It’s time to start saying goodbye. The Audi A3 that is expected at the end of this decade will undoubtedly be electrified in some way, be it a hybrid system or a full EV version. So, the A3 that’s arriving next year is the last with just a gas-burning engine under the hood. Audi engineers seem to recognize the significance of the coming transition, so they really leaned into making the most extreme version of the A3, the RS3, a driver’s car. The new RS3 is a parting shot, a sort of sendoff to pure internal combustion.
Like its predecessor, which won a 10Best award in 2018, Audi fits a much-loved and brand-appropriate turbocharged 2.5-liter five-cylinder that dates back to 2011. Compared to the last RS3, the new version develops 401 horsepower from 5600 to 7000 rpm. Torque is up 15 pound-feet to 369. The turbo five is shared with several other cars, but the RS3’s is the most powerful version.
Audi restricted our exposure to the new RS3 to a camouflaged pre-production model. Until the car makes its official debut, Audi is taking no chances. We were walked to a windowless studio where we got to see the uncamouflaged car. If you’re familiar with the previous RS3, the new one doesn’t offer many design surprises. The look is typical RS, a heavily meshed grille with enormous nostrils at the front, air vents at the sides, a front splitter, a rear diffuser, and a lip spoiler on the trunk lid. These are the ingredients that upgrade the sedan’s otherwise staid three-box design into a muscle-bound athlete. A 1.0-inch drop from the standard version makes it look even more intimidating.
After stepping in, we find racing-style bucket seats with excellent lateral support. The flattened steering wheel has an RS-mode button in the right spoke that catches the eye. Hitting it toggles between the RS3’s RS modes: RS Performance, RS Individual, and the last mode selected.
Graphics in the 12.3-inch virtual cockpit in front of the driver have a motorsports vibe. The engine speed appears as a bar graph, torque and power can be displayed, and the car can also track g-forces and lap times. Should you want to quantify the quickness of the RS3, the car provides measurements for standing-start acceleration. These are clearly gimmicks, but they can add a bit of fun to a boring commute. Start running the RS3 hard and the shift indicator in the head-up display proves very useful.
Fast driving also reveals razor-sharp but progressive steering. The slightest steering movements become directional changes. Steering assistance can be adjusted in three stages to suit personal preferences. Audi claims that 62 mph comes up in 3.8 seconds and that the RS3 tops out at 180 mph. We expect it to be quicker; the old RS3 could clip off 3.4-second runs to 60 mph. Audi’s five-cylinder 1-2-4-5-3 firing order, as shown on the camouflage film of our pre-production vehicle, works with an active exhaust to create a rich and characteristic sound. A familiar seven-speed dual-clutch transmission with smartly spaced ratios gets high marks from us.
There are as many driving modes as there are forward gears: Comfort, Auto, Dynamic, Efficiency, RS Individual, RS Performance, and RS Torque Rear. In our opinion, the selection could be reduced to three modes. In everyday life, you drive comfortably in Auto. If you’re interested in stretching gallons, use Efficiency. When you want to get down to business, you can switch to RS Individual, where personal preferences for the adaptive dampers, steering effort, transmission programming, engine sound, and the amount of aggressiveness of the torque-vectoring rear differential can be stored. RS modes dial back stability control too, but it can also be fully defeated.
Without a doubt, the torque-vectoring rear differential may be considered the most significant innovation and most exclusive component in the RS3. As in the all-new 2022 Golf R, the active rear differential is used in place of the regular A3’s Haldex clutch pack, which in all other Quattros manages torque distribution to the front and rear axles. In the RS3, the multiplate clutches vary torque applied to the left- and right-rear wheels. Depending on the driving dynamics mode, up to 50 percent of the engines torque can be applied separately to each rear wheel. Instead of braking the inside wheel in a corner to create yaw to help the car around a corner, the differential directs power to the outer wheel to help the rear end rotate. This fundamentally changes the driving characteristics of this all-wheel-drive car, which normally understeers at the limit. In its most aggressive settings, the RS3 acts like a tail-happy rear-wheel-drive car.
Five settings affect the rear diff’s responsiveness and are linked to the driving modes. In Comfort and Efficiency, the two multiplate clutches are almost always disengaged, making the RS3 a front driver. In Auto, the power distribution is balanced, with no noticeable tendency to understeer or oversteer. Switch to Dynamic mode and up to 50 percent of the drive power flows to the rear wheels, resulting in an increasingly involved rear end. In RS Performance mode, the rear differential’s programming works to keep the handling neutral and to maximize corner-exit speeds. For the track bound, at least in Europe, Audi will offer grippy Pirelli P Zero Trofeo R tires that are well matched to the suspension and torque-vectoring rear differential. No word if those tires will make it to the North American market.
The added power and the new differential make for a track-ready sports sedan that will happily do daily duty. When the new RS3 arrives next year, expect a base price around $60,000. If 401-hp isn’t enough, Audi engineers are likely to take the RS3 a bit further in the near future. Rumors are swirling about a 450-hp RS3 to put the 416-hp Mercedes-AMG A45 S in its place. With electrification looming, the internal-combustion engine is working hard to highlight its differences and advantages, and the RS3 is an excellent package in which to show off.
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