NV. hatever you may or may not think about fast Audis, you cannot accuse them of being predictable. Every
time I step into a new Audi bearing the ‘RS’ moniker I have no idea what to expect. All these cars are the work of Audi’s quattro GmbH tuning house — its equivalent to Mercedes’ AMG or BMW’s M division — but it gives the impression that each is developed by different teams of people to wildly different standards and all without ever talking to each other. In recent times we’ve had the R8 (outstanding) and the RS6 (overrated). The RS4 was brilliant and its RS5 descendant a plausible if flawed successor. But then came the TT RS which could have been the best of the lot but turned
out to be the worst, at least of the more recent cars, and by some margin.
What, then, to make of this RS3? Conceptually at least it is very interesting. When so-called hot hatches first appeared in the 1970s and early ’80s, some had fewer than 100bhp. Now we are used to seeing them with 200bhp and sometimes even more. But the RS3 packs a 335bhp punch, and now that the Ford Focus RS500 is no longer, that places it in a class of one.
This surprises me because I imagine the idea of providing junior supercar performance in such a compact, practical shape will prove rather appealing in the marketplace. Audi has been clever to spot the niche and plug it, and cleverer still to do it with a car whose four-wheel drive exempts it from all the torque-related issues that either limit the performance of frontdrive hatches, pollute their steering or both.
For now at least the RS3 is available only in five-door Sportback guise and uses the 2.5-litre turbo five-cylinder motor from the unlovely TT RS in unchanged form. But do not worry about this: there are many reasons not to like the IT RS, but the powertrain is not one of them. Unlike the TT, though, the RS3 is available only with a two-pedal, double-clutch transmission. A fairly typical tranche of changes make sure the RS3 is capable of safely meting out this power. The all-wheel-drive capability comes from the renowned Haldex system which utilises a multi-plate clutch on the driveshaft. The amount of slip it allows is determined by oil pressure raised by an electric pump in response to slip detected at either end of the car. The system is simple, quick, light and effective and allows infinitely variable transference of torque to either axle. E,
Further downstream Audi has widened the track of the standard A3, dropped the ride height, stiffened the springs and fitted uprated anti-roll bars, dampers and massive ventilated discs to make sure no nasty surprises await the driver. It even has fatter tyres at the front than the rear. I’m not saying no other car manufacturer has ever done this, just that I can’t think of one. If you can, perhaps you’d let us know. But if the desired effect was to provide the RS3 with neutral handling, the policy has not worked. The RS3 is one of those cars that flatters to deceive — offering a veneer of capability as if it expects its customers never to push hard enough to find what’s on the other side. And maybe they won’t, but that’s hardly the point: you could probably say the same about the typical Porsche Boxster driver, but that doesn’t stop Porsche honing and refining the chassis until it responds the way it should
right up to and beyond the limit. When you put an RS badge on an Audi, just as when you put an M badge on a BMW, you make an implied statement about how that car is going to behave, how it is likely to reward its driver. And like too many RS Audis of the past, that badge writes a cheque the car cannot cash.
Let’s be clear about this: the RS3 is not a bad car, merely a disappointing one and I’ll leave it to you to decide which is worse. In fact for most people on most journeys, most of the time it is a pleasant enough companion. Its ride is a little stiff and its interior certainly not deserving the near £40,000 price tag, but you can forgive it most (if not all) its failings to spend time in the company of its powertrain.
I’ve never understood why so few car manufacturers have adopted five-cylinder engines. I think they produce some of the best sounds you’ll ever hear a car make and despite their inherent imbalance stay smooth right through the rev range. I’d take a five over most V6s and quite a few V8s. And this one is particularly sweet and, despite its immense specific output, impressively responsive too.
Audi even thoughtfully provides a sport button that increases rather than improves its noise and sharpens up the throttle response a tad.
It is also entirely simpatico with the sevenspeed gearbox. I’ll still always prefer a clutch but even I am starting to appreciate the way you can make it upshift mid-corner without disturbing the equilibrium of the car to a discernible degree. Perhaps, however, that says more about the
car than its transmission. Were this a true thoroughbred, set up to respond to minute adjustments of throttle and helm, perhaps it would not tolerate such arriviste behaviour. Indeed you might argue there is so much stodge in the RS3’s chassis that by the time it’s realised what’s going on, the moment has passed. Rather like stabbing the tail of a Brontosaurus. I think what I liked least about the RS3 is that it actually promises so much. The duff fast Audis of times gone by never even bothered to suggest they might handle or be fun to drive: they just hoped you’d enjoy yourself so much in a straight line you’d forgive their ineptitude in the corners. The RS3 is not like this: superficially it feels quite good, offering reasonable poise and precision as you increase the effort levels. It’s only when you’ve near
enough decided that this is a car that will reward serious driving commitment that it turns out not to be. Like too many before it, its inclinations are towards pronounced understeer with very little adjustability available via the accelerator. The car feels heavy in general and nose heavy in particular, an impression that fitting tyres one section narrower at the rear does little to mitigate.
And yet, as a car in a class of one, I expect Audi will do well with the RS3. I can see a constituency of people who are drawn to the kudos of owning an RS Audi, quite rightly like the idea of the five-cylinder motor and find its compact dimensions with its five-door practicality eminently suitable to their circumstances. And despite all I’ve said, I’d not say they would be wrong to buy it. There’s nothing else like it out there, which is a powerful point in its favour, and there’s no doubting that it works well up to a well-defined point.
But I was still disappointed by the RS3 and feel another opportunity for Audi to show it knows how to build consistently great drivers’ cars has been lost.
MATTERS OF MOMENT, March 1990
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