Audi’s first generation A3 (Type 8L) had its Sport version, S3 with 225 horsepower from its 1.8 liter four cylinder engine and was the top notch hatchback you could buy from Ingolstadt’s manufacturer. Although bearing the Quattro name, it actually introduced the world to the Haldex differential, a much more compact four-wheel drive system used today in most of the all wheel drive transmissions for sedans, and hatchback.

The principle of the Haldex is very simple: when the front wheels start to lose grip and slip, the front axle then moves faster than the rear axle, the Haldex pumps and activates its clutch to even the speed between front and rear axle, transmitting up to 50% of the power to the rear wheels. Haldex’s fast reaction time and high sensitivity of quarter of a turn made it a reference. With its second generation 8P, Audi finally introduced a Rennsport version, bringing back as well its mighty five cylinder engine which made its reputation in Group B rallying. Developing 340 horsepower, and only available with a DSG gearbox, it was a bit of a disappointment, specially as the TT-RS, which had the same power plant, was available with a manual gearbox. Now on its third generation, the Audi RS3 8V, it was finally time for me to test-drive Ingolstadt’s hot hatchback. Photos: Mickael B. © Text: Mickael B. ©

Audi RS3 8V

The twists with Audi

I have a complicated history with Audi. Complicated being an understatement. I used to daily drive a second generation (8P) 2 litre four cylinder, Quattro and manual gearbox, 200 horsepower A3 Sportback, which I crashed very badly. I remember I loved this car. It was simple, had an interior finish which was perfect, with the great leather and alcantara seats. It was practical, and still offered a good level of performance thanks to its Golf GTI issued engine. Now though, I am not sure I really like this car anymore. Why? Well, for a first, I have had the opportunity to own two other cars which have proven to be better.

My BMW 130i E87 offered the same kind of a practicality with more fun, more sound, while my C219 Mercedes-Benz CLS 63 AMG was just on another level that neither the BMW nor the Audi could even pretend to. I mean, just look at the facts – both the BMW and the Audi were in the 200 horsepower range while the Merc was playing another league with 500+ of its ponies. Still, every time I see an Audi A3, I always have the same nostalgia, remembering all the good memories I had in this car, alone or with friends.

Hence, when Audi announced in 2009 they were bringing the RS badge on the A3, I was very interested. They lost me though when they announced the RS3 would not be fitted with a manual gearbox. So, a few years back, we went to test-drive an Audi TT-RS Plus with a manual gearbox, which had a pumped up version of the RS3’s engine, with 360 horsepower. I recall having great fun with this car and it managed to keep my curiosity opened. The Volkswagen Automotive Group have mastered their hatchbacks very well in the past few years. The Golf 7R and the Audi S1 are for me the two perfect examples of this. The first one is a much better option to the GTI, while the second one is terrific fun and a big threat to the Mini. So, after such great cars, I had very high expectations for the third generation 8V Audi RS3.

Luckily for me, they decided to keep the marvelous turbocharged 2.5 litre 5 cylinder engine, but as on the previous version, no manual gearbox is available: only a 7-speed dual clutch one. You might ask though: “Why did you go test-drive one only now? Didn’t this car come out like 4 years ago?”. Well, you be right. Entirely right, but better late than never, and in this day where wild rumors float around that Audi might not continue its Rennsport offering with this great engine, I though I would make this article an ode to the turbocharged five cylinder engine.

Is the Audi RS3 a revolution?

So what’s new in the 2019 Audi RS3 8V Sportback? Well, not much. If you’ve got yours before 2017, the engine has now been pushed from 367 to 400 horsepower. Yes, that is another full 100 horsepower more than the S3, and almost to the level of a B7 RS4. In addition, the 2017 restyling brought the new Matrix LED technology, a bigger front grille and the Virtual cockpit inside, i.e. a fully digital screen instead of the traditional tachymeters.

The bad news is, if you got yours in 2019, like the one I test-drove, well, it inherits all the new exhaust system which has to comply to the European Union’s new laws on emissions and noise level. Why is this a bad news? Well, if you liked the 5-cylinder roar, the popping sounds in the exhaust, the 2019 Model Year does not have any of this, sadly. We should all send a big thank you note to whomever had this great idea. Really. Instead you will have to content yourself with a soft purring through all the regimes of the engine, even in the Dynamic mode.

