Expert Reviews

Test Drive: 2018 Audi RS3

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The almighty rip-roaring snortbeast known as the Audi RS4 was available to Canadians in 2007 and 2008. A $100,000 road missile, it was like an A4 after chugging a case of stimulant-laced pre workout: a 4.2-litre V8 spinning to 8,000 rpm, race-derived chassis upgrades, and brake rotors the size of trash-can lids. Best of all, it was a quiet-looking car that barely got a second glance in traffic – unless a drooling fan caught one of the subtle clues, and came in for a closer look.

You can take it lapping on Saturday, and take your mom to church on Sunday, where you might beg forgiveness for your speed crimes.

A short list of naughty RS4 facts follows:

  1. It only came with a manual.
  2. Towards redline, the engine screamed like the Death Star pre-heating to nuke a planet from orbit.
  3. On the highway, you could pull down into second gear and pass an 18-wheeler at 8,000 rpm.
  4. Your significant other probably thought it was the same A4 their yoga instructor drove.

Today, there’s a spiritual replacement for the RS4, and it’s the 2018 Audi RS3.

Sure: there’s a new RS4 in the works, but it’ll be larger than the old one, and actually, the new RS3 is almost exactly the same size as the old RS4 I fell in love with. Same concept, too – big engine in a little car, and all supporting modifications to the chassis, brakes, AWD system, and transmission. Further, as an Audi RS, you can take it lapping on Saturday, and take your mom to church on Sunday, where you might beg forgiveness for your speed crimes.

Subtle details give the RS3’s identity away. Behind the wheels are massive drilled brakes. Subtle blades fixed to the rear wheel arches tidy the aerodynamics and protect the paint from rocks flung from the wider tires. The badging is discreet. Same with the body kit, and slightly lowered ride. Much of the RS3 slips unnoticed through traffic, other than the comically large exhaust pipes.

So, just tell that apprehensive other half that the RS3 is a sensible, well-built compact that’s safe, has strong brakes, and comes with AWD, so it’s extra-safe in the snow. And tell them that with a five-cylinder engine, and a seven-speed transmission, it’s easy on fuel (not a lie). If they ask why the exhausts are so big, tell them that’s for fuel efficiency, too. There are no obscene vents, spoilers, or scoops to explain your way around, which makes the RS3 a perfect little rocket sleeper to buy, if your other half would prefer you didn’t.

Conversely, this isn’t one of those big-dollar playthings that looks like a big-dollar plaything, and some shoppers will find it looks too quiet. Your investment goes more towards how the RS3 drives than how it looks – even if that doesn’t stop every nearby owner of a chipped Golf R from hunting you down and challenging you to a race.

Five in a row makes ’er go: the 2.5-litre straight-five wears a sizeable turbocharger, good for nearly 20 pounds of boost and a suspiciously athletic 400 horsepower. Less than the RS4 – but the RS3 has more torque, and weighs less, and is faster.

RS3’s engine isn’t as rev-happy as the old RS4’s screamer V8, but the strong, long pull through each gear enables a similar feel of constant thrust and rising action. Plus, RS3 doesn’t require your slow and clumsy biceps and quads to shift gears, since the dual-clutch transmission completes an entire shift faster than you could get a clutch pedal to the floor. A manual gearbox would slow this car down, so (to the dismay of stick-shift nuts), it’s unavailable.

Adjustable dampers are deployed for real-time control of the relationship between the RS3’s body and wheels. Brakes border on hilariously oversized-looking on such a small car, with big red calipers and drilled rotors signaling a very real ability to dispose of speed in a hurry. The AWD system can even re-jig itself in response to various drive modes, the best of which make it feel like a little rear-drive coupe.

There’s room up front for two adults, who won’t find the cabin cramped, or roomy. On engine startup, the central display screen rises into action, and the slick Virtual Cockpit instrument cluster, with a fully reconfigurable display, animates to life. Nicely bolstered sport seats with ritzy quilted leather are installed, as are some carbon-fibre door inserts. In all though, the cabin hits hardest for its interfaces and tech, more than its overall design. Like the body, RS3’s cabin is mostly discreet and modest.

Rear seat headroom will be at a serious premium for anyone over about 5'10". At that height, your writer’s noggin was just tickling the ceiling liner. Further back, the trunk is shallow, but long and wide to help maximize space. Placement of many commonly used controls on the centre console takes some getting used to, and the inboard knee of leggy passengers will frequently operate the volume knob accidentally.

