2016 Audi RS3 Sportback Review

Rating: 8.5
$78,900 Mrlp
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Audi's fiery RS3 Sportback has proven its track and backroad credentials in past review. But what's it like to live with as the daily driver?
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From kissing rumble strips around Italy’s Vallelunga to dodging echidnas in backwater Tasmania, the 2016 Audi RS3 Sportback has, since its global launch mid last year, seduced many an opinion maker at CarAdvice Central.

“A wannabe supercar,” we gushed. “(It’s) such a potent performance weapon,” we added, the feisty five-cylinder Audi commendably rating eight-point-fives and nines in environments where red-hot RennSport material should rightly serve up excellence.

Today, though, Ingolstadt’s wildest five-door hatchback to date peers its signature singleframe grille out of the CarAdvice garage and into inhospitable Sydney suburban territory. The test? To see how a wannabe supercar conducts itself during the daily-driven doldrums real-world ownership throws up in long stints between those infrequent fairweather thrashings where we know the RS3 shines.

Even in its slightly arresting ‘safety’ orange-red paintwork and chiselled, LED-lit front and rear fascias, some residential opinion suggests that the RS3 struggles a little to lift its appearance to match its $78,990 (plus on roads) list price. That the silver 19-inch rims don’t look premium enough. That the front guards and rear hindquarters aren’t suitably pumped enough. And – ouch – that the tamer if wildly more affordable ($61,110) S3 model is at least a match for x-factor at fifty paces.

The counter viewpoint is that the RS3 has strength in subtlety, that it sidesteps garish boy-racer-isms and exudes maturity. RennSport geeks may suggest that you won’t need to squint hard to see a natural stylistic lineage to RS4 Avant. And that those massive front brakes and overt tailpipe treatment yell purpose more conspicuously than body curves or RS badges might hope to.

It takes deft trainspotting – those front tyres to be exact – to notice that our test car lacks the Performance Pack which, for $6490, adds the unorthodox upgrade of widening the front tyres only from standard (all-round) 235mm width to 255mm. To enhance front-end point during red-misted driving, it’s been said. The pack also adds B&O sound, carbon-look inlays, matt titanium - or black-finished rims, red brake callipers and, crucially, Audi’s magnetic ride adjustable dampers, all of which are absent.

Yes, this Sportback, which is only available as a five-door, is the most affordable RS to date, but its $78,900 ticket (before on roads) is big coin for a small hatchback with non-adjustable suspension, given Volkswagen fits it to regular GTi that, with its $40,990 list, at nearly half the price.

There’s also a swag of friendly (adaptive cruise, lane assist, high-beam assist - $1800), fast (ceramic front brakes - $8990), fruity (sunroof - $2535), frivolous (various paint and appearance options) and form-fitting (fixed-back race-style seats - $4500) upgrades eager to propel your RS3 into six-figure territory if you so desire. There is even an option to lift the top speed from 250km/h to 280km/h but, really, one must ask: why and where?

Our test car, though, has been treated to a raft of appearance tweaks – RS Design Pack ($1950), Extended matt aluminium styling package ($1600) and roof rails ($780), and that paintwork ($1495), none of which is essential but all of which conspires to an $84,725 as-tested price before on-roads.

Thankfully, the crisp bark of the 2.5-litre turbocharged straight five fired up through the adaptive two-mode exhaust is standard issue, the throbbing idle of its “classic Audi soundtrack” – its maker’s words – a thing of intoxicating purpose. It’s a fantastic, idiosyncratic note unlike any other cylinder count, if a bolder soundtrack in RS3, right throughout the rev range, than it is in the RS Q3 hyper-SUV fitted with the same engine…a car that got half a pasting at the hands of yours truly recently.

In my humble opinion, while both RS-badge small Audis robbed the same parts bin, the RS3 emerged cohesive and satisfying, the RS Q3, somehow, is left wanting. And wanting far beyond the 20kW and 15Nm deficit the SUV lacks to the hatchback. The RennSport skunkworks engineered more mongrel – albeit ‘sophisticated mongrel’ – into the RS3. And engagement. And accuracy. And you don’t need a racetrack to confirm it.

Grumbling out onto Sydney streets, the RS3 feels to strain on its leash, and it's hungry to lunge anywhere you point it. But it allows its master measured control – it’s not peaky or highly strung; it’s not light switch-like in its delivery; it doesn’t demand reaching for Dynamic drive mode to wake from slumber. There’s just big, lean muscle under the right foot accompanied by an overwhelming sense of small car with engine bigger than it needs yet all of which it wants.

As a small drop in the oceanic Audi product range swarming with often patchy engine-and-dual-clutch transmission marriages, this 2.5 TFSI and seven-speed S tronic union is among its best. The thicker and broader the slab of torque this gearbox technology is tied to, they better ‘dual-clutches’ seem to perform. And with 465Nm plied from just 1625rpm through to peak power’s 5500rpm arrival, upshifts are glassy smooth with moderate throttle applications, or abrupt yet seamless once you give it the berries. And, jeez, once you do…

It’s a very short and expensive list of cars quicker than the RS3’s 4.3sec 0-100km/h claim, with plenty of wing and prayer demanded for many of the list’s two-wheel drives. Few are as fuss-free doing so as the RS3, nor are nearly as quick in their default (in this case Auto) drive modes.

