Edging out the more expensive A45 AMG by 7 hp, the new 367hp Audi RS3 will be the hottest hatch money can buy when it goes on sale in June. However, the second-generation RS3 has a few more tricks up its sleeve over and above just raw speed.
A long motorway journey proves that the RS3 is not just a one-trick pony. Loping along with the five-cylinder motor ticking over at relatively low revs, it is also a civilized travelling partner that can cover big distances without tiring out its occupants.
The most obvious visual clues to the RS3's performance credentials are the extended front wheel arches, the bigger air intakes, and aluminum trim on the bumpers. The two, big, oval exhaust outlets will be the most obvious to other hot-hatch drivers as the RS3 speeds off.
The front arches have been extended by 0.7 inches on each side to cover the 1-inch-wider front track. The rear is 0.2 inches wider. As the suspension arms are unchanged, the extra track width has been gained through wider wheels with appropriate offsets and larger tires.
Based on the same MQB platform as the VW Golf Mk 7 and Audi TT, the RS3 has MacPherson struts in front with a multi-link rear axle. As the five-cylinder motor with its attendant turbocharger and intercooler package is around 44 pounds heavier than the 2.0T FSI that sits in the nose of the less potent S3, some components have been moved aft to compensate. The engineers shifted the battery to the trunk and moved the updated version of the Haldex electro-hydraulic, multi-plate clutch that does the work of shuffling power fore and aft to the rear axle.
As this clutch assembly weighs more than 100 pounds, the effect of moving it aft is significant to the front/rear weight distribution. In the process, this clutch unit has shed 3 pounds, as it no longer requires a pressure accumulator. The RS3 thus ends up with a similar front/rear weight distribution to the S3, although its polar moments of inertia are naturally higher.
A nose-heavy car will always have a tendency to understeer, and the transverse-engined RS3 has a 59/41 percent front/rear weight distribution. To help counter this, Audi offers customers the option of wider 255/30ZR19 tires on the front wheels and 235/35ZR19s at the rear on 19x8.5-inch-wide alloys, while the standard footwear is 235/35ZR19 rubber on 19x8.0-inch alloys all round.
Audi says the rear differential can handle from 50 to 100 percent of engine torque, with limit handling balance also adjustable via the torque vectoring function, which encourages a more neutral line through turns at the limits.
The heart of any car is its engine, and in this respect, the new RS3 has as strong and lively a heart as anyone could wish for. Up to this point, Audi's EA855 2.5L, five-cylinder motor had won four consecutive Engine of the Year awards, already something of a record. At the RS3 launch, Audi told us it had just won this accolade for the fifth year running.
Things have not stood still in the intervening years, and there is far more to the latest version of this iconic motor than just a few more horses. For instance, the onerous EU6 emissions standard has required all current engines to be fine-tuned in many ways, and given that the five-cylinder was originally designed to meet EU5 standards, a number of changes have been made to upgrade its efficiency.
"This goes as deep as material sciences in terms of metallurgy and surface coatings to reduce internal friction and reduce fuel consumption through improved efficiency," explained Tobias Klatt, technical project leader for the new RS3.
"The 2.5 TFSI motor made 360 hp in the old TT RS and 340 hp in the previous RS3," he recalled. "The latest RS3 is based on the same MQB platform as our new TT, and this required a revision of the major external components of the 2.5 TFSI to make it a slightly more compact package."
The improved engine features reduced internal friction thanks to a new coating process on the cylinder walls and matching pistons. "Reducing the overall dimensions slightly involved revising the intake manifold, plenum, and throttle body design, which now generate better intake air ram effect. This and the redesigned oil cooler and oil filter are a bit lighter, too," Tobias said.
The turbocharger unit is the same size as its predecessor, but the scroll has been optimized for better airflow, and it now provides up to 19 psi of boost. The air filter, intake, and exhaust systems have less restriction, and the nine-row intercooler is larger and more efficient.
New fuel injectors and ECU software provide up to three fuel pulses per cycle instead of the previous two, which makes for more accurate fueling. "However, this is dependent on the load, revs, and throttle position," Tobias explained. "Under full-throttle, high-load conditions, the system will deliver three pulses—one early and two later in the firing sequence. But under light-load conditions, such as in town or when cruising on a small throttle opening, the system delivers two pulses."
"The previous fuel injection system had a rail pressure of 120 to 130 bar, and we now have 130 to 140 bar," he continued. "Compression ratio is also up from 10.0:1 to 10.4:1. Finally, the ECU is remapped to maximize the effect of these changes, which add up to a fuel economy improvement of 12 percent."
With outputs of 367 hp between 5,500 and 6,800 rpm, with 343 lb-ft of torque between 1,625 and 5,500 rpm, the new RS3 impresses against the stopwatch, its 4.3-second 0-62-mph time, and thus pips the A45 AMG to the post by 0.3 second. Top speed is electronically limited to 155 mph unless you pay extra to have it delimited to 174 mph.
The upshot of all these improvements is better flexibility and throttle response, together with faster shifting for the seven-speed twin-clutch transmission. Thus, at 3,351 pounds, the 121-pound lighter and more powerful second-generation RS3 is livelier and more responsive at all engine speeds, not just at the top end.
With a power-to-weight ratio of 9 pounds per horsepower, the rorty five-pot motor now feels less stressed when asked to punch an RS3-sized hole through the air, and seems to breathe better at high revs, too.
Audi has also improved the shifting times for the seven-speed S-Tronic dual-clutch gearbox that transmits the engine power to the wheels via the quattro 4WD system.
