Road Test Audi hasn't topped the original quattro. But the RS 3 Sportback is a nice try.
Audi is still trying to beat its iconic creation
Poor Audi, a firm that has seen meteoric growth, an ever diversifying model range and a reputation for interior quality that's only surpassed by the likes of Bentley. Even so, it has never bettered its icon; the reputation of the ur-quattro is extraordinary. Not even high points since, such as the mould-breaking original TT, the lightweight aluminium-constructed A8, or even the supercar establishment-rocking R8 have been able to divert attention away from the angular, rally-conquering machine from the Eighties.
Even multiple Le Mans wins have not distracted the Audi-ist from the dewy-eyed reminiscing about Audi's most famous car. Not that the firm does itself any favours, mind you, with ur-quattros rolled out at any opportunity: the jumping, gravel rifling, flame spitting Group B rally machines feature on many an Audi promo film. Even more so than usual with this new car, the RS 3 Sportback.
You'll forgive the comparisons here though. The RS 3 Sportback has quattro all-wheel drive; it's got a five-cylinder engine with a big turbocharger; and it's a hatchback. Sure, the Sportback's very close relative, the TT RS, has all that (and the two doors of its ur-quattro relative rather than the five of this Sportback model), but in spirit at least the RS 3 is pretty convincing.
Audi hasn't missed a trick with the launch location for its latest RS model, either. The hills around the back of Nice are littered with famous Cols where the Sportback's forebears once dominated. The rock faces that the sinuous switchback French roads climb and descend ricochet once again with the staccato thrumming of a hard-worked, turbocharged five-cylinder Audi engine.
It's an extraordinary sound that's backed up by some very serious numbers. Get your start right (fairly easy given the Sportback is only available with Audi's S-tronic twin-clutch transmission) and the RS 3 will get you to 100kph in just 4.6 seconds. That's quicker than a Porsche 911 Carrera 4S. It'll not outrun the Porsche on an Autobahn thanks to an electronically limited 250kph top speed, but around here, on these roads, the Porsche driver will need to be doing a lot more than just posing to keep up.
The Audi might not look particularly special, but that's part of its appeal. Not least as it'll be the Porsche driver the Gendarmerie will pull over when they hear you coming up the pass. The visual changes inside and out are relatively subtle - assuming you don't go for the rather aftermarket-looking painted wheels. Red rims aside, the standard changes of modest RS 3 badging and brushed metal on the front and rear spoilers and wing mirrors, as well as some mildly flared front wings, denote the RS 3 Sportback. Those front wings underline quattro GmbH's attention to detail though, with their construction of lightweight carbon-reinforced plastic dropping 1.6kg from the RS 3 Sportback's front end.
Other such details include more serious brakes, firmer and wider suspension that sits lower (by 25mm) and electronic stability and traction systems that have had their thresholds heightened to allow the RS 3 Sportback driver to have more fun behind the wheel. It's impossible not to, either, with 340hp powering all four wheels and seven gears to play with. You need to be busy with the paddle shifters though - something that's not so easy given their small size and the amount of wheel twirling required. Find those paddles with your digits and the effect is eye-widening in its intensity.
The 2.5L turbocharged engine needs revs to really deliver its best. There's plenty of muscle - peak torque actually arriving at just 1,600rpm - but the RS 3 needs at least 3,000rpm on its rev counter before it really thunders. That means first and second gears on the tight roads climbing and descending behind France's Mediterranean bolt-hole, but nothing much else will keep up with Audi's unassuming-looking hatchback here.
What's also remarkable is the suppleness of the ride. The combination of lower, wider and stiffer suspension should result in a bouncy, jarring ride. Not so in the RS 3; it smothers bumps and lumps with surprising composure. The steering is decent, too, with quick response to input. There's not a huge amount of feel from its chunky, sculpted steering wheel though, and the currently fashionable cut-off bottom section annoys during lock-to-lock turning the roads demand.
The big brakes take masses of punishment and, even with the Sport button pressed and the ESP switched off, it's all but impossible to get the RS 3 Sportback to relinquish its incredible grip on dry roads. That translates to huge neutrality through the bends and enormous confidence behind the wheel. That surefootedness and competence is perhaps the RS 3 Sportback's Achilles' heel. It's so effortless to drive quickly it's easy to write off as a bit aloof and uninvolving. It's expensive, too, though limited build numbers do guarantee some exclusivity. A great Audi then, but perhaps not one destined for greatness. The ur-quattro retains its crown. For now.
Audi has yet to confirm whether it will bring the RS 3 to the UAE; let's hope it does soon.