So you discover very quickly that, around town or on the open road, almost any gap you wish to insert an RS3-shaped plug into is, invariably, yours for the taking. On ramps, merges, exiting side streets into heavy traffic: yours, yours and yours again. With no histrionics, wheel spin or antisocial look-at-me posturing. You simply tap the console shifter backwards for Sport, the exhaust instantly growls louder and, zot, you’re gone.

It’s not about speed. The RS3 can pull car lengths with a momentary rush of blood, regardless of how modest the posted legal limit is that you need to adhere to. It’s perhaps the car’s 0-60km/h pace that goes a very long way in the Audi’s ability to cut urban jungle traffic like butter. Uncorking full 4.3sec hilarity requires some button pushing and mode selecting but, really, this is neither sensible nor necessary on the street. The joy in an urban context is, instead, the pliable and linear on-tap muscle.

Its compact size and dynamic accuracy carry its point-to-point efficiency further – few cars this quick are this nimble anywhere outside a race track, including most of the rest of the Audi RS stable. In its typical small-car way, its easy to judge and place on the road. And on the balance of city driving duties, the RS3 leverages its quattro all-paw system for drive rather than handling, which is amply catered for by the mechanical grip of the 235mm tyres.

The point? The RS3 is as happy – if not happier – plying rapid trade around town as it does around a Roman racetrack, which is the last place I drove one. Why? Despite the aforementioned fatter, optional front tyres, and Audi’s assurances that its quattro system can allow “drifting”, the Italian RS3 wasn’t quite the tail-wagging fun machine as promised during a ten-tenths track lap. Technically, it needs to break front-end traction in order to feed most of its drive rearward – not a regular occurrence on circuit – leaving it a bit of an understeerer.

Around town, on the highway or even out on windy backroads, the RS3 just grips and goes. At sensible, socially acceptable pace, it always sits flat and planted, pinning itself to the black stuff through corners. The electrically assisted mechanical steering, which progressively quickens its ratio with increased lock – precise control at speed, added manoeuvrability while parking, then - is exceptionally clear and accurate, too.

The steering is just part of a suite of geeky go-faster addenda under the skin – from a revised lightweight hydraulic multi-plate centre clutch to the suspension’s alloy pivot bearings – the imparts a seat-of-the-pants purpose. It’s more than mere sportiness, but rather a confident connection between driver and road that doesn’t evaporate even during a quick spin down the shops for milk and bread. And one not quite present in the S3 or RS Q3 stabelmates.

But here’s the sting. The slightly stealthy, under-the-radar appearance and baiting performance makes for a seductive mistress who strokes the flames even when you fully intend just to drive Miss Daisy. While it can certainly doddle around without protest like a far humbler small car, it takes some will power to resist some naughty playtime. Audi claims 8.1L/100km average fuel consumption, and I’m only partially ashamed to admit to getting nowhere near it almost entirely by choice.

Proper downsides to the on-road driving experience? Those eight-piston 370mm front brakes that threaten to burst from the RS3’s front rims are slightly abrupt on take-up and can make a slight, and thankfully temporary, squealing noise. But that’s only usually after a red-hot punt and they are, without fail, immensely powerful and faithful.

No, the big on-road gripe is the ride. In Audi’s small-car pantheon, fastest equals firmest, at least on standard suspension spec bereft of the adaptive damper option. It’s jiggly on small road imperfections, jolting over speed humps, and dropping a wheel into one of Sydney’s third world potholes becomes an alarming test to the resilience of the RS3’s wheel alignment. There is, though, enough grip and compliance at play that the Audi doesn’t skip off-line negotiating mid-corner bumps.

Criticism has been directed at the RS front seats’ fully mechanical adjustment, though it’s a staple feature on many RennSport models – it allows an extremely low seating position – and more relaxed designed, leather-trimmed Sport seats with full electric adjustment is offered as a no-cost option on RS3.

The rest of the package we’ve covered off in past reviews but the RS3’s interior presentation and vibe are special enough without falling foul of overt racer-isms or feeling too Audi-by-numbers. Taller owners may need to jack the driver’s seat up for some semblance of under-thigh support to prevent aching legs during long journeys. That said, the ergonomics are sound enough, the leather plush enough, the interfaces straightforward enough and general comfort and refinement levels premium enough to be a downright pleasant companion for either urban peak-hour grinding or road-tripping towards the horizon.

Whether the vastly more affordable and milder-mannered S3 or the equally pricey if softer-core RS Q3 makes the more pragmatic city commuter may weigh heavily in some buyers’ minds, but neither is the multi-faceted beast that, in a number of ways, blends the most desirable elements of each.

The RS3 brings a big ticket but it delivers large in the key areas where it should. And in many and varied driving situations. Standard adaptive dampers apart, there’s not a lot we’d change to improve it, which is proof in the depth of the package. Further testament is that the only debate with teeth the RS3 drew amongst the CarAdvice Sydney crew was in the subjective matter of exterior styling.

Click on the Photos tab for more images by Christian Barbeitos.