As the dual-clutch system gains its speed advantage from having the incoming and outgoing gears rotating simultaneously, the engineers explained that any gain in shift speed comes from the software application. The new RS3 has improved shifting protocols to speed things up, but quite frankly, the shifting is so rapid, any talk of millisecond improvements is academic.
The software is also programmed for a diametrically opposed shift experience in Comfort and Sport modes. In the former, it slips from ratio to ratio as smoothly as the torque converter auto in a stretched limo. In Sport mode, it takes on a distinctly urgent feel with a minor jolt as the next ratio up is engaged and the sound-flap-equipped sports exhaust gives out a corresponding sporty blarp.
Chassis engineer Meic Diessner mapped out for me what quattro GmbH had done to the MQB platform to prepare it for this level of power. "The RS3 chassis is based on the work we did for the S3," he explained.
"The ride height is about the same as the S3's, but you can't make a direct comparison of spring and damper rates because the five-cylinder motor is 44 pounds heavier. This requires new front spring and damper rates, which then have to be matched at the rear axle."
As on the S3, the tubes of the MacPherson struts in front are made from aluminum for lower weight. These are a different design to accommodate the new pivot bearing housing required for the revised suspension geometry with increased negative camber.
Out of the box, the RS3 has 235/35ZR19 tires all round, but larger 255/30ZR19 rubber for the front is an option, and the wider contact patch helps to improve front-end grip, especially on track.
The standard issue steel brakes use Audi's distinctive wave-pattern vented discs; 14.6-inch diameter in front, clamped by eight-pot calipers, and 12.2 inches at the rear with single pot calipers. The optional ceramic brakes use 14.6-inch discs in front and save 28.7 pounds.
The blue car I drove had the Comfort package with the active cruise control system. The RS package includes replacing the lovely wing-backed sports seats with deeper RS race-style seats, which save 15.4 pounds, and the "quattro" logo in the lower area of the front under-bumper intake grill.
The standard suspension uses steel springs and conventional dampers, but a magnetic ride option will be available shortly, providing adaptive damping. Controlled via the Audi Drive Select System, this gives you the choice of Comfort, Automatic, Dynamic, and Individual for the throttle, steering, and damping.
Italian roads are deteriorating as the country's wallet is emptying, and I had to make frequent use of the variable ratio power steering in the cause of pothole avoidance to safeguard those gorgeous five-spoke 19-inch alloys. It is fair to say the RS3's secondary ride is on the firm side and that I would definitely tick the magnetic ride box for a car to be used on the similarly pockmarked U.K. roads.
Pick up speed, however, and the ride improves noticeably as the suspension starts to breathe. The faster you go, the more impressed you become with the iron-fisted body control, and at sane speeds on twisty roads, the RS3 just goes where you point it. The quattro system allows you to open the taps fully once past the apex of a bend.
That five-cylinder motor is a peach. Crisp throttle response and a warbling soundtrack to die for endorse its Engine of The Year credentials. The natural descendant of the legendary Ur-quattro motor in this respect, it totally shades the effective but anodyne four-cylinder motor in the A45 AMG for raw character, sheer thrust, and that spine-tingling soundtrack.
Some miles on the Autoroute flagged up the counterpoint to the more engaging side of the RS3. At a steady state 140-km/h (90-mph) light throttle cruise, engine noise recedes nicely into the background, and the RS3 behaves like a standard A3 with fuss-free cruising and stock steady aerodynamic stability.
Should you need to accelerate, light pressure from your right foot results in immediate thrust in the higher gears, while maximum go is just a finger pull or two on the left paddle away. You could happily cover hundreds of miles in a day like this with minimal stress.
Audi thoughtfully provided the Vallelunga Circuit for us to explore the outer limits of its new king hatchback, and this was eagerly anticipated. Note to self: Disengage all the safety systems on track, as these can be intrusive on a car that is basically nose heavy and supposedly able to shunt all its power to the rear.
Slightly nose-heavy cars of any drive persuasion are usually unerringly stable through fast sweepers but can be hobbled by understeer if you carry too much speed on the way into a slower turn. And so it proved to be. Clever differential or not, you cannot change the laws of physics, and the RS3 responds best to the slow in fast-out school of driving. Drive it by the book and its supreme traction, boisterous engine, and rapid-fire gearshifts really come into their own. However, the ability of the chassis to engage on the level of a good rear-wheel-drive car is still a missing ingredient.
That said, the racetrack is not necessarily the RS3's natural environment. It is on fast country roads in all weather conditions, in town where it's compact size and good low end torque are a bonus, and on highways where its refined cruising really come into its own. These are the hallmarks of a fine high-performance road car, and the Audi RS3 is a fine high-performance road car.
On sale in Europe from June, the new Audi RS3 is a mature and very well-resolved package that you could characterize as the ultimate expression of the hot hatch. It is a car that someone who has outgrown the Volkswagen GTI would likely be attracted to when the time comes to move upmarket in power and sophistication, but not physical size.
Audi sold more than 15,000 R8 and RS models in 2014, the bulk of these in Europe, and the sporty sub-brand is rapidly gaining ground in other markets. The RS4 and RS6 are very popular in Europe, but their Avant-only body style this time around excluded them from the U.S. and China.
"In the past, we brought the RS version to market toward the end of a model life cycle, as the production quantities were always going to be relatively small," Heinz Hollerweger, the marketing director of Quattro GmbH explained. "For instance, the previous RS3 was only launched 18 months before that A3 generation was superseded."
"With the establishment of quattro GmbH and a growing demand for the RS models, these high-performance variants are now programmed into the development of a new model from day one, so we are able to introduce them much earlier in the life cycle," he said. "The current RS6 was the first model to benefit from this new strategy, and now we have the RS3, with both on sale around a year after the launch of the basic car."