by Jared Rosenholtz
The Audi RS3 is one of the greatest subcompact performance sedans of our time, and with it now being a regular feature on US dealer lots, we have one less thing to complain about. The 2.5-liter five-cylinder turbo in the RS3 has been available here for a few years now, and with 394 horsepower and 354 lb-ft of torque, it's a firm favorite for those who aren't energized by the prospects of a BMW M2 Competition. However, it's no budget car with prices starting at over $56,000. That said, its unique engine note and undeniable capability on all surfaces make it one of the most usable performance cars available. All four wheels get some of the brilliant engine's output, which is managed by a seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox. Unlike the Bimmer, no manual option is available, but those who have sampled the S-tronic won't be too perturbed.
The RS3, and the A3 on which it is based, are due for a complete redesign soon, so for now, little has changed. The 14-speaker Bang & Olufsen sound system that was formerly an option is now included as standard, but aside from that, the RS3 is identical in 2020 guise to the 2019 model. Carbon-ceramic brakes have, however, been dropped from the options list.
Unlike many other markets, we don't have access to the RS3 hatch. That's not all bad, though, as the sedan's profile exudes class. RS models have their own design language, and the RS3 is no different, with unique front and rear bumpers featuring a gaping grille and faux-diffuser respectively. More aggressive arches and a pair of oval exhaust tips are also trademark RS features, with matte aluminum finishings on various panels, around the windows, and on the wing mirrors. LED headlights and taillights with dynamic indicators are standard, as are 19-inch wheels, available in a variety of styles.
The RS3 falls into the subcompact segment handsomely, with short overhangs and a classic three-box design that doesn't fall prey to modern trends of four-door coupe design. It measures 176.3 inches from bumper to bumper, with a wheelbase of 103.6 inches. Due to more aggressive front and rear fascias, this makes it 0.3 inches longer than a regular A3 sedan, at 175.8 inches long. Height is 55 inches, with a width of 77.2 inches, while the five-pot engine and all-wheel-drivetrain add some heft over regular A3s. The RS3 tips the scales with a curb weight of 3,593 pounds - almost 400 lbs more than a base A3.
Just one no-cost color option is available for the RS3: the often imitated and replicated Nardo Gray. A few metallic options are available for $595, including Glacier White, Mythos Black and Tango Red. Daytona Gray Pearl can also be had for the same price, but the most gorgeous option - and one that brings to mind the A3 Clubsport concept that got the ball rolling on the A3, S3, and RS3 sedans in the first place - is Ara Blue Crystal. It's the most expensive of the lot at $1,075, but well worth it for its complex pigmentation and stunning enhancement of curves. In addition, you can swap out all the exterior's matte aluminum accents for gloss black for a cost of $1,300 or spend an additional 300 bucks and black out the badges too.
Audi brought back the turbo five-pot with the first-gen RS3 to capitalize on its rally heritage, seamlessly integrating the powerplant with Quattro all-wheel-drive and a seven-speed S-tronic automatic gearbox. Over time, the engine has evolved and produced more and more power, enticing buyers with more than just a unique engine note. Audi claims the engine produces 394 hp and a 0-60 sprint of 3.9 seconds, but that's a lie. Independent power runs have shown similar or more power being sent directly to the wheels, and some tests have revealed 0-60 times as low as 3.7 seconds on winter tires, and quicker still on summer performance tires. The RS3's 2.5-liter turbo is therefore quickly cementing its name in history as one of the greats, exceeding expectations time and time again. The explosive sedan has a claimed limited top speed of 155 mph, but if you ask your dealer nicely, the limiter can be moved higher to 174 mph. That matches the M2 Competition's top speed, and with rear-wheel-drive in the Bimmer, the RS3 generally outperforms the M2 Comp from a dig. Of course, that depends on the Bimmer's driver and chosen gearbox, but the benefit of the RS3 is that you don't have to be Walter Rohrl to take advantage of its abilities. You simply point the wheel straight, put your left foot on the brake, bury the throttle, wait for the boost to build, and then let go of the brake. Before you know it, your neck is experiencing insane g-forces and your head is permanently affixed to the seat.
