This third generation version of Audi's devastatingly quick RS 3 provides the entry point into the brand's formidable RS performance range and features the most powerful production five-cylinder engine in Ingolstadt's history. Plus there's more technology, smarter looks and a more sophisticated interior. The result is a compact performance car that once again claims class-leading status and aims once more to rewrite the shopping rocket rulebook.
Did anyone ever imagine that one day, a model of this size would offer what would once have been seen as supercar-style power? In this third generation Audi RS 3, that's just what you get: four wheel drive, formidable pulling power and 400PS. This is the same output boasted by the last version of the previous generation model, but here, you can use that power even more effectively thanks to the introduction of a unique 'RS Torque Splitter' for enhanced cornering traction. As before, the 2.5-litre five cylinder engine on offer here really sets this model apart in this segment. Like V8s for AMG or straight sixes in BMW M cars, a tuned five cylinder unit is part of the DNA of a division which was once called 'Quattro gmbh' but which is these days known as 'Audi Sport' - the Ingolstadt brand's performance division. That of course was the configuration used for the classic Quattro coupe that first established Audi's engineering credentials back in the Eighties. And the brand returned to it when at the beginning of the century's second decade, the time came to expand its RS performance model line-up with the original RS 3 of 2012, replaced by a second generation model in 2015 and this MK3 version in mid-2021.
Interestingly, Audi has chosen not to engage in a power race with the fastest hot hatch in the segment, the Mercedes-AMG A45 S 4MATIC+, which offers 427PS. And it didn't really need to. Instead, this RS 3's 2.5-litre five cylinder 400PS turbo unit was tweaked to accelerate faster from low rev ranges and the result is that it can now propel this Audi to 62mph in just 3.8s and with the optional 'Dynamic Pack' fitted, the top speed is 180mph. For reference, the A45's figures are 3.9s and 168mph. This Audi may well be faster through the turns too, thanks to the addition of an 'RS Torque Splitter', which adds an electronically controlled multiple disc clutch to each of the drive shafts. This ensures that the right amount of torque is optimally distributed along the rear axle when cornering at speed. Plus the standard RS sports suspension features newly developed shock absorbers and a valve system both specific to the RS 3. A seven-speed dual-clutch transmission puts the power of the five-cylinder engine to the road - with short shifting times and a sportier gear ratio spread. And for the first time, the exhaust system features a fully variable flap control system that supports intermediate positions, thus broadening the sound characteristics even further. It can be adjusted via the driving dynamics system 'Audi drive select'. In the Dynamic and RS Performance modes, the flaps open much earlier - and as a result, the emotional elements of the sound are even more pronounced. In addition, the unmistakable sound of the five-cylinder engine is further enhanced by the optional RS sports exhaust system.
You'd know this was an RS 3, whether in Sportback hatch or alternative Saloon form. In the front, the wide RS bumper, the redesigned Singleframe with its distinctive honeycomb grille, and the large air intakes give this compact sports car an expressive appearance. This Audi comes with flat, wedge-shaped LED headlights and an eye-catching additional air outlet decorates wheel arches housing 19-inch rims. The motorsports-inspired finishing touches include the redesigned RS-specific rear bumper with integrated diffuser and the RS exhaust system with two large oval tailpipes. Inside, you get RS sport seats with RS embossing and anthracite contrast stitching. Which position you perfectly in front of a threespoke RS Sport multi-functional leather steering wheel with a flattened bottom. It features built-in, high-quality die-cast zinc shift paddles and through it, you view the standard 12.3-inch Audi virtual cockpit plus instrument screen. This displays the revs in the form of a bar graph and shows power and torque as percentages. In addition, the instrument screen includes displays for g-forces, lap times and acceleration from 0100 km/h, 0-200 km/h, quarter-mile, and eighth of a mile. The 10.1-inch touch display on the centre stack includes what is referred to as the "RS Monitor," which displays the coolant, engine, and transmission oil temperatures as well as tyre pressures. Also available for the first time for the Audi RS 3 is a head-up display that projects relevant information onto the windscreen in the driver's direct line of sight in addition to the shift light indicator. Otherwise, it's just as in an S3. There's reasonable room for a couple of adults on the back seat. And as in an S3, boot space is rated at 370-litres for the saloon or 325-litres for the Sportback, the latter offering a seats-down total of 1,145-litres.
There are two body styles, the Sportback five-door hatch, priced at around £51,000 and the Saloon, which for some reason costs £1,000 more. The rival Mercedes-AMG A 45 S 4MATIC+ costs around the same, for reference. Those Audi figures apply to the standard models. There are also pricier 'Carbon', 'Launch Edition' and 'Vorsprung' specifications available. RS 3 models can be ordered in two exclusive RS colours: Kyalami green and Kemora grey. The roof of the Saloon - for the 'Carbon' edition only - is also finished in Brilliant black for the first time. Individual exterior features, such as the honeycomb grille in the Singleframe, diffuser inserts, and window trim come finished in aluminium on standard models. For an even sportier look, carbon-fibre-reinforced polymer inlays are available on 'Carbon', 'Launch Edition' and 'Vorsprung' specifications, which also extends to the mirror caps. The same applies to the tailgate spoiler on the Saloon and the roof edge spoiler on the Sportback, but for the 'Carbon' edition only. The genuine racing feeling is further enhanced by the carbon fibre instrument panel for 'Carbon' models and above, and RS sport seats with RS embossing and anthracite contrast stitching. The seat upholstery is available in fine Nappa as an option.
When it came to the engine of this car, Audi had two ways it could go. It would have certainly been easily possible to simply uprate the 2.0-litre TFSI turbo unit already used in the brand's S3 model, as partner brand Volkswagen did with the Golf R400 hot hatch that they developed but ultimately never put on sale. The alternative for Ingolstadt was to do what they ultimately did here: continue to install a far more charismatic but inevitably less efficient bespoke five cylinder engine that would make the driving experience of this RS 3 so much more memorable. So how much has that decision cost Audi when it comes to the all-important issues of fuel economy and CO2 efficiency? Well, despite a power output that was well into supercar territory not so very long ago, this Audi RS 3 turns in a very creditable performance at the pumps. Or it will as long as you don't spend most of your time with the loud pedal buried in the carpet. Don't expect its quoted running cost figures to differ very much from those of the previous RS 3 model, which was rated at around 35mpg on the combined cycle, with emissions of around 190g/km. As the previous hatch models have demonstrated, the RS 3's cachet will keep residual values sturdy in the short term at least but expensive options such as the carbon ceramic brakes will cause a softening in percentage values come resale time. Insurance isn't going to be cheap either with a Group 50 valuation resulting in some chunky-looking premiums.
What it boils down to is that with even more savage overtaking ability, all-weather capability and a practical side that will endear it to many, this third generation RS 3 represents an ideal alternative for well-heeled buyers who've outgrown powerful sports coupes and saloons or ordinary fast hot hatches. And it's amazing to think that this level of astonishing performance represents merely the entry point to RS ownership. And in summary? Well certainly, there are other compact high performance models in this segment that might make your heart beat a little faster: the RS 3 still trades the last couple of percentage points of focus for genuine everyday utility. But it's also true that while that might make it a couple of seconds slower around the Nurburgring, it also makes it a better car for the vast majority of customers. People who live in the real world. A very fast world indeed.