The 2022 Audi RS3’s Drift Mode Dreams of RWD Audis

Slide, baby, slide.

byKyle CheromchaAug 5, 2022 4:54 PM
The 2022 Audi RS3’s Drift Mode Dreams of RWD Audis
Kyle Cheromcha
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You may have seen the news last month that the global population of tigers is actually 40 percent higher than scientists previously estimated, given advancements in the techniques and technology used to track the animals. It was a rare uplifting moment—in a world where everything good seems to be going away, or changing beyond recognition, how often have you heard a report that says, “Hey, you know, turns out things aren’t as dire as we thought.”

That is not the case for the endangered species at the center of today’s review, the five-cylinder engine. Fifteen years ago, the United States had its pick of burbly sedans, hatchbacks, wagons, and even vans from a range of automakers with a delightfully weird five-pot motor under the hood. Today? You have the 2022 Audi RS3, and that, my friends, is it.

The last production car in North America (and one of just three left worldwide) still rocking a 1-2-4-5-3 firing order is precious in other ways, too. It’s a 401-horsepower, genuinely compact sports sedan in a world that actively hates those now (stupid world). It feels and drifts like the closest thing Audi’s done to a rear-drive model this side of the R8 thanks to an ingenious torque splitting differential on the back axle. It offers optional semi-slick Pirelli P Zero Trofeo R summer tires requiring buyers to sign a waiver acknowledging the risk of running them in rain or cold weather (and at 7:40.8, it’s faster around the Nürburgring than the Lexus LFA and the first Porsche Cayman GT4 as a result). It’s got a top speed of 180 mph, yet it’s still a relatively—relatively—subdued choice visually.

Add all that up and you get a car that doesn’t really make a lot of sense, but like a Philip Glass score, somehow packages all that dissonance into something approaching true art. Put the 2022 RS3 on a track—or in our case, a track, a barren desert highway, and a floodlit drift course set up at Spring Mountain Raceway outside Las Vegas—and it’s clear Audi’s built itself a virtuoso performer.

2022 Audi RS3 Review Specs

  • Base price (as tested): $59,995 ($64,845)
  • Powertrain: 2.5-liter turbocharged five-cylinder | 7-speed dual-clutch | all-wheel drive
  • Horsepower: 401 @ 6,500 rpm
  • Torque: 369 lb-ft @ 3,500 rpm
  • 0-60 mph: 3.6 seconds
  • Top speed: 180 mph (with optional Dynamic Plus package)
  • Curb weight: 3,649 pounds
  • Cargo space: 8.3 cubic feet
  • Quick take: A truly great sports sedan that has me dreaming of rear-drive Audis.
  • Score: 8.5/10

Though it’s built on the fourth-gen A3 platform, a more instructive starting place for discussing the Audi RS3 is the current VW Golf R. That’s where the torque-splitting rear end showcased in the RS3 made its debut, and it must be said—perhaps if the Golf R also came with a 401-hp five-cylinder, people would shut up about the infotainment controls and focus their attention on the drive. Torque splitting, or torque vectoring (or whatever you want to call it, language is malleable) isn’t a new concept in performance cars, but the RS3 takes it to new heights for Audi.

Audi

Sitting between the rear wheels, the RS Torque Splitter is a special rear differential replacing the old Haldex unit. It features a pair of multi-plate clutches that can handle 50% of the engine's power, and further shuffle 100% of that to a single rear wheel as needed based on factors like longitudinal and lateral forces, steering angle, and throttle position. In practice, its most useful application is pumping power to the outside wheel in a sharp turn, helping the car to rotate instead of pushing wide as the inner wheel coasts along. But of course, the real prize is that, as advertised, the RS3 can now hold a genuine drift.

We’ll get to that in a second. First, the full performance retinue surrounding the RS Torque Splitter. Working backward, you’ve got a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission hooked up to that 401 hp/369 lb-ft five-cylinder engine, itself an evolution of the previous five-pot found in the last RS3. Still an open diff on the front axle, but no matter—the pulling wheels only get priority in Comfort driving mode, with Auto balancing the power front and back, Dynamic prioritizing the rear axle, and a slate of RS-specific modes that really hammer the back tires. Zero-to-60 comes in 3.6 seconds en route to a 180-mph top speed with the optional Dynamic Plus package.

Those optional Pirelli P Zero Trofeo R summers or standard Pirelli streets are wider in the front than the back (265 mm versus 245 mm) to increase turn-in, and the whole front end—subframe, control arms, anti-roll bars, hubs, spindles—is strengthened with RS-specific parts to make the track two inches wider than an S3, with more negative camber to boot. The suspension’s been switched up, too, with Audi Magnetic Ride going away in favor of adaptive dampers with a dynamic chassis control system that aims to keep the body as level as possible at the expense of ultra-stiffness you typically find in true performance cars. Lastly, standard 14.8-inch steel brakes with six-piston calipers or optional 15-inch carbon ceramics provide the requisite stopping power, the latter saving 22 pounds of unsprung weight.

Visually, the Audi RS3 looks the part—a hungrier-looking grille, bigger air intakes and flared fenders, a lowered ride (minus 10 mm compared to the S3), an RS-exclusive Kyalami Green paint, and of course the new checkered-flag DLRs that can alternate to spell out the car’s name when you first turn it on. It’s a bit of theatricality that either comes across as a fun accent or a gimmick depending on your personality. 