Just one configuration is available for the RS3, and it's been painstakingly refined to be near perfect. The 2.5-liter five-cylinder is turbocharged and mated to a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission with four-wheel-drive. The combination works outstandingly, and in the aftermarket scene, some tuners have managed to get RS3 sedans into the nines on the quarter-mile, with very basic modifications. As it turns out, the sedan is more aerodynamic than the hatch, so maybe it's a bonus that we don't get the Sportback here. Even in stock form, acceleration is explosive and instantaneous, and few cars can offer the real-world excitement that this car does. However, it's not completely flawless, as you have to get your timing right when engaging launch control or you'll be caught out by a slight delay between taking your foot off the brake and the car actually setting off. Similarly, some reviewers have found the gearbox to be a little slow to respond when you do something it's not expecting, but these cases are isolated and the majority of long-termers have been fault-free. Perhaps a software calibration issue is the cause, but chances are that if you take an RS3 off the floor today, it'll be brilliant in every way and that 1-2-4-5-3 firing order will intoxicate you all the way to 6,900 rpm with no glitches.
Although not as fluid as a rear-wheel-drive track weapon like the M2 Competition, the RS3 has more than enough ability to entertain in the corners. No, you can't slide it unless you don't much value your life, but the point-and-shoot style of driving that is suited to the RS3 can be just as addictive. Knowing that the Quattro system is continually trying to give you the most grip allows you to push harder and harder, and the steering setup is confidence-inspiring too, weighting up appropriately in the various selectable modes. The more you turn the wheel, the quicker the car changes direction, which makes it even easier to find the apex on slow corners and allow the all-wheel-drive system to blast you out of them. The standard magnetic dampers do a phenomenal job of soaking up imperfections too, but if you're more hardcore, you can swap them out for a fixed sport suspension setup at no cost. Be warned though, this makes the RS3 considerably stiffer and should be reserved for those who have perfect tarmac throughout their daily drive. We'd stick with the standard adjustable dampers, as they're capable of containing body roll rather well. The RS3 is no longer available with carbon-ceramic discs, but this isn't a big loss as the standard brakes are fade-free and much easier to modulate in town.
The RS3 is the least fuel-efficient of the vehicles underpinned by the base A3, and manages EPA figures of 19/28/23 mpg on the city/highway/combined cycles. However, this is still better than you'll get from an M2 Comp, which only manages 18/25/20 mpg on the same cycles. The RS3 is fitted with the same 14.5 gallon gas tank as the rest of the A3 lineup. This makes for an estimated range with mixed driving of around 333.5 miles. However, Audi recommends that you only top the RS3 up with premium unleaded, so it'll charge you more per liter than slower models.
The RS3's interior exudes class and elegance, while still maintaining an air of sportiness. Nappa leather and Alcantara are abundant, and the dash features a sleek seven-inch retractable display that disappears behind the air-conditioning vents when you switch the car off. Dual-zone climate control and heated front seats are standard too, along with ambient LED interior lighting. With door-mounted wing mirrors, visibility out the front is excellent, although the quarter panels can be difficult to assess thanks to the rear seat headrests. One letdown in the cabin is the manual seat adjustment, although lumbar support is electrically controlled. The rest of the interior is fitting for a car in this price range, with good ergonomics and excellent build quality.
The RS3 is a five-seater, but as a subcompact, it's better to restrict occupation of the rear seats to two adults. Legroom is sufficient back there, with six-footers only having concerns when a particularly tall individual sits in front of them. Headroom all round is also borderline acceptable, with some finding the windscreen too abruptly finished near the top and others saying that the incremental manual adjustments allow enough depth for a good driving position. The seats are comfortable but, again, can be a little tight if you're squeezing three large adults in the back. The manually-adjustable tilt-and-telescopic steering wheel is good and won't hit your knees when you get in and out. Speaking of which, taller individuals may need to duck slightly on entry and exit, but overall, it's not an awkward experience.
If you don't like black Nappa leather and Alcantara, you may get frustrated as the RS3 doesn't offer much else. The seats are beautifully cross-stitched in a diamond pattern, though, with the quilting done in your choice of either red or Rock Gray thread. However, to qualify for the red stitching, the air vents must be changed from silver to red too, adding $750 to your build cost. On the plus side, the center console's knee pads, the door armrests, the floor mats, and the seatbelts all get red accenting with this selection too, with fixed panels also gaining Alcantara trimming. Spending an extra $600 also buys you carbon fiber dash and door panel inserts, swapping out the milled aluminum that comes standard.
