The RS3 seems to be the car everyone is raving on about in the hot hatch world (yes, I realise this review is about the sedan!). I got caught up in the hype and bought a brand-new one in late 2017, and it arrived early 2018. I have had my Audi RS3 sedan for about 2.5 months now and have covered nearly 4000km in that time.
I’m still learning more and more about the car as I take it through different roads and driving styles, and I’m liking it more and more. However, at first, I wasn’t a huge fan of the car and even considered selling it at one point! Let me explain…
Prior to visiting an Audi dealership in late 2017, I had heard about the improvements over the pre-facelift hatch and had seen some of the incredible quarter-mile times that had been run. The best I had seen was 11.8 seconds, and to put that into perspective, not so long ago a mid-12 second quarter was the amazing time returned by the AMG A45 and the HSV GTS. I had read many reviews of the car, most of them glowing.
I rang the dealership and they told me they had one in stock that I could test-drive. When I turned up, however, they told me that it had been sold. As I’d done as much research as possible, I figured I should just place the order anyway without test-driving, as I knew I’d be up for a few months’ waiting time, and I had certainly done as much homework as I could.
I ended up waiting about 2.5 months as I wanted a specific set of options. In fact, the salesman told me that he often saw customers come in with a specific option set in mind, then they’d hear about the waiting time, at which point they’d quickly change their mind and just buy whatever was on the way over on the boat, options and colour be damned. I decided to stick it out and get exactly what I wanted, which was a highly optioned car with every option available, apart from the ceramic brakes, phone light box and carbon engine cover.
When the car turned up, I wasn’t really that excited. Why was this? I should’ve been over the moon! I soon realised that it was because it wasn’t a V8. Let me explain this seemingly stupid reasoning. See, the ‘weekender’ I had (and still have, but it will be sold soon) before the RS3 was another Audi – a (modified) supercharged V8 manual coupe that is almost the polar opposite in terms of driving experience to the RS3. I had never owned a V8 before this, and probably wouldn’t have cared that much about V8s until I had that car. I had always owned turbo sixes and probably would’ve preferred the sound of those to V8s at the time. But once I got that V8, I was hooked on the sound!
At first, my thinking was similar to the RS3. It had instant torque and revved right out without dropping off power, like many turbos. But this lack of turbo lag made the car ‘feel’ slow, although in reality it was stupidly quick. And I didn’t really like the car for a long time, until I got used to the nature of the engine.
So, while I was waiting for the RS3 to arrive, I had been watching a lot of YouTube videos trying to hear what the new sedan would sound like, and I wasn’t that impressed. To me, a large part of the driving experience is the sound, and the five-cylinder just wasn’t doing it for me. But that was in videos, which we all know is totally different to hearing something in person.
I took delivery of the car and noticed the exhaust note in the cabin in Comfort mode was anemic, and a little intrusive. I didn’t like it at all (and still don’t, but it can be covered by music), but then I tried full throttle… Wow! What a difference! Full throttle is where the exhaust note really comes into its own in this car.
Even while in Comfort mode, the exhaust valves open under full throttle and a huge roar emanates from the pipes, being deceptively loud, almost sounding like a V10. This is really how the car needs to be driven to be fully appreciated, in my opinion. It will happily putt around town, but the nature of the engine and transmission tune doesn’t lend itself well to these driving conditions. It needs to be driven hard to really get the most out of the car.
The thought that immediately came to mind on the drive back from the dealership was ‘aftermarket’, which I don’t think is a good thing. Why? As I later found out, the car is fitted with a huge turbo, which means a lot of turbo lag. While a large turbo is great for top-end power, it can be annoying around town when off boost.
The transmission tune, while in Comfort mode, is prone to hanging onto higher gears for a long as possible, which prompts the driver to give more throttle, which builds boost (slowly). At a certain point, the transmission will decide to jump down a gear, leading to a sudden, unwanted surge of acceleration.
On top of this, the throttle and boost response appears to be dulled down in this mode, leading to a doughy throttle pedal feel. All of this is typical of an aftermarket ECU tune without the matching transmission tune, and I am a little surprised that Audi has programmed it in this way. I think a sharper boost response and more willingness to kick down a gear would go a long way to making the car feel more lively while in Comfort mode.
As far as tunability goes, the turbo will provide enough flow for about 500 flywheel horsepower (approximately 375kW), being a 67mm compressor exducer ball-bearing Borg Warner EFR turbo, rotating in reverse in order to reduce lag due to the shorter exhaust manifold design made possible by this. This is the first time I have heard of what is essentially a very large aftermarket-style turbo being used for an OEM turbo. It’s also great if you’re looking to do some aftermarket modifications, with plenty of head room left to pick up some good power.
