At the southern tip of the Sultanate of Oman, 1300 kilometres south of the gold-lit skyscrapers of Dubai, you’ll find the spectacular Dhofar Mountain chain – site of one of the finest twisty roads on the planet.
It offers a spectacular and fitting location to launch the quickest compact sedan ever built; the all-new Audi RS3.
While the Sportback (Audi-speak for hatch) gets a facelift in this latest iteration, the RS3 sedan is an all-new member of Audi Sport’s exclusive road-rocket stable. And for what it’s worth, we reckon it’s also the better looking of the two.
It just seems more grown up and the proportions are spot on. However, that’s where the differences end, because both are armed to the teeth with modern-day, road-going firepower.
Lurking under the bonnet is the same 2.5-litre turbocharged five-cylinder petrol engine that’s also making its debut in the upcoming Audi TT RS. As you might imagine, it packs quite a wallop.
The revamped five-pot mill makes a stonking 294kW and 480Nm (rival A45 AMG gets 280kW/475Nm), and like all RS models, it’s got quattro, meaning all that grunt goes to all four wheels via a quick-shifting seven-speed dual-clutch transmission.
It might be the same 2.5-litre displacement as the old graphite iron block unit, but the new engine sports a lightweight aluminium crankcase and bedpan. The crankshaft is hollow too, while the dual-injected top end is completely revised, as is the turbo.
All up, the new engine is 26 kilogrammes lighter as a result – a real benefit as you’re blasting across the aptly-named Furious Road here in the mountains, at dare I say, a furious pace.
It’s also what gives the RS3 an entirely new level of giant-killing performance. Both versions are capable of smashing the 0-100km/h benchmark in just 4.1 seconds-flat. Top speed is limited to 250km/h, though most likely rising to 280km/h with the inevitable performance pack offering.
Let’s forget those numbers for a moment and consider the legendary V12-powered Lamborghini Miura. Even in top-spec P400SV guise, the world’s first bonafide supercar could only manage 283kW and 388Nm and 0-100km/h in around 6.5 seconds. Still, that was big performance for the early '70s.
A more contemporary comparison is the latest BMW M3 with the seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox. It’s got the same 4.1 sec sprint time as the RS3 and arguably a more spirited engine note than the straight-six-powered Beemer.
It’s mind boggling when you realise just how far performance levels have risen in the decades that separate these two cars, particularly when you consider the RS3’s entry-level status amongst its high-performance siblings.
This new RS3 is fast, very fast. Especially across this glassy, sand-blasted road surface above the city of Salalah, something that would test the mettle of Audi’s quattro all-wheel drive system like no other.
It’s a bit like driving on polished concrete at warp speed but punctuated with high-speed turns and at least eight hairpins, just to keep things honest.
For something capable of such potent all-round performance, the standard fit 235/35 tyres aren’t particularly wide either (though you can option 255/30s up front) but then, that’s where quattro comes into play, apportioning the right amount of torque to those wheels with the most traction.
Apart from the unique badging, the RS3 is another potent sleeper from the Audi Sport division. Naturally, there are subtle giveaways to its more manic DNA, not the least of which are the deeper, more aggressive bumpers at both ends.
Compared with the standard A3 sedan, the RS3 also sits 25mm lower and gets slightly flared guards for the all-round wider track, but nothing too accentuated that might tip too many people off – except, of course, those humongous brakes.
Even the standard 19-inch rims do a lousy job of hiding the huge eight-piston stoppers up front. But should you want the ultimate, you can always option the carbon ceramic units. And while we can attest to their huge, unyielding stopping power, expect to pay a hefty premium for the privilege.
And despite its lighter powertrain, the RS3 is far from the lightest car in its class, at least in Sportback body, whereas the sedan doesn’t really have any direct rivals. Tipping the scales at 1510 kilos, the Sportback is just five kilos lighter than the sedan, but more than 30kg heavier than the rival Mercedes-Benz A45 AMG.
Nothing better to start the day than a straight-line, full throttle run towards the mountains in the max-attack Sports mode. It raises the shift points higher up the rev range, as well as reducing actual shift times.
For a bit more fun, though, you can use the paddle-shifters – ideal for mountain passes like this, with so many corners to conquer.
And while you can definitely feel the turbo spooling up, the boost is beautifully measured, so there’s no sudden power surge in power even with the throttle jammed up against the firewall.
The five-cylinder engine makes a great sound, too, especially with the RS Sports exhaust, and especially up around 5000rpm, and never does it never feel overworked.
It’s in the mid-range though, where the new RS3 delivers its most theatrical performance. There’s big point-to-point speed on tap before you need to start leaning on those massive carbon ceramic stoppers.
The hairpins are one thing, but it’s the random camels – standing smack bang in the middle of the road – that require the most of these brakes. Only later, did we learn if you to hit one, you could count on a couple of nights behind bars.
Push hard enough on this unusually low grip surface, and RS3’s rear end will step out, but rarely do you ever get caught out with low-down lag as you get back on the throttle, thanks to its full complement of 480Nm of torque on call between 1700-5800rpm.
And at this kind of liberated pace, steering weight and feedback are also crucial to getting the most out of the car’s performance. Fortunately, the RS3 gets a progressive steering ratio system, which loads up when cornering, so there’s very little arm movement required. It’s not a car you ever need to manhandle, even when you’re having a real crack in this part of the world.
We started the day off in a car with the standard-fit suspension, but still with the Audi drive select function, which we left in comfort on the initial run to the foot of the mountains. There’s a surprising level of pliancy and small bumps are ironed out successfully.
Turn up the wick and start pressing, and body movement is very well contained through the more exciting bends, even in the more manic Dynamic setting. It’s a seriously good balance between comfort and performance. So good was it in fact, it had us questioning the need for the more sophisticated (and optional) adaptive system.
Aussie roads will surely present a more challenging scenario more befitting of the optional RS sports suspension plus with adaptive damper control – something we got to test on a second run over the pass.
Certainly, there’s more variation between the settings – more pliancy, and even tauter chassis control, allowing you to really press. There’s no lean, none, and it feels pretty well balanced, too, but it’s not that big a difference, well at least on this stretch of road.
One thing though, we were expecting an even firmer setting in Dynamic, which we felt was a tad soft for some of the really twisty corner work up here.
Inside, the RS3 feels special, no surprise there. Audi has been doing prestige cockpits better than its peers for years and despite those same German luxury manufacturers lifting their game of late, Audi still has a slight lead.
The metallic accents are superb and there’s plenty of them, but it’s not bling, just quality stuff. The foot pedals (even the dead pedal) are fashioned from stainless steel and the Alcantara door inserts are another nice touch.
All the latest Audi treats are there, like the big 12.3-inch virtual cockpit, sublime RS sports seats in quilted Nappa leather and a 14 speaker B&O sound system (though in all honesty, we didn’t switch it on).
As with its latest generation models, Audi has cleaned up the dash in the RS3 with less switch clutter and more functionality through its seven-inch infotainment screen – and it’s all the better for it.
The flat-bottom RS sports steering wheel is another superb bit of kit, with its Alcantara grip panels exactly where they should be.
Less than a decade ago, we’d be introducing the new RS3 as Audi’s latest junior supercar – such is its level of potency on seemingly all manner of roads. In fact, you have to wonder how much quicker the next generation will be.
But for now, be grateful that carmakers like Audi are prepared to keep making relatively affordable, practical rocket ships like the RS3.
Listen to the CarAdvice team discuss the 2017 Audi RS3 below, and catch more like this at caradvice.com/podcast.