Audi RS3  – Now with a choice of sedan or Sportback body styles, the updated RS3 packs 294kW and a newfound sense of fun

Two things that I learnt on my trip to Oman for the launch of the 294kW Audi RS3. Firstly, the Omani police take their road rules seriously and you score two nights’ accommodation at their insistence if you’re caught running a red light or if you hit a camel during daylight hours. Secondly, the RS3’s five-cylinder will easily power the pocket rocket well beyond 200km/h on the way to its 280km/h electronically limited top speed. I didn’t find out what length holiday you get for the latter but one can only assume that it’s significant. Thankfully, I’m writing this from an Airbus A380 and not a desert prison.

> Audi Q8 Sport concept 

This facelifted RS3 heralds the arrival of a sedan body style to join the Sportback that’s been available since 2015. Both body styles will be available globally, with Audi anticipating a 60:40 sales split in favour of the five-door Sportback version. Australia is one of the first markets in the world to receive the sedan (in June and ahead of the European markets), while the Sportback will arrive in the fourth quarter. The early allocation of the sedan to Australia is acknowledgment of the global importance of the local market, a fact highlighted by the RS3 representing more than 25 per cent of total A3 Sportback sales.

Engine and transmission

The familiar 2.5-litre five-cylinder single turbo engine has been heavily revised for this latest RS3. Peak power is 294kW from 5850-7000rpm, an increase of 25kW on the previous model, while torque is rated at 480Nm between 1700-5850rpm. Enormous outputs for such a compact car.

The TFSI unit uses a dual-injection system, which can inject fuel directly into the combustion chamber as well as into the intake manifold to improve performance and efficiency. The cylinders are plasma coated to reduce friction and the crankshaft is now hollow bored, saving 1kg. Audi has worked hard in a number of areas to reduce the weight of engine. An aluminium crankcase has helped to trim 26kg away from the five-pot, which not only reduces the weight of the car as a whole but also improves weight distribution.

The only transmission option is a seven-speed S tronic twin-clutch gearbox and the RS3’s prodigious outputs are directed to each corner via a quattro all-wheel drive system that can send between 50 and 100 per cent of the engine’s torque to the rear axle. Audi says that makes the RS3 more engaging and playful than ever and on the extremely slippery mountain and desert roads of Oman, this certainly proved the case.

> Audi R8 V10

Performance and 0-100km/h

Audi quotes a launch control-assisted 0-100km/h time of 4.1 seconds and 250km/h flat out, which can be lifted to 280km/h if you tick the correct box on the options list. In the real world, the RS3 feels at least as fast as the quoted times and the roll-on acceleration is phenomenal. And the performance is accompanied by a traditional five-cylinder soundtrack that will never grow old. Even with the muting effects of turbocharging, the five-cylinder howls and warbles to 7000rpm, and the throttle response is crisp.

What’s it like to drive?

One hard-baked and sandy mountain pass was so slick that it felt like driving on ice. The RS3 would turn-in tenaciously and then fall into a gentle all-wheel drift that was easily managed via the steering or pedals. On higher-grip surfaces, we suspect that the RS3 will take more effort to oversteer, but there are encouraging signs that it will entertain the driver regardless of the conditions.

The steering is electrically assisted with a variable rack that becomes more direct as more lock is wound on. It’s not going to be confused with an old-school hydraulic set-up, but there’s enough feedback that you’re never left to second guess the grip levels of the front axle. And once the rear starts to slide, you can meter out corrections with confidence.

Your confidence is further enhanced by a chassis that treads the tightrope of body control and compliance – bumps and compressions do not deflect the Audi from your intended trajectory. The caveat is that the Omani roads were relatively smooth; not as perfect as European tarmac and perhaps only fractionally smoother than Australian back roads. The RS3 rides 25mm lower than a standard A3 and is available with both passive dampers and Audi’s Magnetic Ride adaptive dampers. We sampled both and the optional Magnetic Ride set-up has only a slight edge in terms of bandwidth from comfort to sport.

The standard brake set-up uses 370mm cast iron discs on the front axle with eight piston calipers, although same-sized carbon ceramic rotors can be specified up front. Pedal feel was generally good, though one example we drove (with steel rotors) had a few clumsy grabs at low speed and eventually started grumbling on the run down the mountains. No such issues surfaced with the carbon ceramics that we sampled.

The previous RS3 was fast in a straight line and great to sit in, but it could feet heavy and slow-footed when really pushed on a twisty road. This latest version is even faster in a straight line and the cabin is still perhaps the best of any compact performance car on sale, but the car is now fun and engaging to drive. The engine pulls hard from 2500rpm, not letting up until the 7000rpm rev limiter – and it sounds brilliant, too. The twin-clutch gearbox is superb, both around town and when shifting along a twisting road.

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Rivals and price

Audi has yet to confirm local pricing beyond the suggestion that both variants will be in the early $80,000-bracket, though not the same price. In other markets, the sedan is marginally more expensive. This places the RS3 Sportback just above the AMG A45 but the sedan a long way below the CLA45. Perhaps more relevant given the RS3’s newfound dynamic excellence, it significantly undercuts the BMW M2 (from $90K for the manual-only Pure edition). That will be a terrific comparison when the RS3 arrives.

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