Anyway, back to my thoughts on driving the thing…
So what about Dynamic mode? This sharpens and stiffens everything up a little bit, from the steering weighting, suspension stiffness, transmission, centre differential, even the responsiveness of the radar cruise control! This is the mode that you really should be using to make the car come alive. However, with this come a few downsides. The transmission now keeps the revs up too much for around town. Something in between Comfort and Dynamic mode would work better here I think. The suspension is rather stiff – great for the twisties, but a little stiff for everyday duties.
There is an Individual mode where you can mix ’n’ match the selection of Comfort or Dynamic modes for many different aspects of the car. For instance, you may want to have the gearbox and steering in Dynamic mode but the suspension in Comfort mode.
The engine, which is the star of the show in this car, in my opinion, is too laggy. But it is incredibly powerful, and this in combination with the exhaust note is probably the reason why many people would choose an RS3 over its competitors, such as an AMG A45, for instance. My opinion is likely skewed due to the engine characteristics of my last weekender, but I would stress that before buying one, make sure you test drive it properly. I would like to express my opinion on the engine in greater detail, because I had never found any reviews that made a mention of the turbo lag, or boost threshold for that matter.
So what’s the difference between ‘lag’ and ‘boost threshold’? Lag is the time taken from when the throttle is depressed to when the engine builds meaningful boost. Boost threshold is the revs at which point the turbo starts to build boost. It is important to make this distinction not only because people sometimes say lag when they really mean boost threshold, but also because the power/torque figures only tell half the picture.
Audi lists a torque figure of 480Nm between 1700–5850rpm, which is mighty impressive on paper. However, in reality, giving full throttle at 1700rpm will not give you 480Nm right away. It will probably take 2–3 seconds to build full boost due to the large turbo, and so this 480Nm figure is fairly meaningless, unless you are driving up a steep hill in top gear at full throttle. However, the flip side of the large turbo is that the engine pulls very hard all the way to the 6800rpm redline. This is refreshing to see and is often not the case with many turbocharged cars, which tend to have fat mid-range torque but fall off power up top.
While it seems like I am banging on about the engine, I wanted to do so in order to give prospective buyers some idea of what the car is really like to drive in the real world. I am not sure I would’ve bought the car if I had have test-driven it first, and I admit that my opinion is definitely affected by my previous car, but for others coming from a similarly big-engined car, this is something to be aware of.
By the same token, some people love turbo lag, as it can make a car feel quicker than what it is. You plant your foot on the accelerator, not much happens, and then BANG, the boost kicks in and the car takes off. It’s almost a little like riding in the passenger seat of your own car, as the command you’re giving the throttle is not what you’re feeling.
When someone else is driving your car, it often feels quicker from the passenger seat, I believe because you’re unaware of how much throttle the driver has applied, and when it was applied. If you like this nature of a small-engined, big-boosted car, then you will love the RS3’s engine. It is stupidly quick once it’s on boost, but off-boost (and in Comfort mode especially), the doughy throttle pedal and slow-to-react transmission can be a little annoying.
Obviously, Audi has tuned the car this way in the interests of fuel economy. And it has worked. The car gets amazing economy given its performance potential. My car is currently sitting at about 10.7L/100km as an overall average since day one, and that includes quite a few stints of very hard driving. The car will definitely suck down the juice when driven hard, and some people have reported that their overall average is in the mid-teens or even higher. Obviously, this just goes to show that the overwhelming factor in economy is how the car is driven.
I tend to drive the car softly unless I am ‘having a go’. I know many will ask ‘why should fuel economy even be a considering factor?’ on a performance car like the RS3, to which my answer would be: ‘why not?’. Think of it like this: would you rather spend more money, or less money on fuel? Obviously, the answer is less.
A few years ago, before engine downsizing and turbocharging were really a thing, the only real way to get performance was to increase engine capacity. This means worse economy all of the time, as opposed to just when you’re driving the car hard. This is where the RS3 really excels, as it has the performance of a supercar from not that long ago (a stock small sedan running a high-11-second quarter mile time is crazy!), but it still returns the economy of the small sedan that it is. As mentioned, this partially comes at the expense of instantaneous throttle response, but you don’t get something for nothing…
So how does the car drive in Dynamic mode around the twisties? This is where the car comes into its element, and it doesn’t disappoint. There have been many complaints about the pre-facelift hatch understeering badly when approaching the limit, however I feel that this has largely been addressed (at least in the sedan), partially due to the lighter engine up front, and possibly other improvements to the suspension and centre differential have been made to try and address this.
I can hear the front tyres complain when approaching the limit, but the centre diff does a good job of sucking the car around the bend, now being able to apportion up to 100 per cent torque to the rear of the car when required. The quick steering rack really makes the car chuckable, and it darts around both tight or flowing corners very nicely.
