2018 Audi Sport RS 3 first drive: a 4-door, 174 mph speed-demon

Vincent Nguyen - Mar 22, 2017, 4:29pm CDT
2018 Audi Sport RS 3 first drive: a 4-door, 174 mph speed-demon

For nearly twenty years, Audi Sport was known as quattro GmBH, but with cars like the 2018 RS 3 the performance division is embracing its more public persona. There’s brand equity in “Audi”, and Stephan Winkelmann, Audi Sport’s CEO is under no illusion about how much potential that has for his line-up of unusual, rip-roaring cars. Winkelmann’s next job, he tells me, is to bring the brand to a whole new level.

Audi Sport may be a new name, but it has some serious heritage. For many enthusiasts, it’s best-known for its less mainstream engines: the TT RS and RS 3, for instance, are rare breeds primarily because they’re powered by a 2.5-liter, 5-cylinder engine. The atypical number of cylinders pushes out 400 HP and 354 lb.-ft. of torque, with maximum torque kicking in at 1,700 rpm and keeping up all the way through 5,850 rpm. In 2018 form, Audi Sport has squeezed 33 horsepower more and shaved off 57.3 pounds, thanks in no small part to the switch to lightweight aluminum for the crankcase and magnesium for the oil pan.

You buy a car for the horsepower but you drive the torque, Stephan Reil, head of Audi Sport Development, reminded me, and he’s not wrong. In the case of this particular 5-cylinder, the torque is an invisible and near-relentless force that presses you back against your seat. Peak torque early in the power band gives you the thrill of driving a sports car – even with the practicality of a four-door A3 – while the bigger horsepower gets you from point A to B faster. Make no mistake, the RS 3 is legitimately fast; in fact, I’d go as far as calling it a speed demon, hitting 0 to 62.1 mph (0-100km/h) in just 4.1 seconds.

It’s a car with personality to back up the power, too. Your ears tell you something is up from the outset, thanks to the thunderous exhaust note courtesy of the 1-2-4-5-3 cylinder ignition sequence. By alternating between directly adjacent cylinders and widely spaced ones, Audi Sport is the conductor of a fantastic thump-crackle-pop-crackle orchestra, a glorious rumble unique to the five-cylinder engine.

Top speed is electronically limited to 155.3 mph, though ticking the optional Dynamic plus package raises it to 174 mph. 155 mph is plenty fast, mind, as I can attest to after having topped out on the Mulsanne Straight at Le Mans last year in the upcoming 2018 Audi S4. Unlike that car, the RS 3’s 5-cylinder engine is mated with the S tronic 7-speed automatic dual-clutch transmission, but even without that eighth ratio I have no complaints. Up and downshifts are lightning quick – yes, far quicker than your or I doing it – and the gearbox smartly sticks to the first six ratios and leaves the seventh as more of an overdrive for better highway efficiency. Paddle shifters are standard for when you want to get more involved, or just to provoke the bark from the optional sports exhaust when you downshift.

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For buyers on the fence trying to decide between the S3 versus RS 3, perhaps the difference of 108 HP and 74 lb.-ft would be enough to push you towards the RS 3. The S3 Premium Plus starts at $42,900 and $48,400 for the S3 Prestige; the S3 model I compared the RS 3 with was fully loaded, bringing the price to roughly $52k. While US pricing for the RS 3 is still TBD, when the car goes on sale in Europe in April it will start at $55,900 euros; that roughly converts to $60k and change. US specification, which still hasn’t been finalized at this point, will play a big part: the US will get the panoramic sunroof as standard, for instance, whereas other countries do not.

Normally, I’d think it would be nuts for anyone to fly across the world to drive a car for a few hours. While that’s all true, the RS 3 isn’t just any car: although on the surface it may look like a regular Audi, – and indeed the electricals, Virtual Cockpit dashboard, and a few other components are Audi AG – the real engineering magic is the handiwork of the Audi Sport team. Similarly, on the surface, Salalah, Oman may look like the Phoenix desert, but it’s really not.

Camels, goats, donkeys, and the combined manure of all three are scattered over the roads, while rocks and unexpected patches of sand elevate the driving experience to a whole new level. Throw in the lack of police monitoring the mountain roads, and alternating short and long stretches of sweeping left and right turns, and you get a demanding road course that requires a taut, precise car and – hopefully – a driver that can keep up. It more than made up for the 18hr+ travel day.

