The new Audi RS3 is the hot-hatch many European enthusiasts were waiting for. A beautifully built car, this second-generation RS3 could be regarded as the place former Golf GTI owners go when they grow up. Powerful, charismatic, and yet refined, it oozes sophistication and maturity in a class in which the many offerings range from understated to extrovert in their physical presentation.
Positioned on the conservative side of the styling fence, the RS3 is easy to live with as a daily driver. With its broad spread of talents, it inspires on a twisty road, the multiple-award-winning 2,489cc five-cylinder engine spinning eagerly to its 6,800-rpm redline. Yet its ability to waft along the motorway at 80 mph in virtual silence makes it a fine long-distance cruiser as well.
The engine is the heart of any car, and the RS3 benefits from one of the best engines ever made in terms of power and torque delivery, throttle response, and soundtrack. Just listening to the EA855 five-pot motor come to the boil is unadulterated aural bliss. Even in stock form, this is a "tunnel car" with few equals.
Now, ABT Sportsline has gilded the lily with its first conversion for the new RS3. In conjunction with the company's sports silencer system that features four 4-inch-diameter outlets, the latest ABT Power "New Generation" ECU module takes output from its already healthy 367 hp to 430 hp, accompanied by a torque increase from 336 to 391 lb-ft.
The widespread adoption of forced aspiration for emissions reasons has been a godsend for the aftermarket tuning industry. Naturally aspirated tuning, especially where internal modification work is involved, is an expensive business, with displacement increases in particular being a wallet breaker. Turbocharged and supercharged cars have the inherent potential for greater horsepower increases for a lot less money, while the all-important torque improvement is what really delivers the bang for your buck.
In the early days of forced aspiration, so-called chip tuners had to replace the E-PROM on the ECU's main circuit board, a process that required a steady hand. Later on, over-writing the OE program through the diagnostic port became the default way to remap an ECU.
Today, in the third age of ECU tuning where OE manufacturers' protection protocols are tougher than ever, the industry has widely adopted the use of external electronic modules that fit into the vehicle's wiring harness between the factory ECU and engine. This module intercepts the signals from the ECU, re-interprets them, and passes the altered data to the engine, which then reacts to the appropriate demand for fuelling, ignition, and turbo boost within its physical limits.
This external module system was first used on turbodiesel engines in the 1990s. As compression-ignition engines produce more power when you add more fuel, they are much simpler devices than petrol engines, and these so-called "interceptor" boxes worked just fine by simply adding more fuel.
Things are less straightforward today, however, with more stringent emissions requirements that have to be met by all TUV-approved devices sold in Germany, and other countries following suit. However, as a simple-to-fit means of enhancing the output of a modern turbocharged petrol engine, today's much more sophisticated add-on modules are the perfect tuning tool.
They're a great alternative to software flashing because these plug-and-play boxes can be sent to dealers around the world who can fit them in minutes with the provided wiring harness extension. And the process can be reversed just as easily when the car is sold.
In the past, some of these devices ran a program over the top of the OE software, but this can cause issues. Today, the playbook rules are simpler. The module stays offline, the car running on its OE mapping, until the driver demands full throttle. This means that unless you are lead footed, the car is running stock 99 percent of the time or more, with normal fuel economy and emissions levels.
The other issue is engine protection. The module is programmed to default to OE protocols when engine water or oil temperatures reach the factory maximum recommended numbers, such as when running hard in high ambient temperatures. At that point, the OE protection takes over and cuts back power and ignition advance to minimize thermal load and thus protect the engine.
An interesting side benefit for those with an environmental conscience is that while the stock RS3 engine emits 0.9 to 1.0 g/hp of CO2, the more efficient combustion of the tuned version drops this to just 0.7 g/hp, a 30 percent improvement. So you can benefit from the extra 63 hp with no reservations.
Extra peace of mind comes from the full two-year or 100,000km warranty provided by ABT Sportsline against any engine damage that might result from use of the module.
So how does all this extra power feel? The standard RS3 is certainly no slouch, and ABT has been careful to basically mirror the standard power and torque curves at a higher level. Thus, the basic character is unchanged, with simply more of everything on tap.
With the Quattro system doing its job to perfection, the ABT RS3 blasts off the line with no drama to hit 62 mph in just 4.1 seconds, a reasonable improvement over the standard 4.3 seconds. However, the real benefits are felt on the fly where the extra torque makes itself felt.
More torque means the bottom end feels lustier, and when you accelerate in the intermediate gears on the fly, the palpable thrust is also that much greater. At the top end where the horsepower benefits kick in, the car feels significantly quicker, pulling harder over the last 2,000 rpm.
Out of the box, the RS3 has an electronic speed limiter that calls a halt to proceedings at 155 mph. If you pay Audi extra to have it delimited, that number will rise to 174 mph.
Part of the ABT conversion removes the limiter, and the resulting 177-mph top speed is a function of the standard gearing. On an unrestricted flat stretch of autobahn near ABT HQ in deepest Bavaria, I rapidly reached this claimed top speed and was frustrated by the gearing and rev limit, as it felt like the willing engine wanted to carry on building speed.
To keep the chassis in line with the extra power, ABT offers a suspension upgrade with sport springs that drop the ride height by 1.2 inches in front and 1.0 inch at the rear. These work perfectly within the performance envelope of the magnetic ride dampers, and ABT reset the suspension geometry to suit after fitment.
Two different designs of alloy wheels are available, the ultra-light forged ER-F and the cast alloy ER-C (ET35), available in Gun-Metal, Silverbullet, or Black Magic finishes. The ER-C can be had in 8.5J x 19-inch (ET35 or ET45), while the ER-F is only available in 9.0J x 19 (ET40). Both sizes wear 235/35R19 Continental SC 5P rubber, and no wheel arch modifications are required.
While tuner cars often go up in wheel diameter for appearance if nothing else, and ABT does offer a 9.0J x 20-inch option, the best overall ride and handling compromise comes from the 19-inch forged wheels with their lower unsprung weight as fitted to the test car.
The extra roll stiffness definitely helped turn in and poise on the fast and slow bends on the nearby country roads, while the lighter wheels seemed to offset some of the stiffness imposed by the sport springs. Unless you live in a country with very bad roads, this is a worthwhile conversion.
ABT told me this Power module is just the first step in its RS3 tuning program and an S version is almost ready to be rolled out. The company would not be drawn on exactly how much power this will have, but if it is around 500 hp, the conversion will require a new or modified turbo, larger injectors, and high-capacity intercooler system as well. Until then, this 430hp version could hold enthusiasts' interest.