The RS3 is, surprisingly, less practical than its chief rival, the BMW M2 Competition - on paper at least. The RS3 only has 10 cubic feet of trunk space - enough for a pair of large suitcases and a few sundry items at a squeeze. The M2 Comp, on the other hand, has a 13.8 cubic-foot cargo hold. Fortunately, the RS3's rear seats do split and fold in a 40/20/40 break, allowing you to load longer items.
In the cabin, the door cards are big enough to hold large water bottles, and there is a nifty section in the center console for your phone. The glovebox isn't particularly large, and neither is the space in the center armrest, but at least both front and rear occupants get a pair of cupholders to share between them.
The RS3 has a number of standard features that make it a great daily driver. Auto LED headlights with high-beam assist and LED taillights with dynamic indicators are included, along with keyless entry and ignition, cruise control, dual-zone climate control, heated power-folding and auto-dimming wing mirrors, and heated windshield washer jets. The front seats are heated too, and a panoramic sunroof is standard as well. A rearview camera along with park sensors at the front and the rear of the car are among the driver aids, as well as secondary collision brake assist. You also get seatbelt pretensioners with Pre Sense, a system that automatically closes the windows and sunroof in the event of an imminent crash being detected. Adaptive magnetic dampers are also standard. Options include adaptive cruise control, lane-keep assist, blind-spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert, and an adaptive sports exhaust.
The standard infotainment system features a seven-inch retractable display with Audi's MMI interface, which is controlled with a rotary knob, or via touch. This can be upgraded when you spec the 12.3-inch LCD digital instrument cluster called Virtual Cockpit, which can then display infotainment and the outputs of the Google Maps-overlain navigation system that it comes with. This available system can also recognize handwriting inputs and has a Wi-Fi hotspot. The standard system includes Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, SiriusXM satellite radio, HD Radio, Bluetooth and two USB ports. An SD card slot is also standard. Impressively, the factory sound setup is a 14-speaker Bang & Olufsen system, which was previously optional on 2019 models.
Thus far, the 2020 Audi RS3 has not been subject to any recalls. However, the 2019 model did have just one in June 2019, for a faulty passenger airbag that may deactivate. Neither the 2019 nor the 2020 models have been rated by J.D. Power for quality and reliability, but Audi includes some coverage with each new sale. A four-year/50,000-mile new vehicle limited warranty and powertrain warranty covers the RS3. You also get one year or 10,000 miles of complimentary maintenance coverage.
The Audi RS3 has not been comprehensively tested by either the IIHS or the NHTSA. However, the IIHS awarded the relatively similar A3 sedan with its Top Safety Pick award. The NHTSA had similar findings, giving the A3 a full five stars out of five in the overall evaluation.
The RS3's standard safety features include auto LED headlights with high-beam assist, front and rear parking sensors, a rearview camera, brake assist, Pre Sense collision preparation with seatbelt pretensioners, and eight airbags made up of dual front, dual side, dual knee, and dual curtain airbags. Additional rear passenger side-impact airbags are optional and when specced, bring the total to 10. You can also spec adaptive cruise control, lane-keep assist, and blind-spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert.
The RS3 is a magnificent sports car that just happens to have four doors. All-weather grip and maximum attack traction are its most obvious benefits, but the outstanding five-cylinder turbo engine is brilliant too. The fact that it's a sedan gives it an air of class too, looking more grown-up than the hatch that the rest of the world has access to. With four doors, it's a more practical option than the BMW M2 Competition, despite the Bimmer having a larger trunk. The BMW will probably be more fun for the experienced driver, particularly in the bends, but the advantage of the RS3 is that anyone can access its abilities and enjoy driving it hard. In addition, the interior is beautifully crafted with copious swathings of Nappa leather and Alcantara, and the infotainment system is phenomenal. With acceleration that can make supercar owners wary, the RS3 is almost perfect as the ultimate one-car-garage filler. It is quite expensive, but with such astonishing performance, it's worth it.
The RS3 starts at a base price in the U.S. of $56,200. Only one trim level and body style is available, but a number of options can be added to enhance performance, aesthetics, convenience, and safety. A fully-loaded RS3 with wider front tires, gloss black exterior accents, carbon-fiber interior trims, and all available safety features plus Ara Blue Crystal paint, will set you back over $65,000, with the obligatory $995 destination charge included.