So, what’s it like to drive a 400 horsepower hatchback?

Well, when driving normally, in Comfort driving mode, it’s just an Audi. Docile as it gets, comfortable, perfect for a daily use to commute to and from work. With a good 14 liter per 100 kilometer fuel consumption though, you should not forget that Ingolstadt’s five cylinder engine likes to drink. If you thought you could get to the levels of fuel economy of your Golf R, don’t bother. That’s normal though as the 2.5 litre engine copes an extra head to feed when you think about it, but is still high when you consider BMW’s straight six, which is half a litre bigger and with an additional cylinder tends to get 12 liter per 100 kilometer. The infotainment, Bang & Olufsen audio system and driving assistance make it a very pleasant drive, but there was one main detail that shocked me on this 80’000 CHF (80’000 $, 65’000 €) car.

No electrically adjustable front seats nor steering wheel. Just some carbon fiber elements. Really, Audi? I know it’s an available option, but shouldn’t this come as standard in such a flagship for the brand? The interior finish, is, as typical as it gets from Audi. It’s perfect. There is absolutely no flaws and all manufacturers should take example. Such high level of materials quality, assembly, general ergonomic, have I rarely seen in a car and most car manufacturers should definitely use Audi as their benchmark. The RS3 I had came with the optional Bang and Olufsen audio system which offered great sound at all levels. Good to forget that the engine itself cannot deliver this much sound at least.

Switch to Dynamic mode and the difference is not flagrant, and not as violent as I expected and wanted. The gearbox seems really more reactive but the throttle response and steering sharpness does not really evolve. The gearbox tending to downshift much faster brings in the light one major flaw from this car: the turbo lag. This car has a lot of turbo lag. A LOT. The turbocharger just takes too much time to build the pressure and deliver the extra boost, which can be troubling while you are driving normally and suddenly the car decides to downshift and you have to deal with the full power and someone in front of you getting very close, very fast.

I wonder if Audi should have built this engine with two (smaller) turbochargers instead of one big. Plus, with such small capacity engines developing so much power, it is bringing up some questions on long-term reliability. The Mercedes-Benz A45 AMG, or the Alfa Romeo Giulia QV come immediately to mind, but I doubt Ingolstadt’s car has this issue, as the 5 cylinder engine (which is basically a Lamborghini V10 cut in half) has proven to be a solid engine. The turbo lag is a double issue for Audi on this car, because it shows not only the limits of this engine, but as well the limits of its transmission.

Can the haldex handle this stable?

You can imagine that having 400 horsepower coming abruptly on the front wheel drive, you get every Audi owner’s special nightmare: understeer. And there is just as much turbo lag as there is understeer in this car. A LOT. It has been consistent since the first generation S3 and the four rings brand has never been able to get rid of this major default. The fault to who? The haldex differential, i.e. Audi’s cheap version of its own Quattro four-wheel drive system, and the absence of a locking differential. The haldex differential is the “RS torque splitter”, located at the rear axle.

Somehow the old TT-RS seemed to manage this better, although it had some, but the RS3 just can’t. The haldex just isn’t good enough to provide not only a good transmission to the Audi, and you just have to put too much work while driving it hard to overcome it. The only good point it has is providing you a safe way of travel on slippery surfaces, which was useful in my case as I was going through mountain passes on a cold rainy autumn day. It allows you to put at least the whole power down while not having to worry about losing the car.

Audi RS3 8V

What is the conclusion on the Audi RS3?

Now though, to the tricky question: should you buy one? No. The RS3 isn’t just the best option you could get, neither for a fun hatchback, neither for a 400 horsepower sports car. If you want a fun hatchback, I firmly believe a second hand Audi S1 or a Mark 7 Golf R are not only more reasonable, but as well more fun, specially with the manual gearbox. And for a 400 horsepower sports car, the BMW M2 Competition does a much better job. The RS3 just failed in trying to compromise a daily driver hatchback with a fun sports car experience. And if I had the kind of RS3 budget (new MSRP is around 65’000 CHF, i.e. 52’000 € or 65’000 $), and searching for a car with a good fun – daily balance, a low mileage Porsche 997 Carrera S or 4S can be found around that price and would make your experience truly worth it, and not looking back to the RS3 a single second.