Audi often denies the U.S. its juiciest fruit, especially when it comes to high-performance RS models. We were adjudged worthy of the RS4 sedan, RS5 coupe, and RS7 coupe-sedan, but not of the RS4 and RS6 wagons or the RS3.
Until now. While the RS3 hatch (“Sportback” in Audi-ese) will remain in Europe, the sedan arrives as redress for these denials. This is an RS that’s been designed for our side of the Atlantic, and Audi figures 40 percent of total model sales will happen in North America. As apologies go, a 400-hp five-cylinder compact sedan certainly beats a muffin basket.
When the official history of Volkswagen’s MQB compact architecture is finally written, it will top the best-seller lists in Germany. And the RS3 and the mechanically similar TT RS will likely go down in history as the most powerful cars ever to be spun from this extremely flexible platform. Each has nearly five times the 85-hp output of the most basic European-spec Golf, a remarkable stretch.
The RS3 is—and we mean this in the nicest possible way—exactly the sort of stitched-together Frankenstein’s monster that such adaptable underpinnings encourage. It’s essentially the TT RS’s five-cylinder engine packed into the existing A3 body shell. “If you were to drive it against a TT RS on a racetrack, then the TT would be the winner—but it would be close,” says Audi Sport development boss Stephan Reil, “and [the RS3] has a trunk and room for four people. It’s an outstanding compromise.”
Audi’s profitability and growing sales have made it a favored child within the Volkswagen Group, indulged in a way that must make its plainer sisters, the Euro-market Seat and Škoda, deeply envious. That’s why it’s been allowed to develop a new, all-aluminum version of its five-cylinder turbocharged engine, despite the mill’s limited use in the RS3, TT RS, and—we’re presuming here—the next-generation RS Q3.
The new one shares the 2.5-liter displacement of the old iron-block unit, but Audi reports that it’s 57 pounds lighter. The significance of that savings is amplified by the engine’s position forward of the front-axle line. A revised cylinder head and an increase in boost pressure bring more power, the RS3 giving 400 horses, a 33-hp increase over the old five.
The word quattro along the bottom of the grille surround is lifted from the RS7. Expect it to be added to the portfolio of signature RS styling cues.
Reil admits it would have been possible to generate a similar output from a version of the familiar 2.0-liter turbo inline-four engine. Indeed, Volkswagen was working on such a unit, previewed by the Golf R400 and Audi TT Quattro Sport concepts back in 2014. But Audi’s exceptionalism won the day, and development on that engine has been canceled.
“There are so many high-performance four-cylinder engines, but the five-cylinder has always been Audi’s unique selling proposition,” Reil explains. “And of course there’s the sound,” he adds. “Nothing sounds like a five-cylinder turbo, and our customers love that.”
Red accent stitching arguably adds more excitement to the interior than the new front and rear fascias do to the body.
The hefty output reaches the road through a seven-speed S tronic dual-clutch transmission and an all-wheel-drive system that uses a hydraulically controlled clutch pack to divert torque to the front wheels when required—though Audi won’t disclose the precise split of which the system is capable. Under normal conditions, around 80 percent of output heads rearward.
Audi stuck to the “make it an RS” playbook for the cosmetic upgrades. At the front, there is a deeper bumper with additional air intakes and the word quattro in letters along the bottom of the grille surround. RS3-only 19-inch aluminum wheels are standard. The rear features two tailpipes big enough for a commuter train to pass through, a lip spoiler on the trunklid, and a diffuser that Reil assures us does indeed reduce lift at speed. The cabin builds on that of the S3, with a generous smattering of those all-important RS logos, as well as multiple skeins’ worth of red stitching on the sport seats and the chunky steering wheel.
U.S. deliveries of the RS3 will commence next summer. Prices haven’t been confirmed, but RS models traditionally carry a sizable premium over their S sisters. This is a compact Audi that’s certain to open north of $50,000. Unless you’re talking about the chewing gum, juicy fruit tends to be expensive. And worth it.
Despite Audi’s commitment to five-cylinder engines, there will be a version of the RS3 with only four plug leads. The RS3 LMS is a compellingly mean-looking thing, complete with dramatic arch extensions and a wing that a Japanese custom shop would regard as excessive. But tighter regulations in the European TCR touring-car series, in which it’s built to compete, mean that the LMS has to make do with a 2.0-liter turbo four. With 326 horsepower, it’s likely to be a little slower in a straight line than the production car. But we’re betting it will be a lot quicker in corners.
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