The RS3 is only available in one trim, whose full official designation is Audi RS3 Sedan S-tronic 2.5T. Standard features include adaptive magnetic dampers in the shock absorbers, sport seats with Nappa leather upholstery and contrast stitching in a diamond quilt, and slatherings of Alcantara. Dual-zone climate control and heating for the front seats are standard, along with heated mirrors, park sensors, wireless charging, a panoramic sunroof, and cruise control. A seven-inch MMI infotainment system is mated to a 14-speaker Bang & Olufsen sound system. Options include a touchscreen that is paired with a 12.3-inch configurable driver info display. This system features navigation with Google Maps integration, but even the standard infotainment setup is outfitted with smartphone connectivity, satellite radio, Bluetooth, USB, and SD card integration. Also available is adaptive cruise control with stop & go, Wi-Fi connectivity, lane-keep assist, and blind-spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert. You can also option in a fixed sport suspension and additional airbags for the rear occupants.
2.5-liter Turbo Inline-5 Gas
The Dynamic package is a worthy buy if you want more performance from your RS3. This $1,050 package adds wider front tires to increase traction from the front-biased Quattro system and also includes an adaptive sports exhaust system. A $1,250 driver assistance package adds lane-keep assist and blind-spot monitoring, which can be specced separately, as well as adaptive cruise control that doesn't deactivate when you come to a stop. The Navigation package is the most expensive available at $2,000. This suite adds Audi's virtual cockpit with its 12.3-inch configurable LCD display, navigation, and MMI touch for the central infotainment screen with handwriting-recognition technology. Other available packages are predominantly aesthetic, adding black accents and badging, or red trimmings to the interior upholstery.
With mostly aesthetic upgrades available, we'd save that money and rather upgrade the RS3's capabilities by speccing the Dynamic package with its wider tires and adaptive exhaust. It's worth the extra thousand bucks just to be able to fully appreciate the five-pot's glorious snarl. We'd keep the standard magnetic damping in place, thus allowing for a more comfortable ride without sacrificing too much in the way of ultimate handling performance. The money saved on exterior and interior niceties that are nothing more than eye candy can be spent on the $2,000 navigation package and the driver assistance package, adding blind-spot monitoring, lane-keep assist, and adaptive cruise control. All in, this keeps the RS3 under $60,000 and makes for a car that is both comfortable and genuinely exciting.
The Audi RS3's astonishing performance and hefty price tag put it squarely in the sights of a more performance-focused machine that doesn't deal with frivolities like all-wheel-drive or "only" five cylinders. The BMW M2 Competition has a twin-turbo 3.0-liter straight-six borrowed from the M3, albeit slightly detuned. With 405 hp and 406 lb-ft of torque, it's a drift-happy monster that can just as easily stick it hard in the corners. Despite its comparable weight of 3,600 lbs (the RS3 is seven pounds lighter), the M2 isn't a lardy machine - not excessively so anyway. With precise balance, outstanding acceleration, and joyous steering, it's been hailed as the best M car you can buy today, if not ever. It also has a larger trunk than the RS3. Overall, the M2 Comp is going to be the much more exciting car to live with. However, it may not be easier to live with. Gas mileage is worse, with a combined figure of 20 mpg to the Audi's 23, and before you tick any options, you already need $58,900 to qualify for ownership. With a coupe body style, you also can't fit anyone bigger than the average child in the back. The BMW is the better driver's car, but the Audi is the more sensible option. It's always been this way, and likely always will.
The RS3's little brother, the S3 sedan, is a tempting choice for those who find the five-pot a little pricey or a bit too expensive at the pumps. The S3 sedan starts at a base price almost $10k cheaper than the RS, at just $43,000. You get the same gearbox and Quattro all-wheel-drive system, the same size trunk, and most of the same options. The S3 isn't slow either, offering 288 hp and 280 lb-ft of torque. Combined, it'll achieve 3 mpg more than the RS, making it more economical. You can also spec it with the same excellent B&O sound system, the same driver-assistance equipment, the same seats, the same magnetic dampers, and the same 12.3-inch driver info display. Unfortunately, the RS3's engine is too characterful to ignore, and given the choice, we'd happily forgo all the luxuries and niceties just to hear the five-pot every day.