with the set-up in the related VW Golf R, but it’s still very feature rich and responsive compared with other systems.


Audi RS3 side profile

If you read our Best Affordable Driver’s Car contest, you may remember that, on another track and in slightly different test conditions, the new Audi RS3 Sportback has proved itself capable of 60mph from rest in less than four seconds.

Full of fuel, with two people on board and on a dead-level surface, the RS3 Saloon very narrowly missed out on recording a proper two-way 0-60mph road test benchmark beginning with a three, its best one-way clocking being 3.96sec.

There’s very little handling adjustability, but the DSC Sport function prevents you from pouring on too much power-on understeer out of slower bends

Although that’s a shame, it doesn’t really make this Audi’s accelerative pace any less incredible.

The RS3’s blend of awesome power, torque, response and operating rev range has an effect on your expectations of a compact, practical, relatively affordable performance car similar to that of a torpedo propeller on a bowl of sherry trifle.

This engine is magnificent – too good, probably, to be considered appropriate for a car like this by almost any other manufacturer. And, being teamed with an equally brilliant driveline and launch control system, it makes for the kind of performance that’d be more recognisable to an owner of a supercar of, say, 10 years of age or so, than it would be to most hot hatchback regulars.

Despite being at disadvantages of £15,000 on list price and more than 100bhp on peak output, the four-wheel-drive RS3 Saloon can out-sprint an Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio to 60mph.

Running side by side, it would still be gapping the Italian all the way to 80mph, with the Alfa Romeo needing a full standing quarter of a mile of flat-out running to finally overhaul it.

The RS3 needs an absolutely perfect start to realise that kind of showing and its launch control and four-wheel drive system guarantee one. Flat-chat upshifts are supremely timed and very rapidly delivered by the dual-clutch gearbox, which is equally good at selecting the right gear for an opportunistic overtake or a fast-entered, trail-braked corner when you select ‘S’ mode on the shift lever.

In manual mode, it can be a wee bit slow to respond to the paddles, but usually only at lowish crank speeds.

The RS3’s brake pedal tuning is a notable disappointment because of a laughably over-sensitive pedal whose initial bite is so vicious that you could probably still be getting used to it, coming to an overly abrupt halt in traffic queues more often than not, after months in the car.

But, wow, what an engine, which, by the way, also sounds every bit as brilliant as you’d hope it would. Rarely has a five-star section score been so well earned.


Audi RS3 cornering

It’s difficult to gauge whether Audi is any closer to bringing the Audi RS3 to its full dynamic potential now than it was two years ago, when last we tested an RS3 Sportback.

The slightly altered dimensions of the saloon body prevent us from making perfect like-for-like comparisons, as does the particular specification of our test car.

Dampers rein in vertical body movement through the compressions in and out of corners in one angry, abrupt stroke

The RS3 we road tested in 2015 had the adaptive dampers of Audi’s Dynamic Package Plus but the car being tested here came on standard passive suspension.

It certainly wasn’t made any more effective as a driver’s car for the omission. The RS3’s remorselessly firm damping isn’t quite as large a barrier to your enjoyment of the
car’s driving experience on a really great, testing road as its powertrain is a fillip for it, but the two are certainly comparable.

On standard suspension, the RS3 has the kind of bustling, rebounding, aggressive ride that few passengers could fail to comment on. On well-surfaced A-roads and at licence-worrying motorway speeds, that ride begins to ease up and breathe, ever so gently, with the tarmac under its wheels.

But on trickier stretches, it can toss you around quite uncomfortably and begin to markedly undermine the stability of the car. If you plan to enjoy your RS3 on a typical British B-road, we’d suggest that Audi’s RS sport suspension is a must-have for the added suppleness that it brings.

When settled into its stride, the RS3’s lateral grip level is certainly high, but it’s not as dialled up as its handling response, which is such that the car dives into bends like a Labrador at a lamb bone.

If the steering offered greater resistance over its first few degrees away from the straight-ahead, it’d be much easier to get used to that directional malevolence.

But with the rack offering very little useful contact-patch feedback however you program the drive mode, it can be hard to place the car accurately and carve a perfect, smooth line through a fast bend. As in just about every other facet of its character, the RS3 is simply too keen to show off a hyper-energetic, reflex-like response to your every input.

