Friday, February 18, 2011

Audi RS3 Sportback drive review


This is the Audi RS3 Sportback, a hot hatch with 335bhp, four-wheel drive and a seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox. It’s the smallest, cheapest RS model ever produced by Quattro GmbH, and is a final hurrah for the A3 with a new model just around the corner. Can it combine S3 Sportback practicality with TT RS attitude?

Starting at the front and working your way back. You’ll notice first the enormous gaping intakes in the nose. There’s RS-spec silver trim on the grille too, and then a set of swollen CFRP (carbonfiber-reinforced plastic) arches which hide a wider front track. Over and above the S3 Sportback there’s a bigger rear spoiler and extra vanes on the rear diffuser. Huge 19in alloys are standard, and the RS3 must be one of the few cars in the world with wider front tires than rear. Overall result: one very mean looking little hatch that you’d be foolish to mess with.

Nestling under the hood is the same 2.5-liter turbocharged five-cylinder engine that you’ll find in the TT RS, and in the RS3 it drives all four wheel via a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission. Outputs are 335bhp and 332lb ft, and with Quattro and the S-tronic ‘box it’ll hit 62mph from rest in 4.6 seconds. That’s a whole second quicker than the S3, and it’ll achieve 31mpg and only puff out 212g/km to the 74bhp-weaker S3’s 33.6mpg and 195g/km – BMW’s 1-series M has the same engine outputs as the RS3 but is slower, dirtier and thirstier.

The price of all this is €49,900, which makes it Audi’s cheapest RS model. The RS3 is only available in five-door Sportback form, so it not only offers a different proposition to the 1-series M Coupe, but also shouldn't steel sales from the more expensive TT RS.

Compared to the RS5, the RS3 doesn’t have the steering/suspension/gearbox-adjusting Drive Select system, but while there’s little feel from the wheel, there is clarity and linearity – it’s good. The ride, despite being firm, isn’t harsh. And the brakes aren’t over-servoed and grabby, but instead are very strong and easy to modulate. So far, so good from the RS3.

The engine is epic too. The turbo’d five-pot sounds great, whistling and warbling, and making a hard-edged growl at high revs. And it makes the RS3 seriously quick. With the added benefit of four-wheel drive there’s no torque-steer or front-wheel scrabbling antics either, just lots of grunt and go. Don’t think it’s a one-trick point-and-shoot device though: the engine gives the RS3 character that the S3 just doesn’t have, it’s keen to change direction and it all feels together and sorted in a way that the RS5 doesn’t.

Our test car didn’t have the optional buckets, just the standard seats which don’t offer quite enough lateral support. But our car did have the optional Alcantara interior, and the grippy black stuff coated the wheel, handbrake and gearlever to make the RS3 feel pretty special. Other tweaks inside the RS3 include unique dials and silver trim in a carbonfiber design, and although the base car is long in the tooth, none of the materials feels out of date or inferior. Rear parking sensors, climate control and sat-nav are all standard.

Overall the RS3 is great for the money. There are a lot of second-hand 911s and M3s (or even RS4s) than you could have, but the RS3 is intended to be a very different proposition. The RS3 looks good, goes very quickly, is well built, and very well resolved. Our time in the car was limited – and on cold, icy roads – but a first taste has revealed it’s a thoroughly decent car. A step in right direction for RS.

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