2018 Audi RS 3 first drive review: less money, but no less fun

Audi’s turbocharged 5-cylinder cars have a short but distinguished history. The Audi Quattro burst onto the scene in the early 1980s and won multiple driver's and manufacturer's titles in rally racing. In 1987, an Audi 5-cylinder was the first car to run up Pike’s Peak in less than 11 minutes back when it was still a gravel trail. And an Audi 90 finished third in the IMSA GTO championship in 1989.

For the 2018 model year, a 5-cylinder Audi is the most affordable way you can buy a high-performance Audi Sport model. The 2018 Audi RS 3 is a 400-horsepower inline-5-cylinder hooligan of a performance car with just the right amount of Audi civility. It’s a compact sedan that can seat four fairly comfortably or attack a racetrack with gusto.

Angry bees

The heart of the RS 3 is the 2.5-liter turbocharged 5-cylinder that, when on boil sounds like an angry beehive trapped in a coffee can. This is the second generation of this engine to make it to the United States, and it’s all new this time around. The first-gen made 360 horsepower and came in limited numbers (just 800 cars in total) under the hood of the TT RS for the 2012 and 2013 model years.

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This time, the 2.5 trades an iron block for all-aluminum construction while adding port injection to the existing direction injection. Its turbo huffs 19.6 psi of boost down its gullet, helping to create 400 horsepower from 5,850 to 7,000 rpm and 354 pound-feet of torque from 1,700 to 5,850 rpm.

2018 Audi RS 3

2018 Audi RS 3

The engine sends its power through a beefed up version of Audi’s S Tronic 7-speed dual-clutch transmission to all four wheels via a similarly strengthened Quattro all-wheel-drive system. This version of Quattro is specially tuned to deliver as much power to the rear as possible, especially in Dynamic mode.

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With all that power and grip at its disposal, the RS 3 can vault from 0-60 mph in 3.9 seconds—about the same amount of time it takes for a whole beehive to attack you once you’ve disturbed it. A launch control feature is needed to achieve that number, and it’s easy to operate: put the car in Dynamic mode, turn off the traction control, put one foot on the brake, mash the throttle, release the brake, and let the bees swarm.

The power is breathtaking and sudden, and the 7-speed cracks off shifts quickly provided you pull back on the shifter one time to engage the transmission’s Sport mode. The angry bees are the result of the engine’s 1-2-4-5-3 firing order, and they don’t sound so angry if you go easy on the throttle. Rail on it, though, and the whole hive gets agitated, the engine belches between gears, and it snaps and crackles a bit upon overrun. It’s a joy to the ears.

Balance impaired

The RS 3’s layout isn’t ideal for a sports car. It’s based on the MQB platform that it shares with the TT and VW Tiguan. This is a front-wheel-drive-based layout with the engine mounted transversely ahead of the front axle. It creates a nose-heavy weight balance approaching 60 percent at the front, but the effect isn’t too detrimental on the street or the track.

That’s because Audi has put a lot of effort into making this a true performance car. It comes with magnetorheological dampers, stiffer suspension settings, and variable ratio steering that starts at 14.6:1 and progressively ramps up quicker than 13:1 the farther the steering wheel is turned. The track is also about 0.8 inch wider front and rear to handle wider wheels and tires, and the fenders are correspondingly wider as well. The brakes are beefy as well, with 14.6-inch discs up front clamped down on by 8-piston fixed calipers, and 12.2 discs out back.

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