After Audi Sport got its pitch out of the way, my drive partner and I picked were drawn magnetically to one of the two Viper Green RS 3 waiting outside, complete with black optics trim and all the bells and whistles you can check on the order sheet. The Dynamic plus package also comes with RS fixed sport suspension for maximum handling and driving performance; the base trim comes with Magnetic Ride suspension as standard. If you plan on taking the RS 3 to the track, you’re better off ticking the Dynamic plus package, though unkempt road surfaces will make themselves known through the stiffened suspension. It also comes with front carbon ceramic brakes and a carbon engine cover. All RS 3 variants have fixed-ratio steering.

The Dynamic package, meanwhile, gets you 19” 5-arm-blade-design wheels, titanium finish throughout, red brake calipers, sport exhaust system with black tips as well as 255/30 front and 235/35 rear summer performance tires. Having spent some time in both Dynamic and Dynamic plus cars, I suspect you can’t go wrong with either. I must say, the black optics package – which replaces the aluminum trim with piano black – looks amazing, and definitely suits the car’s fierce attitude.

The roads in Oman share a whole lot with many of the race tracks I’ve driven on. The main difference is that tracks are generally designed with run-off for when you over-estimate the car’s abilities or your own; on Oman’s public roads, if you screw up, you’re hosed. Lucky, therefore, that the RS 3 is the Mighty Mouse of four-door sedans. It’s agile as well as fast, and while danger lurks ahead when you might get a little overzealous or drive beyond your capabilities, you can trust that Audi’s safety features are there to bail you out trouble.

quattro all-wheel-drive is standard, though biased to the rear wheels. On a stretch of unusually zig-zagged road, sharply kinking left and right five or six times, I gained a new level of respect for how easily the RS 3 handled darting changes in direction. Push it even harder and the car rewards you for it: the quattro drive system may use the same hardware as before, but Audi Sport has worked miracles with the software and as a result the power split constantly varies depending on driver input and road conditions. Sure, it’s there primarily for your safety, but don’t think for a second that it’ll get in your way of having fun. Drifting sideways is something AWD cars usually discourage, but I can tell you from first-hand experience that the bright green RS 3 was more than happy to oblige.

Turn-in is far more direct, due to progressive steering and the variable power distribution of the quattro drive: the RS 3 can push anything from 50- to 100-percent to the rear axle, constantly tweaking that amount according to its updated software. It rewards eager drivers, too, rather than working against you. After getting relatively comfortable with how the RS 3 handles, I whipped the steering to the right into a sharp turn while aggressively yet steadily pressing on the gas pedal. The drive system recognized a change in my driving style, pushing more power toward the rear axle as a result. When it sensed that all four wheels were started to slip, the distribution finessed again, pushing more to the front wheels.

In most cars, I suspect this scenario could’ve ended up with my spinning out of control or – worst still – ending up in a ditch and not necessarily on all four wheels. That would make for a bad day. Instead, in those precious few seconds where all four wheels drifted sideways, I gently lifted my foot off the gas and the quattro magic kicked in, delivering the much-needed traction to set things up for the sharp left that came next. My heart skipped a few beats, certainly, but I was left with only more respect for what Audi Sport has achieved.

If you’re wondering where the electronic nannies were in all this, you’ll be pleased to hear that both the Electronic Stabilization Control (ESC) and anti-slip control have been given RS-specific tuning, with controlled drifting-fun-and-safety in mind. There are three modes: full, sport mode – in which the ESC waits for you to get into trouble before kicking in, and the mode I was using at the time – and then finally you can turn the whole thing off by holding the ESC button down for more than three seconds. Cornering at higher speeds, the RS 3 benefits from torque braking, with the ESC gently slowing the inner wheels on a curve while allowing the outer wheels more power.

I’m not going to lie; I drove this green machine like I had just stole it. In my defense, the environment just begs to be driven on, hard and fast. The downforce is great on straights going into sweeping turns; commit and press forward, resist the urge to lift or tap the brakes, and it’s smooth sailing. And then, just when you’ve almost lulled yourself into thinking you’re on one big public race track, a heard of a couple dozen camels overtake the road, seemingly out of nowhere. Swerving around them is not an option: all you can do is slam on the brakes – hard. I’m happy to report that the optional front carbon-ceramic brakes never once let me down.

