2022 Audi RS3 First Drive Review: Five-Cylinder Fury in Audi’s Pocket Rocket
The new RS3 mates comfort, practicality, and a ferocious drift mode.
Audi deserves a tremendous amount of credit for keeping the five-cylinder engine alive. It likely would have been easier to replace it with a 2.0-liter turbo-four and call it a good job well done, but the five lives on in several members of the hot-rodded RS range, including the TT. The newest 2022 Audi RS3, which will reach American showrooms as a 2022 model, benefits from the latest evolution of this sonorous engine.
Like its predecessor, the 2022 RS3 reigns over the A3 clan with a muscular-looking exterior design that steers well clear of cartoonish wings, comes with a wide range of suspension and steering improvements, and offers a level of performance normally found in more expensive cars. Stopping there would have made the new RS3 simply a rehash of the outgoing car, so Audi changed the recipe by adding a torque-splitting rear differential that quickens the sedan’s pace while exposing its riotous side—and the driver’s as well.
2022 Audi RS3: By the Numbers
- Base price: TBA
- Powertrain: 2.5-liter turbocharged inline-five | 7-speed dual-clutch| all-wheel-drive
- Horsepower: 401 @ 5,600 to 7,000 rpm
- Torque: 369 lb-ft @ 2,250 to 5,600 rpm
- 0-62 mph: 3.8 seconds
- Curb weight: 3,472 pounds (European-spec)
- EPA fuel economy: TBD
- Seats: 5
- Cargo capacity: 11.3 cubic feet
- Quick take: Fast, exciting to drive, and well-built, the five-cylinder 2022 RS3 is a car we should all celebrate.
Based on the fourth-generation A3, the RS3 is new for the 2022 model year. Visually, it’s characterized by an exterior design that’s far less subtle than its predecessor’s; there’s no mistaking it for an S3 when you see it in your rear-view mirror. Designers notably added rhombus-shaped inserts that echo the Audi Sport logo to the grille and they painted the bezel black. In typical Audi fashion, the headlights get a cool treatment as well: There is a cluster of 15 individual LEDs in each unit that illuminate to form a checkered flag. Unlocking the car triggers a welcome sequence that uses the LEDs in the driver-side light to spell out “RS3” one character at a time.
Punched-out wheel arches forge a visual link between the RS3 and the Quattro that tyrannized the rally scene during the 1980s, but the vents behind the front wheels aren’t functional. Audi explained opening them would allow rocks and road debris to find their way to the front doors. The potential aerodynamic benefits of adding air curtains were ultimately offset by the potential annoyances of real-world drivers.
Against a great many odds, the RS3 is getting one more dance with Audi’s tried-and-true 2.5-liter five-cylinder engine. It’s an evolution of the last-generation car’s engine that’s turbocharged to develop 401 horsepower from 5,600 to 7,000 rpm and 369 pound-feet of torque that’s available between 2,250 and 5,600 rpm. These horsepower and torque figures represent small increases of seven and 15, respectively, over the outgoing model, but engineers made the power curve steeper to improve low-end and mid-range acceleration. Audi pegs the RS3’s zero-to-62-mph time at 3.8 seconds and its top speed at 180 mph.
The cavalry travels through a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission and Audi’s permanent Quattro all-wheel-drive system before reaching the four wheels. It’s a familiar trip, but there’s a new stop on this line: a rear differential called RS Torque Splitter that relies on a pair of clutches to distribute the engine’s output between the rear wheels as needed. In practical terms, this system reduces understeer and makes the RS3 quicker around turns by shifting torque away from the inner rear wheel. As a bonus, it also gives the sedan the power of drift—the RS3 has a drift mode for the first time!
“We wanted to give the RS3 more agility and more driving dynamics,” chassis engineer Norbert Gößl explained. “We have something similar [to the RS Torque Splitter] in the bigger models, like the RS5 and the RS6. It’s quite similar but not exactly the same, because with a sport differential you can only take torque from one side and shift it to the other side. Here, you can give both rear wheels full torque, or the same amount of torque, or send 100 percent to either side, which is not possible with the sport differential.”
