The compact performance car for the irrational

What exactly is the new Audi RS3? It can’t be the world’s hottest hatchback, and the Sportback variant available in Europe sure isn’t migrating here anytime soon. It’s not exactly M3-like either; The RS3 is still based on an architecture intended for front-wheel drive cars on the Golf platform, so it leaves that task to the larger RS5 line. While the RS3’s $58,900 starting price is admirably close to the previous generation (around $56,000), it’s too expensive to be a rally car replacement for a youngster Filling an STI-shaped hole in her heart. All sensible points to consider before spending up to $75,000 (after options) on a luxury car that shares much with the Mk 8 Golf.

But the RS3’s appeal isn’t overly rational. And a lot of people who buy cars aren’t rational either.

Ultimately, the selling point for the Audi RS3 is that it has over 400 horsepower from a turbocharged inline-five and a funky all-wheel-drive system to harness that power in interesting ways.

Audi calls this variant of the Quattro the RS Torque Splitter. On paper, the intricate rear differential will look familiar, as will the ingenious torque distribution couldn’t save the Golf R from itself. Two clutches dynamically change the torque distribution to each rear wheel to suit every situation. Additional menus, newly buried in Audi’s MMI navigation system (also quickly accessible via an RS button on the steering wheel), give the driver options to choose what these tools should focus on. It’s a level of control similar to that of an electric car powered by independent motors.

FredSmith

The range of options starts with a FWD-dominated comfort mode at the base and escalates to the RS Torque Rear, an ultra-aggressive mode that unleashes rear wheel spin in a car based on a front-wheel drive architecture. By only directing power to the outside rear wheel when turning, and only transferring power to both when the wheel is straight, this is effectively a drift mode. In between are two performance-optimized balance options, one of which is adjustable to offer a few extra layers of aggression.

audi rs3 interior

FredSmith

The RS3 is optimized for a tight mountain pass. It sure has a lot of power, but that’s placed in front of the axle and sent to all four wheels, with most heading to the rear wheels in the fun settings. Unfortunately, part of our time with the RS3 was on the road in the vast desert, an odd place to explore this car.

The RS3 certainly proved usable and quick here, but it was all a display of competence rather than excellence. If you forget how small the car behind you is, you’ll find yourself in a sports sedan with more than enough power to inadvertently reach much higher speeds than intended. It suddenly occurs to you that you’re in a car that’s a bit too compact to be comfortable on a long tour, and you immediately feel the need to call back.

audi rs3

FredSmith

This feeling is made worse by the tires bolted to the cars road & track I got the chance to drive – Pirelli P Zeroes were woefully unequipped for how sharp the RS3 was in the few places it excelled. We couldn’t test the Bridgestone Potenza Sports, which is also available ex works. But if you have the cash, Pirelli and Audi have a much more compelling solution.

That would be Pirelli’s P Zero Trofeo R Performance tires. They’re a $450 option, assuming you’ve already ticked a $5500 box for a raised speed limiter and carbon-ceramic front brakes. And that you signed a waiver as these are stripped down tires meant for track use and are far from optimized for rain.

audi rs3 kyalami green

Andrew J Hedrick / Audi

We’ve seen these Trofeo Rs on a trio of options-heavy cars at one of Spring Mountain Raceway’s many natural street courses. Dressed in this RS3’s signature launch color Kyalami Green and optional beyond the $70,000 mark, these cars distinguished themselves.

With the added grip of the Trofeo Rs and the added aggression of the most enthusiastic settings the RS3’s menus could offer, the car is a blast. An inline-five hum along with all the fury and noise you’ve always wanted from any 2.0-litre turbocharged four in the Volkswagen Group highlights a race car that steps out like a rear-wheel-drive sports sedan and as an all-wheel drive hot hatch.

audi rs3 with imsa challengers from audi from the 1980s

FredSmith

While I think Audi built the little RS3 out of disappointment by choosing to display the car in a garage with four of its greatest-ever inline-five race and rally cars, driving the RS3 felt on track kinda like fulfilling my childhood Audi an 90 IMSA GTO dreams. It’s fun, especially when playing with the limits, of how much the torque-vectoring four-wheel drive system is willing to help exit a corner. I’ve actually never reached a point where I’ve been punished for it; Instead, the RS3’s torque vectoring solved the problem for me in a dynamic way that felt less like a computer working to achieve the best possible performance against my will and more like one that knew the point of performance was to have fun.

And the car is very fast. With the help of these grippy Trofeo Rs, an RS3 adorned with the five-cylinder firing order 1-2-4-5-3 lapped the Nurburgring in 7 minutes and 35 seconds. That’s five seconds faster than a Bugatti Veyron, as several Audi representatives have told us at different times.

audi rs3 autocross drifts

FredSmith

We were also able to try out the RS3’s drift mode on an autocross track laid out in the form of the letters “RS” next to the racetrack. Here, the car’s inherent tossability and some nifty torque vectoring tricks combined to create the perfect parking lot toy. It’s something of the world’s most advanced way of putting a tray of lunch under a rear wheel, making for deeply satisfying slides. Our course involved drifting around a barrel and transitioning through three hairpins. With little practice and enough room to stop before spinning into anything, the RS3 quickly made sense as a performance product a company that works with Ken Block.

Audi is positioning the RS3 as an entry point into the Audi Sport brand, a way for younger buyers to see what all-wheel drive is all about before pursuing it up the price bracket as it ages. Audi is also positioning it as a direct competitor in what’s currently a two-car battle with AMG’s equivalent entry point, the similarly-rated CLA45. But those are business justifications for pursuing the project, not what a consumer needs to worry about. All a buyer needs to know is that the Audi RS3 is good weird fun.

audi rs3

FredSmith

With all the German sub-brands now offering a tuned performance variant of their traditional compact sport sedan, rational thought still says you should probably buy an Audi S4, BMW M340i or AMG C43 over the RS3. But driving a car is not necessarily a rational endeavor.

I’ve seen used Ferrari Californias shopped direct with new sedans and high performance SUVs. Out there, the RS3 will find buyers who don’t particularly care if a compact hatchback is an odd starting point for a Super Sand that’s selling for three times as much. They will be amazed at how unique the RS3 looks and sounds, they will enjoy driving it and they will buy what will soon be the only new five-cylinder performance car on the road.

Sure, nobody needs a compact that laps the Nurburgring faster than a Ferrari 458. But it’s not particularly hard to see why anyone wouldn’t want to.

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