On the outside, while the RS 3 shares the same shell as the A3/S3, is gets a selection of RS-trims like additional air intakes that flank a deeper bumper with “quattro” embossed across the bottom of the grille. The rear is treated to two massive tailpipes, diffusers for reducing lift at higher speed, and a lip spoiler on the trunk lid. If you thought the stance looked meatier than the regular cars, you’re not wrong: the front track has been widened by 20mm, a combination of 7mm x 2-wheel offset and 3mm x 2 for a more robust wheel hub. The rear track is 14mm wider, purely from wheel offset.

Step inside, and the interior gives you an instant sense of sportiness. The base model comes with aluminum insets with the option of carbon fiber, though my favorite – and I’d argue the most sportiest – are the red accents. The stitching on the seats takes nothing away from the support you get from the wide bolsters and integrated headrests, and even after a hard day of driving – or playing passenger as my drive partner had equal fun – I was still ready for more. Alcantara in all the right touch points – like the nine and three positions on the wheel, as well as on the gear knob – both looks and feels good.

Audi Sport has sensibly kept the S3’s best technology in the cabin. Visually, you get Audi Virtual Cockpit, and honestly it alone is worth the price of the package. The 12.3-inch high-resolution display is configurable, with its various panels displaying a variety of driving-related information. The RS-only tach view gets a central rev-counter which lights up in sequential colors to let you know when to shift, flashing urgently as you approach the redline. The other mode takes advantage of the entire display to show Google Earth, whether you’re using it for navigation or not. Audi Sport also throws in Audi MMI navigation plus with MMI touch, Audi side assist with rear cross traffic assist, and – if you should tire of the powertrain’s own serenade – a great sounding Bang & Olufsen audio system.

At the moment, Audi sells around 20,000 A3 annually in the US. With the arrival of the 2018 RS 3, the expectation is that it will shift between 3,000 and 5,000 of the hottest variant per year to drivers with the desire and means for Audi Sport’s RS-entry model. While there are a handful of
high-performance 4-bangers on the market, your choice for 5-cylinders is significantly smaller.

I’m already a fan of the TT RS, and like the RS 3 it’s a great performer both on and off the track with all the sounds and style to match. Still, the RS 3 is the perfect no-compromise for anyone going through a midlife crisis with a family to haul around. The drive select modes allow you to chauffeur the kids to school or dance class and, once you’ve got the car to yourself, switch over to Dynamic or Individual mode for a treat. If that’s the plan, I’d suggest sticking with the standard magnetic ride control for its variable dampers.

The overall package is a four-door speed-demon that won’t let you or your family down. In fact, if there’s a problem it’s more that, for many in the target audience, the RS 3’s creators simply don’t have the brand recognition that some of their competition enjoy. Speaking with Stephan Winkelmann, Audi Sport’s CEO, I asked what the company was doing to address that, when many potential Audi buyers I’ve talked to haven’t heard either of quattro GmBH or Audi Sport.

“We have to work on the brand, one of the most important thing is that Audi Sport, today is a lineup of very good cars. But the brand is in my opinion not there where it should be, and therefore we are redefining the brand strategy for Audi Sport,” Winkelmann told me. That includes setting the division’s products up as attainable halo cars throughout Audi’s range.

“It’s good that it’s a sub-brand and the sub-brand needs to have a function within the Audi brand. The function could be like for example, the first R8 is a lighthouse in terms of design and technology for the entire Audi company,” Winkelmann explained. “If this works, you have a cascade process … for instance if I love the R8 but I can’t afford the R8 so I’ll buy a different Audi because I can’t afford it.”

The challenge there, undoubtedly, is selling enough vehicles to justify your existence, while not sacrificing the rarity that helps make your products special. According to Winkelmann, that’s something he’s very conscious of.

“This makes it a very simple idea behind Audi Sport, in that it’s able to make people dream about something outstanding and not something you see every day: exclusivity is one of the things. Focusing on the right segments and for sure you have to keep the promise. Keeping the promise means you have to have a perfect balance; for us, between design, performance, top quality and daily usability. This is very much car related.”

Get it right, he says, and the result isn’t merely a great new car for the performance enthusiast, but a domino effect that benefits Audi as a whole. “We have to elevate the brand to new heights,” Winkelmann concludes. “This can be done with a good brand strategy, this is what we are working on. Also, if you have the opportunity to launch a car which again a lighthouse for the entire company and not just for the Audi Sport brand. Everything we do, should be done to the greater purpose to be part of the big family of Audi.” slashgear.com/audi

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