Driven: 2018 Audi RS 3 sedan

words & photos: George Achorn

Depending on whom you ask, genetic design may or may not be a good thing. The idea of taking the best traits of a lineage and artfully applying them to an ultimate form of offspring can be a tricky endeavor. Get it right and you’ve got magic that makes the imaginary into reality. Get it wrong and you’ve got Frankenstein, or velociraptors… maybe Frankenraptors. Thriller movies teach us such genetic design shouldn’t be taken lightly, so when Audi genetically enhanced its new RS 3 to include DNA traits from some its most legendary models, we had to take a closer look.

There’s no doubt that, like the ever clever and ultimately delicious scientists in the Jurassic Park films, Audi engineers sought to revive dormant qualities that disappeared model generations ago. There’s that magic footprint of the B5 A4/S4/RS 4 that died out with the coming of the B6 in the early 2000s. Then, there’s the 5-cylinder engine that wrote the brand’s modern motorsport birth in rallying during the Reagan era.

It’s not that there haven’t been attempts at this before. The last-generation TT RS (Mk2) brought back the iconic 5-cylinder heart. The MQB-based A3 sedan reproduced the familiar footprint of B5. Even still, Audi engineers knew they could do even better by improving upon these traits and combining them. Enter the RS 3 sedan.

For starters, that turbocharged heart has been further improved. New for this car and its corresponding TT RS sibling is a redesigned 2.5 TFSI 5-cylinder. This time around, the block switches to aluminum, something Audi’s only done once before in production with the super limited Sport quattro. Other upgrades such as dual injection help both in performance and long-term wear, making for a 400 hp (160 hp per liter) and 354 lb-ft monster with max torque available as low as 1,700 rpm.

Purists perhaps will grouse at some of the genetic choices Audi tapped for transmission of power. Here, Ingolstadt went with a 7-speed S tronic dual clutch transmission that’s decidedly not manual and mechanically more akin in function to the sequential shifters Audi Sport had been testing at the end of the Group B era and put into practice in the B5 A4 quattro touring cars of the mid 1990s. This all means the fancy footwork of a Walter Rohrl keeping the turbo 5-cylinder on boost is a thing of the past, though it’s also ultimately more easily driven and, more importantly, more easily driven fast.

In the case of this new RS 3, the S tronic transmission is paired with the latest Haldex computer controlled hydraulic clutch center differential as mandated by the MQB architecture’s transverse engine layout. However, lest you take that as reason to mistake this tech as “lesser”, it’s worth noting that it it’s Audi’s quickest quattro system to respond to slip and also standard fare in the current R8.

While not a traditional mechanical differential like the tried-and-true Torsen setups of yore, the code-managed Haldex system means driven wheels can be programmed to be proactive rather than reactive like a mechanical option. Pair that with Audi Drive Select as standard equipment and the power delivery (along with transmission, steering, throttle response and damper control if so equipped) can be tailored to the typical comfort/auto/dynamic/individual settings. Whichever you choose, Audi promises the RS 3 is programmed for more power to the rear with the intent for improved dynamics in comparison to A and S variants of its smallest sedan.

Ingolstadt says the RS 3 can blast from 0-60 mph in just 3.9 seconds, and it’ll top out at an electronicially governed 155 mph… or 174 mph should you opt for the Dynamic plus package. We didn’t instrument test the car, but it was brutally quick in a way we would expect and also in a way that would require proper temperament so as not to jeopardize one’s driving privileges through an over abundance of speeding tickets.

In regards to appearance, the RS 3 is more conservatively flared much like the RS 7, less wide-track menace of RS-siblings such as RS 6 Avant or the original B5 RS 4 that the car most spiritually succeeds. Conservative or not in its fender treatment, the RS 3 does get unique bumper designs, wheels, brakes, badging and more aggressive paint colors that all aid in reminding viewers on the street that this is no mere A3 or S3. Of course, if you’re rolling down the road, that highly distinctive 1-2-4-5-3 firing order and resulting warble of the 5-cylinder also drive the point home with authority. Throw in a few by-design off throttle pops for good measure and the RS 3 can’t be missed.

Inside, the cabin will be immediately familiar to A3 and S3 owners. As is typical of American market Audi RS cars, primary upgrades here are material improvements. Alcantara is used tastefully on the doors, shift knob and steering wheel. Accent stitching with matching perforations on the familiar diamond stitch leather “Super Sport” seats, plus carbon fiber beltline trim all make for notably richer look and feel than the S3.

Our particular tester was conservatively optioned. Added to the base RS 3 sedan ($54,900), our car had Ara Blue Crystal Effect paint ($1075), Rock Grey seat stitching (no charge), RS carbon beltline trim ($600), Technology Package including Audi virtual cockpit, Audi connect, Bang & Olufsen audio, and MMI Navigation plus with MMI touch ($3,200), and finally the Dynamic Package with 19-inch wheels and titanium finish, red brake calipers, RS Sport exhaust and reverse staggered tire setup 255 30 front and 235 35 rear ($1450).

All totaled, our tester RS 3 priced in at $61,225. Tick every box on the Audi USA configurator with the exception of Audi exclusive paint (including things like carbon ceramic brakes) and you’ll be at $71,075. While these are not trivial numbers, it’s worth noting that the original ur quattro (1985’s equivalent of Audi’s most potent smallest offering) weighed in at a base price of $35,000. Later, the 2002 B5 RS 4 Avant sold for 103,584 Deutsche Marks (about $59,000). Adjust these numbers for inflation and that’s about $81,000 in today’s money for either the 1985 ur quattro or 2002 RS 4 Avant. Benchmarking today’s RS 3 and its own $54,900 base price against its spiritual predecessors, the RS 3 seems like a bargain.

Where the RS 3 fits into 2017 is the question. While we didn’t have a chance to test the RS 3 on the track, we did have a chance to test its performance cred in one of the most brutal real world environments possible – Monterey Car Week. During that span of days in Northern California, cars such as the Lamborghini Huracán appear more numerous than Toyota Camrys. To say the crowd on hand is just a bit jaded about exotic machinery is an understatement.

What we found was that the RS 3 didn’t disappoint. Cruising slowly down Monterey’s historic Cannery Row thick with super cars, we found car enthusiasts with cameras were quite excited to finally catch a glimpse of the RS 3 in person and snapped a shot as we rolled by. In traffic, leaving the S tronic transmission in sport kept the exhaust valves open and left the car snorting and growling amongst the meanest super cars it would encounter. Blasting through Monterey’s tunnel with the windows down and on full warble was gluttonous fun, while runs around the peninsula and up the Pacific Coast Highway on return to San Francisco proved the car highly capable plus more than willing to swallow all our luggage and gear.

Alas, this was no instrumented test. There was no isolated track on which to intimately understand the RS 3’s handling nuance. We’ll leave that for another day, but our real world testing combined with the car’s highly respectable and ever enjoyable performance while immersed in a week of duty amongst the world’s most jaded car enthusiasts tells us Audi’s genetic designers definitely got it right with this new car.

This story originally ran in the Fall 2017 issue of the Audi Club North America quattro quarterly print magazine. In order to subscribe to quattro quarterly, join the Audi Club North America HERE.