A few important things to know about the RS3 follow.

First, if you’re wondering whether it might be too hardcore to use as a daily driver, fear not: engage Comfort mode, and the throttle is lazy, steering is light, and the shocks are softened. Here, the engine hardly revs, barely makes a peep, and the whole thing is no more difficult to drive than a VW Golf. It’s even easy to park, thanks to a small turning circle and a high-resolution back-up camera.

Second, note that a few compromises exist. Road and tire noise can become generous at higher speeds, and the ride on broken in-town roads can be jiggly and stiff. If you’re coming into an RS3 from an RS4, or maybe a TT-RS, it’s a familiar ride. Further, though the steering is relatively lazy in Comfort mode, it can still be a touch too quick for the hair-trigger chassis, with even small inputs occasionally startling the car at speed.

Third? RS3 is a great highway road-tripper. There’s effortless power at low revs, good mileage if you keep that turbocharger at bay (good luck), and the potent stereo and headlights help make hours disappear with ease, day or night. For a machine designed with performance to light your face on fire, this one’s totally daily drivable, and taking a weekend-long highway road trip is a non-issue, comfort-wise.

A few clicks on the Drive Select button summons RS3’s highly advisable Dynamic Mode, which engages maximum feistiness and snortiness. Steering becomes thicker and more urgent, the slight numbness dialled into Comfort mode disappearing. The AWD system dumps more power onto the rear axle when the car is pushed. The suspension stiffens – ride quality becomes a touch harsher, but the body stays much closer to the wheels, much more of the time. Body roll? No, no.

Further, the transmission and engine team up to use more of the power band, and the exhaust becomes louder, making an exotic collection of howling, popping, and gurgling sounds that are all pretty swell. Cruise in Dynamic mode with the sports exhaust opened up, and it always sounds like a street bike is cruising in your blind spot. Thankfully, there is blind-spot monitoring.

A few additional attributes take centre stage when the RS3 is operated vigorously.

One is the transmission. The S-Tronic gearbox is nearly perfect: it never misses a beat, shifts and rev matches immediately and perfectly in both directions, responds to paddle-shift requests right now, and feels the most effective when worked hard. It’s very entertaining, and you could (nearly) forgive Audi for not offering a manual.

Handling is the other attribute: every element of RS3’s chassis is tuned for immediate response, and the steering is thick, but lighter than you think, which contributes to a playful and lively feel. Tiny steering inputs see the RS3 flit immediately about, with minimal work at the wheel translating into big changes in direction.

Further, despite the locked-on feel expected from many an AWD performance car, the RS3 positively loves sliding and squirming beneath you when pushed. It’s confident and stable, though eager to have its angle tweaked with the throttle and brakes when driven hard.

In a nutshell, then, this one’s highly entertaining, and just loves to play.

Careful with the power, though. The engine is a torque monster, sounds addictive, loves to rev, and rips through the tall gears like blowtorch through a log of warm butter. The thrill factor is huge, but getting carried away will decimate your driver’s license.

Really, get your RS3 to a track day with some instruction, and drive it the way it was intended. On public roads, you’re missing out on a significant portion of what this machine can do. Ditto if you store it for the winter: this thing is built for all-season shenanigans.

Ultimately, RS3 should amount to a compelling pick in a quiet and unassuming little car with a spec sheet that reads like a weekend racer’s Christmas wish list. It’s an easy machine to drive all year round on the daily – and if you’re presently rocking a 10-year-old RS4 and looking for something newer, the RS3 should be considered a priority test drive. Ditto if you fancy yourself a potent little rocket sleeper, but need to sneak its purchase past an apprehensive spouse.

Engine Displacement 2.5L
Engine Cylinders 5
Peak Horsepower 400 hp @ 5,850–7,000 rpm
Peak Torque 354 lb-ft @ 1,700–5,850 rpm
Fuel Economy 12.4/8.3/10.5 L/100 km cty/hwy/cmb
Cargo Space 315 L
Model Tested 2018 Audi RS3
Base Price $62,900
A/C Tax $100
Destination Fee $2,095
Price as Tested $69,295
Optional Equipment
$4,200 – Black Optics Package $850; Red Brake Calipers $400; Catalunya Red Metallic Paint $800; 19-inch wheels $400; Carbon Fiber Inlays $900; RS Sports Exhaust $850