This is really what made me start to love the car more and more. Every time I go on a spirited drive, it makes me realise how much fun the car is. Yes, the engine has a bit of lag when reapplying the throttle coming out of a corner, but it is not so bad that you would really change much about it anyway. Really, if you can, get a dealership to allow you to test-drive the car on some back roads to really see what it’s like. It won’t disappoint.
As usual, the interior is typical Audi excellence and the Virtual Cockpit is amazing. The screen resolution is high enough so that pixels cannot be seen when in the typical driving position, and the graphics and animations are well-designed. I feel it has a nicer overall look to the Volkswagen equivalent, and this is probably a deliberate move by Audi in that it should be seen as the more stylish brand of the two.
Interior materials and design are great, however I am personally not a fan of the round air vents. The cabin has an upmarket feel of quality about it, and everything is where it should be. I won’t go into too much detail here, as many other reviews have already covered this.
One area that has had a lot of talk is the lack of exhaust pops and bangs on the overrun in the sedan, compared to the pre-facelift hatch. I cannot decide whether I miss these or not. On the one hand it is fun (and obnoxiously loud), but on the other hand these are not to everyone’s taste. Either way, they can be tuned back in with some tunes.
I find it amusing that ‘crackle tunes’ are now a thing, the effects of which are something that was probably considered a ‘bad tune’ in the old days. Nevertheless, to each their own, and thankfully these cars can be mapped so that even with an aftermarket crackle tune that pops everywhere in Dynamic mode, in Comfort mode, they aren’t there at all.
Another area is the amount of issues that have been reported with the sedan, such as ‘exhaust rattle’, exhaust ‘tinging’ on start-up, engine ‘run lean’ warning, amongst others. The response by Audi hasn’t been great so far, but I can only go by what I have read as I have not experienced any of these issues myself.
A couples of issues I have are with the DSG in Comfort mode when full throttle is applied: the ECU thinks for a half second, then the car emits a loud pop, and then it finally kicks down a few gears. I suspect this is a software bug – as 1–1.5 seconds for kickdown is unacceptably slow. Another gripe, again when in Comfort mode and full throttle is applied: the engine sometimes short-shifts in some gears, shifting up at 5000–5500rpm while in other gears it holds to redline. Why doesn’t it consistently shift at redline like any other car, regardless of the mode it is in? Again, I think this is probably a software bug that is hopefully rectified shortly.
However, overall, the DSG in this car is excellent. Apart from the couple of issues mentioned, it is by far the best I have ever experienced, both in smoothness from a standstill and shift speed. On light throttle it slurs its shifts, seemingly trying to act like a conventional torque converter auto, but given more throttle it shifts extremely quickly, more decisively and very smoothly. As mentioned, its tendency to hold onto higher gears in Comfort mode can lead to some frustrations.
The seating position is good, but not great, and the seats are comfortable, but not electric (apart from the four-way lumbar support). The optional electric seats (with or without massage option) apparently take a step down in that they resemble a base A3’s seat design. The fact that the seats aren’t electric don’t bother me so much, but I think that in a car of this price, electric adjustability should be standard.
I think the seating position is a little too high and too far from the steering wheel, even with the adjustable wheel reach extended to the maximum. I cannot seem to find a truly comfortable driving position, in that to get far away enough from the pedals, in order to reduce strain on my heels over long distances, I find myself too far away from the wheel. Perhaps playing around with the seat and wheel will present a better combination of positions over time.
While the seats look like they might be too narrow or difficult to get in or out of, they are in fact very comfortable with soft side bolsters that don’t present a challenge to ingress or egress. They also hold you nicely in position while carving up corners.
I was unhappy with the wheel choice available, and thus will likely swap to an aftermarket wheel and matching lowered suspension at some point. Looks are obviously a very personal opinion, however most people I have asked haven’t been rapt in them. Personally, I would like to see more concavity in the design. The wheels are made by BBS and they have a nice diamond-like silver finish with metallic black paint (in my case being part of the Performance Pack 2).
Wrapping up this review, I am sure some readers will disagree with some of my points, and I have largely focused on the engine, however I feel this was warranted as I have not seen another review yet that has covered this in great detail. If I had read a review addressing this specifically prior to ordering my car, it may have changed my mind, or at least prompted me to insist on a test drive before purchase.
In saying that, I am learning to love the car (and the engine!) more and more. I am sure that in a few months’ time my concerns will have faded into the distance. I have still rated the car highly, and I feel I have given a fair score across the various aspects.
Overall, an excellent car, even considering the high price given the size. It has a well-rounded set of features, and when performance is taken into account, some would even argue that it is good value for money. Definitely well worth a drive!