Kyle Cheromcha

2022 RS3 On Road

Put the 2022 RS3 on an empty desert highway and three things are apparent. One, it’s shockingly smooth and composed at high speeds—any German worth its salt should be, but this is still a tightly wound compact sedan. Two, the engine remains an absolute peach, with a bit of old-school turbo lag out of the gate offset by a linear power curve that pulls straight up to the redline and the same wonderful noise ripping through the optional RS Sport exhaust. And three, the drive modes absolutely make a difference, altering the car from a comfortable highway miler to an eager, almost tail-happy sports car when you start dipping into the RS settings.

All the while, the interior remains a comfortable, attractive, well-appointed place to spend time with just a few ergonomic oddities, like a weird touch-based volume dial instead of a classic knob and a tiny stub for a gear shifter.

Audi’s 12.3-inch Virtual Cockpit is still one of my favorite digital gauge clusters out there, with sensible menu navigation, well-designed display settings, and a super-crisp screen. The 10.1-inch Audi MMI touchscreen for the infotainment also gets the job done, and the way the whole dash is canted towards the driver is a welcome reminder of how performance car cockpits used to feel like, well, real cockpits.

RS3 on Track

On Nevada’s Spring Mountain Raceway in 95+ degree heat, it all comes together for real—though you’ll definitely want to keep it in manual mode, as even in its sharpest automatic setting the transmission feels a bit too slow for flat-out performance driving. Shifts are pretty damn quick with the paddles, thankfully. But the track provides the best showcase for the RS3’s two standout features, the torque splitter and the semi-slick tires. The torque splitter encourages you to really send it, rotating the car into corners where you’re carrying a bit too much momentum, sorting out the mess for you in high-speed, off-camber curves, and otherwise transforming the car into a rear-biased brute with very little understeer. The tires—oh, the tires. The amount of grip provided by those Pirelli P Zeroes is truly heroic, showing over 1.25 Gs on the dash meter in braking and cornering, offering razor-sharp turn-in (though more feel through the wheel would be nice) and brutal acceleration.

The one big complaint—and honestly the only complaint—is that the carbon ceramic brakes have a pretty weird pedal feel. You have to really mash them to get the expected stopping power, and it’s almost like nothing happens in the first inch of the pedal stroke. Things happen quick enough on track that you don’t really notice it in the heat of the moment, but around town, it’s definitely an odd sensation to feel like you’re standing on the brakes coming up to a stop sign. No complaints about their utility, though. In well over 20 laps under the baking desert sun, brake fade was completely absent.

RS3 Drifting

Of course, the big news here is the drift mode—or rather, the RS Torque Rear mode. No, I don’t understand the name, either. Unlike other drift modes from other OEMs, RS Torque Rear doesn’t shut off the front axle completely. Instead, it keeps the front wheels live just enough to stop the back end from coming all the way around, essentially setting you up to maintain a perfect drift without overcooking it. 

Audi set up a short drift course in the shape of a giant RS to give it a shot. We started from the bottom of the vertical line in R, donutted around a cone at the top, swept down the slanted line and then connected an S drift to round it out. Because it’s not a pure RWD mode, you have to approach the drift aggressively to signal to the car that this is indeed what you want to be doing. I had the best luck speeding up the straight in first or second gear, almost coming to a complete stop near the cone at the top of the R, and then hammering the gas to get the back end to step out. Once it does, it’s just a matter of managing the throttle and steering to keep it spinning without the computer getting concerned and trying to straighten you out with the front wheels. Donut: unlocked.

Next, just like on the track, the RS3 encourages an aggressive foot if you want to hold a drift through an extended, sweeping turn. I was able to get the car fully sideways through here by again just braking hard and then punching the gas to encourage rotation, though entry is always more graceful than exit unless you’re an actual pro. Once into the S part of the course, the way the torque splitter pops those clutches open and close makes it a cinch to connect opposite drifts. It’s a ridiculously fun time, but I have to confess I was a little uneasy about the possibility of the front axle waking up throughout. If you drive a RWD car, you know how it’ll behave when you try to do a donut. Audi’s done a masterful job getting the RS3 to behave like one on demand, but the lack of a true RWD-only mode takes some mental adjustment when you have to trust that it will simply act like a RWD car when the moment is right.

The Verdict

The purposeful dissonance packaged into almost every facet of the 2022 Audi RS3 is what makes it so interesting—and so does the price. It starts at just under $60,000, and the car I drove on the road was optioned to a relatively modest $64,845 as tested on the road with goodies like a Bang & Olufsen stereo, a heads-up display, and a sport exhaust. The track-prepped model rang up at $72,890 in large part because of almost $6,000 in visual upgrades (the special green paint and carbon fiber trim), the other half of that increase coming from the $5,500 Dynamic Plus upgrade that brings ceramic brakes and a further $450 upcharge for the semi-slick tires. Unfortunately, you can’t spec the tires without the Dynamic Plus package, so effectively they’re a $6,000 option despite the absurdly low listed charge.

Kyle Cheromcha

At either price, it is undoubtedly a lot of car for the money. And until the next BMW M2 comes around, it really stands alone as an actual track-capable compact performance sedan (its closest analog might be the Mercedes-AMG CLA45, but that’s not set up with track driving in front of minds like the RS3). The RS3 is not a car that makes a lot of business sense in the context of 2022 and the industry’s ceaseless march towards electrification, but as a love letter to enthusiasts and a homage to Audi’s past, it’s just about as good as it gets.

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