First Drive: 2018 Audi RS 3
Audi’s hot compact sedan is a ripping good time, and competitors are few and far between
I find driving road cars on racetracks very interesting. Actually, I love driving road cars on racetracks. Although it's fun and good to know how a vehicle behaves at the limit, running on a track provides little real-world driving information about the car in question. That said, I always do my best to cover both nutball and grandma driving.
My first impression of the 2018 Audi RS 3 came when I jumped into one on pit lane at the Lime Rock Park racetrack. I found myself sandwiched between two other RS 3s. We were ready to do a lead-follow session around the track since most of the journalists present had never seen the track before, let alone driven on it. I have raced at Lime Rock numerous times over the years and it can certainly catch you out if you get carried away, so starting with a lead-follow session was a good idea.
The three of us in RS 3s were to follow an Audi R8 V10 Plus driven by Stephan Reil, Audi's head of technical development. Thoughts of this not being a fair fight started to percolate in my mind. I quickly jolted myself back to reality — we're testing cars for Automobile here, Pilgrim; your next race is in Portugal, not here at Lime Rock, so leave the R8 alone. Yes, of course. How silly of me.
Here's a bit of relevant information many enthusiasts already know: Most street cars, performance or otherwise, will understeer at the limit of grip in a turn. This is true for track and street. Companies dial in understeer on most street cars for safety reasons because it is easier to control. Just lift off the gas and the vehicle usually comes back in line.
In my experience, the setup for a street car on a track usually means doing whatever you can in order to keep it from understeering all the way to grandma's house. This involves "cheating" the rear of the around corners, because generally, the front can't get it done. I always want to be able to manipulate the rear of any car in order to enjoy the drive (street) or go faster (track).
We were up to speed in no time. Reil was not hanging around, and the RS 3 was responding nicely. I used the lightest steering weight — Comfort mode — as I tend to have light hand inputs (no death grip). Our on-track cars had the optional 14.6-inch ceramic front brakes and larger 255/30 19-inch front tires. (The base setup is 235/35R-19s all around.) During our laps I would drop back from the vehicle in front in order to give myself enough room to push the car to the limit.
Immediately obvious from the first lap, the RS 3's chassis setup is consistent and compliant despite it being on the stiffest setup: Dynamic mode. I could comfortably rotate the car on corner entry without it feeling snappy. This ability to control the rotation and effectively eliminate understeer allowed me to carry serious corner speeds. In fact, after just a couple of laps I was confidently kicking out the rear end on every corner. I could even do this entering the very fast and bumpy downhill right-hander onto the front straight. The RS was happy to hold a nice slip angle (not drifting) and even allowed me to adjust the slip angle mid-turn if I needed to. I left the car in full Dynamic mode, and I did not switch off the stability control. After just three laps — that's all we got — I can confidently state that the RS 3 would be a good partner for making passengers either laugh their butts off or throw up in pretty short order. It's that much fun.
The engine in the RS3 is ready to rock as soon as you step on the gas. The all-new 2.5-liter turbo-five kicks out 400 horsepower between 5,850 and 7,000 rpm and 354 pound-feet of torque between 1,700 and 5,850 rpm. Audi says 3.9 seconds zero to 60 mph, I say nuts — it feels quicker. The engine sounds great with the ripping roar unique to five-cylinder turbos. It is especially sweet with the sport exhaust option; I would never buy this car without it. Fuel economy estimates are 19 mpg city, 28 mpg hwy.
Front-engine, all-wheel-drive cars are always heavy in the nose, so taking any weight off the nose is a good thing. The new engine is 57 pounds lighter than the last generation version and is probably a measurable contributor to the RS 3's handling ability. The gearbox is a smooth, quick-shifting double-clutch S tronic seven speed.
I started my RS3 street drive from the Lime Rock track parking lot. At pedestrian speed I felt some serious support from the suspension and decided to stop to figure out what the settings were. It turned out I was once again in Dynamic mode, the same setting we used on the track, where it felt compliant. Now, it felt plenty sporty.
This is exactly what I meant by the racetrack usually not being a good indicator of how a car feels on the street. I ultimately found Comfort mode, the softest setting, to be my favorite on the roads around Lime Rock. I could carve corners at a pace way below the RS 3's capabilities while still sporting an ear-to-ear grin.
There was only one time, when I came upon a flock of 40-plus geese covering the road around a blind bend, where the RS 3 had to get out of bed to react. It did so with zero drama. Not one bird was touched; we can thank the brakes for that. Whether you stick with steel or go for the ceramic option, the brakes are superb and stability control works very well. Great brakes are a must when you have such a ripping engine, as the RS 3 builds serious speed quite quickly.
I am not a fan of the technology packages in most modern cars. I stop the car when I need to figure things out. I believe operating infotainment systems is extremely distracting, whether by voice, touch, or sight. With all my attention focused on it, I found the Audi system reasonably intuitive and user friendly. I do like the ability to make individual adjustments for steering weight, suspension, differential, and gearbox. The navigation was preset for us and performed flawlessly on a nice back-road route.
The seats provided excellent support on the racetrack and on the street. The interior looks high-end to me, and the control layout makes sense. As usual with vehicles these days, the steering wheel has way too much stuff on it for my tastes. I would check the option for nothing on a steering wheel every time. Of course, nobody gives you that choice.
I've always liked fast four-door sedans. They usually perform in a way belied by their looks — unexpected, maybe. The RS 3 has a new front fascia, rear bumper, and diffuser but still looks subtle to me. It may not scream for attention, but it certainly delivers the goods.
I struggle to think of something that will actually compete with the RS 3. I heard people talking about the Cadillac ATS-V and BMW M3, but they are between $5,000 and $10,000 more expensive and are slower off the line, even if they are a little bigger.
The 2018 RS 3's base price is $55,875. (A limited number of 2017 models arrived in the U.S. with a slightly lower price of $55,450, but those examples are sold.) I would add the $1,000 sport exhaust, and that's about it. I'm not sure how many RS 3s will ultimately come to the U.S. market, but I suspect it might not be enough. A sub-4-second 0-to-60 time will embarrass a lot of very expensive hardware. This is one fun four-door.