A mid-cycle facelift sees the already generously endowed RS3 gain 24 kW ... to spectacular effect

3,93 Seconds… On our test strip, the RS3 Sedan completed the benchmark 100 km/h sprint in less time than any BMW M or Mercedes-AMG product we’ve ever tested. That’s an incredible achievement, and it’s one made even more astonishing by the knowledge that the Audi is a compact sedan built on the VW Group’s humble MQB platform that also underpins your Q2 crossover and your neighbour’s Golf 1,0 TSI…

What manner of dark magic has enabled Wolfsburg to extract such incredible performance from, what is in sportscar circles, a relatively modest engine? The engineers thoroughly re-engineered the transversely mounted 2,5-litre turbopetrol, extracting an extra 24 kW (thank you, larger-volume turbocharger) to peg its total at 294 kW, in the process trumping the 280 kW Mercedes-AMG CLA45 for bragging rights at the pinnacle of the C-segment.

Maximum torque, meanwhile, has leaped to 480 N.m, an increase of 15 N.m, and is delivered from 1 700 through to 5 850 r/min. This latest version of the warbly five-cylinder powerplant – a seven-time Engine of the Year victor in its displacement class – is 26 kg lighter thanks mainly to an aluminium crankcase that replaces the previous graphite-iron one. That mass saving above the nose should, in theory, banish some of the push-on understeer for which we’ve previously criticised the RS3.

Under the lightly fettled skin, the MacPherson-strut-front/multilink-rear suspension system has been fine-tuned to strike a superior balance between handling prowess and everyday ride comfort. What’s more, the Quattro all-wheel-drive system can send up to 100% of drive to the rear wheels, and the seven-speed dual-clutch S tronic transmission is 2 kg lighter. The latter offers the customary full-manual mode in conjunction with tactile paddles behind the Alcantara-trimmed wheel; normal auto drive; or a sportier S setting that sends more sound and fury through the two exhaust flaps, transmitting the engine’s addictive one-two-four-five-three-cylinder firing sequence to passers-by.

Crucially, the S tronic transmission also boasts what might be the world’s easiest-to-use launch-control system (BMW, take note), which allowed the RS3 Sedan to leap off the line on our test strip without a chirp from the 255/30 R19 Pirellis aft to post that astonishing benchmark acceleration time. In-gear sprinting proved equally incredible, with the Q-car Audi needing just 2,24 seconds to leap from 60 to 100 km/h and 2,77 to complete the 80-120 km/h leg (for comparison, the CLA45 required 2,56 and 3,08, respectively). Those are spectacular figures, irrespective of segment.

But we know Audi can do fast. What it occasionally struggles with is marrying pace with pleasure. When we last tested an RS3 in July 2016, we lobbed criticism at its understeer-led cornering stance, which forced the driver to adopt a slow-in, fast-out approach. That appeared to suit the Quattro system best as it shuffled torque to the wheels with the most grip, but proved frustrating at maximum attack. The CLA45 we tested soon after, meanwhile, displayed fantastic mid-corner balance, while the M2 was simply a riot (and, occasionally, a right old fright) when we assessed it in May 2016.

In short, Audi’s engineers have been successful with their tinkering. That feeling of utter unflappability is still there – the consensus in the team is that  few cars are as quick as an RS3 cross-country – but, additionally, the Audi appears more settled during enthusiastic cornering. That freshly unburdened front-end grips harder for longer before succumbing to mild understeer, but now it feels like a natural progression into slight slip. Lift the sensitive throttle and the front-end neatly tucks into line.

The electronically assisted steering, too, is more progressive than ever (although dynamic mode in the Drive Select system simply adds weight, but not feel) and the ride, while unquestionably firm, is comfortable enough for the RS3 to remain composed on bumpy tar and not punch occupants in the kidneys over scarred city roads at sane speeds.

While the facelifted RS3 has joined its two German rivals for driving thrills, it smashes them out the park in terms of perceived quality and overall cockpit comfort; the deep front buckets remain cosy even after hours behind the wheel and there’s sufficient space in the second row. The five-cylinder does love a drink, though, and at R925 500, the spec sheet is acutely skewed towards expensive options, some of which should be standard when the car in question originates in the C-segment, but nudges seven figures.



TEST SUMMARY

In the past, hot Audis have split opinion in the CAR team. Some loved their complete composure and the confidence generated by their elevated grip levels; others were left cold by wooden steering and nose-heavy dynamics. Like the new R8, however, the RS3 Sedan is an exception.

Garnering rave reviews from all who drove it despite some muffled comments that an M2 and its rear-wheel drivetrain remains the more pleasurable steer, the new model is finally the vehicle we all had wished the RS3 would be from the start.

*From the October 2017 issue of CAR magazine