Expert Reviews

First Drive: 2018 Audi RS3 Sedan

SALALAH, Oman – The grass is always greener on the other side.

North American fans of high-performance hatchbacks have had to sit back and watch their fellow motorists overseas enjoy Audi’s hottest hatch – the RS3 – while the best we could hope for from the Volkswagen-Audi Group was a Golf R. The Vee-dub is a formidable consolation prize, but more is better and we want the power and glory and practicality of the Audi RS3 Sportback.

The focal point of the RS3 is its beastly, turbocharged 2.5 L engine.

With the all-new 2018 Audi RS3, hot-hatch fans will still have to look wistfully across the pond to those enjoying the new RS3 Sportback, but now the consolation prize is darn-near as good as the trophy: the RS3 Sedan.

While it’s true, the more practical hatchback variant still won’t make it to Canada, the sedan is brilliant enough to erase those feelings of longing in anyone who doesn’t need to carry large, bulky items in a big hurry.

The focal point of the RS3 is its beastly, turbocharged 2.5 L engine. With 400 horsepower, Audi claims this all new engine is the most powerful production five-cylinder mill on the market.[Isn't it the only turbo five on the market? – Ed.] And with 354 lb-ft of torque available from 1,700 to almost 6,000 rpm, it’s remarkably flexible too.

Equally impressive is that through extensive use of aluminum (the engine block, crankcase and oil pump, for instance) and magnesium (oil pan), the new engine is 26 kilograms lighter than its predecessor despite being the same displacement. Even the crankshaft itself has been hollowed out to save a full kilogram of mass, all in the interest of performance.

All this power pays big numerical dividends, catapulting the RS3 sedan from a standstill to 100 km/h in 4.1 seconds with the help of launch control. This puts the Audi a sneeze ahead of its closest competitor, the Mercedes-AMG CLA 45 with its upgraded 375 hp four-cylinder clocking in at a claimed 4.2 seconds. BMW states its two-door M2 will do it in 4.3.

But it’s not all about the numbers. The Audi’s five-cylinder – shoehorned transversely into the nose of the RS3 – sounds very different from its competitors. With a 1-2-4-5-3 ignition sequence, there’s a very distinct character, and Audi’s engineers have tuned the standard sport exhaust to provoke all sorts of gratuitous belches and snarls. Even at the initial start-up, the RS3 cracks off a loud bark, ensuring everyone in the parkade knows this is no average compact sedan.

Where the CLA 45’s engine sounds ferocious with its sport exhaust, it’s still unmistakably a four-cylinder note. The Audi’s five-cylinder, on the other hand, sounds properly exotic, especially with the optional $850 RS Sport exhaust fitted to both cars I drove.

Of course any real performance machine needs more than just a strong engine and a great soundtrack, and Audi’s engineers haven’t skimped on any of the key elements. The seven-speed S-tronic dual-clutch automatic transmission snaps off shifts with blazing expediency when the paddle shifters are employed. Even left to its own devices, in Dynamic mode, the RS3 intuitively up- and downshifts to ensure the car is never caught in too low or high a gear when being driven aggressively.

Brakes, too, are impressive. The standard 370 mm front and 310 mm rear brakes had no problem shedding speed despite the serious flogging my co-driver and I put the RS3 through, going up and down the switchbacks in the Dhofar Mountains. As a segment exclusive, Audi is also offering optional carbon-ceramic front brakes that have a bit more bite, but unless you’re planning to do a fair bit of track time with your RS3 (or repeatedly drive and up and down mountainous switchbacks on a regular basis), you may want to skip that $5,800 add-on.

Sitting 25 mm lower than a normal A3, the RS3’s standard suspension features magnetic ride control that provides notably different levels of roll control and ride comfort (from stiffer and flatter to softer and more roly-poly, relatively speaking). As part of the Audi Sport Package available for the RS3, a fixed RS sport suspension with stiffer and lighter coilovers is offered to keep the little sedan cornering flat, but may prove to be too stiff on frost-heaved and potholed Canadian roads, so buyer beware.

With wide roads in very good repair throughout Southern Oman, my driving partner and I took advantage of the sparse traffic to put the RS3 through its paces around a variety of steep up- and downhill hairpin turns and broad sweepers. The Audi was consistently a model of stability, its combination of sticky Pirelli P Zero tires and Quattro all-wheel-drive system putting power down for early and aggressive corner exits, even when driver common sense might lapse from adrenaline overload.

Compared to an M2, the RS3 feels more solid and neutral-handling. It also feels heavier, despite actually being lighter (at 1,515 kg) than either the BMW (1,565 kg) or the Mercedes (1,585 kg).

The standard tire size at all four corners is 235/35/19, however in the interest of engineering in some rear-end boogie the RS3 can be ordered with 255/35/19 in the front only, helping the rear to lose grip before the front, rotating outward, but even then, only when pushed obscenely hard, or perhaps on a wet or snowy track.

The RS3’s steering is very good as well, with quick action complemented by precision and plenty of road feel, clearly communicating the few occasions when my co-driver might’ve over-cooked a dusty hairpin or two, provoking some mild understeer.

The RS3’s interior is familiar to anyone accustomed to the current generation A3 / S3 sedans. The layout is typical of Audi, which is to say stylishly simple with ergonomically smart controls, most of which are available through the latest iteration of Audi’s MMI infotainment system. Audi’s celebrated Virtual Cockpit is available in the RS3 as it is on the lesser A3 and S3 models, and the Google Earth imagery embedded into the navigation maps (in markets other than North America) never ceases to impress.

Rear seat space is cramped, but at least the headroom is better than the CLA 45’s and legroom is greater than the M2’s. The front seats – manually adjustable RS Sport ones – feature plenty of bolstering to keep the driver in place during cornering, and are finished in soft Nappa leather. Some of the interior trim pieces, particularly on the centre console that might be acceptable on a $40,000 A3, do look a little cheap on a car of this caliber.

Canadian-spec RS3s will start at $62,900, with options available that can easily push the cost into the mid-70s. That’s no small sum, however it’s not out of line with the pricing of some of the RS3’s key competitors. It’s fair to point out that it’s stepping on the toes of the larger and even more powerful BMW M3 sedan at this price.

Audi’s new RS3 sedan is a formidable machine. It’s wickedly fun to drive (and listen to), and its performance capabilities are very impressive – so much so that I’m willing to forgive Audi Sport for not sending us the Sportback, nor offering the RS3 with a stick shift anymore.

One last point: no matter how lucky we are to finally get an RS3 of our own, that sensational Viper Green paint shown in the photos isn’t making it to Canada.

It would seem that not only is the grass greener over there, but so are the Audis.

Pricing: 2018 Audi RS3

Base Price: $62,900