If Audi’s five-cylinder engine were a singer, it’d be Barnesy. The raspy, distinctive voice hasn’t softened with the years.
The turbo 2.5-litre under the bonnet of the new $80,000 RS3 Sportback is loud and raw. Its sound echoes off the hills around Vallelunga, a racetrack nestled in the countryside north of Rome.
The RS3 Sportback isn’t all bark, either. This is a very hot hatchback.
Equipped with the most powerful version of Audi’s five ever put into series production, the five-door does its snapping down the circuit’s straights, then it crackles and pops when slowing for its curves.
The car’s standard seven-speed double-clutch S-tronic automatic is good at picking the right gear in each case, if you’re too lazy to use the steering-wheel mounted paddle-shifters. And its standard quattro all-wheel-drive means wheelspin is never a problem, despite the engine’s hefty outputs (270kW/465Nm).
Performance is properly impressive — it sprints from rest to 100km/h in 4.3 seconds — yet the Audi’s handling isn’t as good.
The five-door does its snapping down the circuit’s straights, then it crackles and pops
All the test cars at the international launch event in Italy are equipped with the largest wheel and tyre combination the company offers, which means wider rubber at the front than at the rear.
Audi’s engineers confirm this unusual arrangement is designed to reduce understeer, or slippage of the car’s front tyres. Even so, the RS3 Sportback proves prone to running wide when accelerating hard out of Vallelunga’s tightest bends and not going exactly where aimed on the way into them.
At sensible speeds on public roads, the Audi feels more at home. The fab five-cylinder makes overtaking quick and easy and the car’s fine road grip creates a real sense of security.
Audi’s neat Drive Select setup gives the driver the choice of Dynamic, Auto and Comfort modes, which alter steering effort, engine and gearbox responsiveness and the exhaust. An additional Individual mode permits picking your own combo, so you can choose to have light steering with maximum engine noise, for example.
The steering is quick — just over two turns from lock-to-lock — although it doesn’t deliver a lot of feel for the road. Ride comfort is borderline, even for such a sporty model as this. The car’s lower and stiffer suspension means it bucks and bounces on Italian backroads, which are as poorly maintained as many in Australia.
Still, the RS3 Sportback succeeds in its primary objective. It is a big step up in performance from the $61,100 S3 Sportback, which until the RS3 version arrives next October, is the quickest and sportiest member of Audi’s A3 family in Australia.
The S3 has 2.0-litre turbo four-cylinder (206kW), its optional double-clutch automatic is a six-speeder only, its electronically controlled rear differential isn’t as clever, and its front brakes are smaller and less powerful.
These core technical differences, plus the restyled front and rear bumpers, may be enough and to justify the RS3’s premium of almost $20,000 over the S3.
The car’s fine road grip creates a real sense of security
Even so, the former will be the most affordable RS model ever in Australia when it arrives.
It will undercut the RS Q3, which runs the turbo 2.5-litre five in lesser tune, by several thousand dollars.
But, be warned, adding options will easily take the RS3 Sportback to $100,000-plus.
The carbon ceramic front brakes fitted on the cars driven at Vallelunga, for example, are likely to cost more than $10,000. Lightweight, carbon-fibre shelled race-style seats, with a fixed backrest angle, won’t be a cheap option either.
These bum-huggers aren’t a wise choice for the broad-of-beam, by the way, and make getting into and out of the car harder for anyone.
Other interior options will be a matter of personal taste.
An accent package fitted to the cars in Italy — with red accents in the face-level air vents — might look good to some, but could remind others of a row of mooning baboons in mating season.
Adding the Magnetic Ride dampers, which vary the stiffness of the shock absorbers, should improve the RS3 Sportback’s rough-road ride comfort.