Audi’s first great postwar innovation wasn’t Quattro, it was the five-cylinder gas engine first used in the Audi 100 back in 1977. In fact, when the 100 came over to the United States for the 1978 model year, it was renamed the 5000 to emphasize the unique 2.1-liter, 130-horse powerplant. While, unlike all-wheel drive, the five-cylinder never became ubiquitous in passenger cars, Audi still hangs on to it. And the new RS3 is likely the last new car that will have five-cylinder power, representing a celebration Audi’s distinctive engineering tradition.
It’s an appealing package. Four-hundred one horsepower, seven-speed dual-clutch, all-wheel drive in a tiny sedan body. All things considered, the weight isn't even bad for an all-wheel drive luxury car, at 3649 pounds.
The initial shock is in how normal it feels. Where rivals like the Mercedes-AMG CLA 45 and BMW M2 always feel like out-and-out performance cars, the RS3 might well be an A3 around town. The ride is supple and the engine quiet. It’s difficult to tell it’s even a five-cylinder in everyday driving. Steering is light, as with most Audis, and the gearbox shifts smoothly.
Maybe an RS car should feel more RS all the time? Yet there’s also something great about a performance car that doesn’t demand any sacrifice in comfort or manners when loafing. In the slog of day-to-day driving, it’s nice and easy all the time.
Underneath the polish, the RS3 is special. Don’t expect pure Group B Quattro screams and a chirping blow-off valve, but the five-cylinder warble—the engine fires every 144 degrees of crankshaft rotation with overlapping firing events—is present at higher revs. Power delivery is smooth, another five-cylinder hallmark, and it pulls hard to the 7000-rpm redline. Audi quotes a 0-60 mph time of 3.6 seconds, and the way it gets off the line is brutal. This car transforms from a normal small German luxury car into an absolute speed demon instantaneously.
All Audi RS models are purpose built to go fast no matter where they are and no matter the weather. The RS3 incorporates what Audi calls the RS Torque Splitter—fun to say in a German accent—a rear differential unit with a multi-plate clutch on either side. Up to 50 percent of the five-cylinder's torque can go rearwards, and of that, it can all go to either rear wheel. This enables a drift mode, RS Torque Rear, yet more important is that in all other scenarios, it makes the RS3 more playful, more adjustable than expected from a transverse-engine Audi.
On the road, even with the rear diff in its most aggressive setting, the RS3 feels like a primarily front-wheel drive car. However in longer corners, the outside wheels can be felt being overdriven to promote agility. Still, bear in mind that this is a rare reverse-stagger car, where the front tires are wider than the rears—265/30R19 vs 245/35R19. That helps it drive lighter than it actually is.
Suspension tuning is spot on, with good body control and the ability to handle all terrible roads thrown at it. This is a car almost anyone can drive fast. It goes about the business of speed very efficiently.
The same car I drove on my own earlier this year was present for our Performance Car of the Year testing, and with that, came the opportunity to drive it on track on its optional Pirelli Trofeo R tires. There, on Monticello Motor Club's north course, the RS3 comes alive. All that efficiency is there, but the chassis is far more adjustable, less front-wheel drive. No one expected the RS3 to be a legitimate track car, but it is, and this car didn't even have the optional carbon-ceramic brakes. The only annoyance is the fact that the dashboard throws up a bunch of warning lights going into ABS, and a couple times, the transmission momentarily disengaged in the slow, second-gear hairpin leading onto the pit straight.
Maybe the RS3 would be more lovable if some of that excitement transferred to the road, at slower speeds, but that would compromise the car for day-to-day use. The Mercedes-AMG CLA 45 is more often exciting, yet the RS3 is the better choice. For the small sacrifice in engagement, comes far more livability.
The RS3's interior is nicer too. Not quite as nice as its predecessor's — blame VW Group cost cutting — yet it's well laid out and the infotainment system is straightforward. And despite Audi's silly tachometer settings, the company's Virtual Cockpit remains the industry standard for digital gauge clusters. The seats are great; both comfortable and supportive. This is a car fine for commuting and long road trips.
There are, of course, lots of options that will push the price of the RS3 well into the $70,000 range. But as standard, the car is well equipped. This 2022 RS3 had just about everything desirable for $65,090, and there aren't any luxury cars more versatile for less.
Enthusiasts often use the phrase "classic Audi" in a derogatory manner. The stereotype is a fast, luxurious car that's a bit inert, a bit too sensible. This car though, is fun. It's a classic Audi in the mold of the original Quattro, the five-cylinder, all-wheel drive, every-day performance car that put the company on the map.
It's a fitting home for the last five-pot.