I’m waiting patiently at the pit lane exit behind the wheel of a bright red 2015 Audi RS3 Sportback quattro. We're at the Vallelunga race circuit some 70 kilometres outside Rome to sample the track chops of Audi’s newest RS superstar at the global reveal.
The marshall signals to leave the pits. I cover the brake, build the revs up to around the 4000rpm mark and step off. The Audi RS3 rockets off the line and piles on speed quickly as I short shift into second, then flirt with redline in third into fourth. Hard on the brakes for the chicane that comes up quickly after the dip at the end of the straight. I’m out the other side and flying on to the next corner in the blink of an eye.
While the Audi hot-hatch's most obvious rival - the Mercedes-Benz A45 AMG - is all fire and brimstone, with requisite raucous exhaust theatrics, the RS3 is a precision instrument. Sure there’s a throaty growl as the engine barks into life, but it settles quickly into a more muted idle. This is a purist’s car - although a comparison with the A45 is a must for another day.
The RS3 is designed for drivers who enjoy grip, balance, blistering speed and all-round ability. The first three laps as I get to understand the track barely elicit even a squawk from the tyres, such is the RS3’s composure. Track work is almost too easy. The vehicles we’ve sampled at launch don’t even have Audi’s Magnetic Ride Control - a feature that should be part of an option package locally.
You can read our pricing speculation here, but it seems that the RS3 Sportback quattro is set to become Audi’s most popular hero car in Australia. The good news for Audi fans is that it’s every bit as impressive as it needs to be to take that mantle.
The RS3 is powered by a ballistic turbocharged five-cylinder engine that pips the A45 AMG ever so slightly - the 2.5-litre engine pumps out 270kW and 465Nm with a 0-100km/h sprint taking only 4.3 seconds.
But according to Audi the powerplant doesn't need to blow the Mercedes-Benz’ power and torque figures out of the water (the A45 has 265kW/450Nm). That’s because the RS3 delivers strong power and torque, lower in the rev range, making for a more impressive overall performance vehicle. Thanks to the evolution of its predecessor (which was never sold in Australia), the RS3 is now the most powerful hot-hatch on the market.
Where competitors opt for four-pot engines, Audi maintains its emotional attachment to the five-cylinder that dates back to 1983 for its Sport quattro model. Audi engineers tell us the torque characteristics especially of a five-cylinder engine make it hard to ignore.
The engine will rocket the hatchback to a maximum speed of 280km/h, and its fuel consumption is a claimed 8.1 litres per 100km - but efficiency hardly seems relevant in regard to such a potent performance weapon. Peak torque is the key, with the full amount available from a lowly 1625rpm, right up to 5550rpm.
I discover later my homespun launch technique isn’t necessary. If you want to access the RS3’s best acceleration potential, you only need to switch the ESC to its medium setting and select Dynamic mode via the Drive Select system, which opens the flaps in the sports exhaust system - another option when the RS3 lands locally and an option that is a must have. Next, move the shifter into Sport, then cover the brake with your left foot, mash the throttle into the firewall and then step off the brake when you’re ready to launch. The sound of the five-cylinder assaulting the rev limiter is sensational and the launch experience is impressive.
While the RS3 is more of a purist’s choice, there’s no lack of aural symphony. There’s plenty of snorting, cracking, explosions on the overrun and braps from the twin tailpipes to leave no-one in any doubt that you’re driving a proper hot-hatch.
And there’s no doubt the engine and gearbox are bordering on perfectly matched. The seven-speed dual-clutch S tronic gearbox is capable of being coaxed through the ratios at city speed or punched through the same ratios at warp speed. Regardless of the task asked of it, the gearbox is always crisp and quick to respond. Shift speeds have been sharpened over the old model and Audi is adamant that it needed to be an efficient gearbox that is also sporty.
This new RS3 weighs in 55kg less than the outgoing model (now from 1520kg), thanks to the use of the VW Group’s MQB chassis platform, so it’s nimble and sharp, with steering precision well beyond what you’d expect in this league. Like any AWD vehicle, the RS3 will understeer at the limit, sapping speed on track, but you have to work pretty hard to induce it. We need to remember, too, that the RS3 isn’t solely about racetrack speed. It is designed first and foremost to be a genuinely fast street car. The fact it can perform with such alacrity on a racetrack is something of a bonus.
In fact, the ice rink-smooth and high-grip Vallelunga surface isn’t absolutely fair to the fun factor you can access from the RS3. The car's AWD system is capable of channeling up to 100 per cent of the drive to the rear wheels in certain situations and, according to Audi, can be coaxed into controlled four-wheel drifts. We see none of that fairy action on track at launch.
The standard variable ratio steering system is likewise beautifully weighted around town, but sharp as a tack on the race track. Vallelunga’s tight curves never left us feeling like we were crossing hands and rowing on the wheel.
On our city drive from Fiumicino airport out to the track and back again, the standard fixed-rate suspension system indicates that it is going to feel stiff on Australia’s nastier road surfaces. It doesn’t bang and crash too heavily, but it certainly positions itself on the stiff side of the equation and makes the optional magnetic system the one to go for.
What is most impressive on road or track is the balance and feeling of surety at speed. The body is beautifully controlled at any pace, and long sweepers are the RS3’s forte. Tip the nose in, transfer the weight to the outside wheels and the legendary quattro AWD system ensures there’s huge grip available so you can pile on speed at the exit. The weight balance of 59:41 front to rear assists in the overall sense of balance.
Our test vehicles have the rare option of wider front tyres (on fatter rims) at the front than the rear. Cool if you want to brag to your mates at the pub, not so smart when it comes to tyre rotation time…
The interior has been designed with function in mind, but it’s also beautifully executed. The materials used, the fit and finish, and the design is exactly what Audi fans will expect. I didn’t like the chintzy colour coding inside some of the test vehicles, but aside from that minor detail, the interior is a comfortable and enjoyable place to be, and there's the Audi MMI Touch media system that is one of the best in the business.
Slated to be priced ‘around $80,000’ according to Audi Australia, the RS3 won’t be cheap when it arrives here around October - but it will be the most affordable RS model sold here, and similar to its AMG nemesis. Its ride will be harsh around town without the optional Magnetic Ride Control and if you need to carry four adults around often, the back seat passengers won’t want to be too tall.
As far as blisteringly fast road cars that can also perform well on the track go, the RS3 has few equals. Its ability is only enhanced by how effortless the whole experience is. I can’t wait to test it locally when it lands in Australia later this year.