The Millbrook Alpine Hill Route is better surfaced than your average UK cross-country road, and that has a lot do with the fact that the RS3 Saloon handles it at serious speed, and pretty easily.

The car surprises you with its tenacity from turn-in to apex and can carry plenty of pace. Although it’s rapier-like initially, the car is very stable mid-corner and, if not communicative, it’s trustworthy in a Machiavellian sort of a way.

But what happens from the apex to the exit of most corners can be a bit underwhelming. Where you’re hoping that driveline will shuffle drive to the rear wheels and allow you to keep the car’s attitude neutral as you accelerate, you feel only the momentary deck-chair arranging of the torque vectoring followed closely by the stability control system taking power away.

Turn the DSC off and the power understeer that presents itself on the limit will soon persuade you to turn it back on again.


Audi RS3

Having cranked up power and performance to almost unprecedented levels for this kind of territory, Audi has seized tacit permission to crank up Audi RS3 prices to match.

The Sportback we tested two years ago was a £40,000 car with no fitted options, and 10 percent is quite a big leap to take in that timeframe for what was already pretty much the most expensive car of its kind.

Particularly strong residuals should make the RS3 less expensive on a monthly basis than you might think

But the financial case is less extortionate when you look in greater detail.

The RS3 Saloon comes for a premium of just under £1000 compared with the hatchback and for many, given the chance to swap a pudgy-looking five-door body for a more elegantly profiled saloon, that’ll be money worth spending.

Car value expert CAP rates the saloon slightly weaker than the five-door over a typical ownership period on residual value but places both at close to 60 percent retained after three years and 36,000 miles.

In terms of value lost, a new RS3 should cost you £20k over that time – and plenty of considerably cheaper performance options will actually rinse their way through your hard-earned just as quickly.

Among the RS3’s standard equipment are Virtual Cockpit digital instruments; MMI Navigation Plus with its 3D mapping, 7.0in infotainment screen and touch-sensitive input device; and Audi Connect with a free 36-month subscription, which effectively puts your car online. Maybe the adaptive dampers ought to be standard but, overall, it’s no meagre kit count.



4 star Audi RS3

Two years ago, we rated the pre-facelifted Audi RS3 Sportback with four road test stars and placed it, warts and all, among the most exciting hot hatchbacks on the road.

Today, the RS3 Saloon deserves at least the same kind of recommendation.

Phenomenal powertrain does much to make up for dynamic flaws

The competition in the £45,000 sports saloon segment gives the Audi a higher bar to aim at on handling appeal, granted.

And, as in 2015, the RS3 relies disproportionately on the all-pervasive impact of its five-cylinder engine to cover for deficiencies in driver appeal elsewhere.

If this Audi were a young footballer, he’d have a hammer of a shot but you’d worry about the wider development of his game. To keep up with the pace of progress shown lately in this arena, the RS3’s dynamic game definitely needs to develop.

And yet such is the dramatically sonorous, hilariously visceral performance character and thrill generated by Audi’s five-cylinder headline act here that we simply have to recognise what is still an amazing driver’s car in spite of its failings.

Here’s hoping there’s time for it to become greater still. But for the time being its got the legs on the Alfa Romeo Guilia Veloce and BMW 340i, but lags behind the Mercedes-AMG CLA 45 and the impressive Jaguar XE S.


Matt Prior

Matt Prior
Title: Editor-at-large

Matt is Autocar’s lead features writer and presenter, is the main face of Autocar’s YouTube channel, presents the My Week In Cars podcast and has written his weekly column, Tester’s Notes, since 2013.

Matt is an automotive engineer who has been writing and talking about cars since 1997. He joined Autocar in 2005 as deputy road test editor, prior to which he was road test editor and world rally editor for Channel 4’s automotive website, 4Car. 

Into all things engineering and automotive from any era, Matt is as comfortable regularly contributing to sibling titles Move Electric and Classic & Sports Car as he is writing for Autocar. He has a racing licence, and some malfunctioning classic cars and motorbikes. 

Audi RS3 2017-2020 First drives