The Pocket Supercar
So, does it drift? Hell, yes!
Admittedly, there’s no sensible reason to include a drift mode on the RS3, or on any other car; it was added purely for tire-roasting entertainment. Unlike some of the other all-wheel-drive-based drift modes, which send most of the engine’s power to the rear wheels, Audi’s is configured to unlock what’s essentially a three-wheeled drift: the front wheels and the outer rear wheel receive the bulk of the output, while the inner rear wheel follows along and only gets spun when sensors detect that the driver has straightened the steering wheel.
One important point is that this is a drift mode, not Ken Block meets cruise control. The driver still needs to initiate and control the drift. How successful you’ll be at it largely depends on your skill level behind the wheel. I watched some drivers—and this isn’t criticism by any means—struggle to kick the rear end out and hit cones. I also witnessed an Italian journalist masterfully hold a faultless drift for so long that he popped a tire. Bravo!
Speaking over the sound of screeching tires, Gößl noted the drift mode wasn’t his team’s main focus.
“The drift mode is a benefit that’s linked to our improvement of the rear axle, but it was not the main reason why we added the RS Torque Splitter to the RS3,” he told me. “It’s there for safety and dynamic improvements in everyday driving conditions. That we can drift with it was simply the cherry on top.”
On the open road, the RS3 makes a good first impression. It’s quick, both off the line and when passing, and the suspension system is more compliant than you might expect considering its performance credentials. It’s also very mature: you don’t hear snaps, crackles, and pops from the exhaust system. That’s partially due to European noise regulations, which tend to be stricter than America’s, and I’m told the version that will disembark here will bark at least a little louder thanks to exhaust flap-related tweaks. That’s great news: the five-cylinder’s song is unique and worth cranking up. As it stands, however, the loudest part of the test car I drove is the green paint (more subtle colors will be available, too).
It’s when you start seeing “curves ahead” signs that the engine, the quick-shifting transmission, the Quattro system, the firmer suspension, and the torque splitter all convene to reveal the RS3’s true character. It’s a fairly small car (especially by American standards) so it delivers the type of fun, nimble handling that’s often lost in bigger sport sedans, yet the 401-horse output gives it a level of performance that was unheard of in this segment a decade ago. Above all, it’s easy to drive. Sure, it can drift around cones like a Hollywood stunt car, but the RS3 is precise and well-balanced in the realistic driving conditions that enthusiasts are likely to encounter, with well-weighted steering and powerful brakes.
For all intents and purposes, the RS3 drives like a supercar that's been miniaturized. Lapping the short, tight Megara track near Athens, Greece, in the RS3 Sportback—which will not be sold in the United States, even if you ask nicely or start an online petition—reveals the same attributes put on fast-forward. Here, without oncoming 125cc scooters to worry about, the effect that the torque splitter has on cornering is amplified and grip is phenomenal. There is a faint trace of turbo lag, but the engine easily overcomes it and pulls hard as the horsepower picks up where the torque leaves off.
Zipping in and out of turns, it’s way too easy to forget that you’re sitting in a sedan—and yet, the RS3 has four doors, two rows of seats, and a decent-sized trunk. It’s marketed as a compact sedan, but in 2021-speak that means it’s almost exactly as long, about three inches wider, and around an inch taller than the first-generation A4 released for 1996. When you’re done investigating the limits of the Quattro system’s grip, you’ve still got a reasonably practical luxury car that can perform the rational tasks that rational people ask of a daily driver. Part of the RS3’s allure is that it doesn’t require motorists to make a compromise; it gives folks who argue sports cars aren’t viable as daily drivers something to chew on.
James Gilboy praised the build quality and the materials used in the 2022 A3, and the RS3 deserves the same ovation. Audi paid a tremendous amount of attention to details. It also added several RS-specific ingredients like well-bolstered sport seats for the front passengers, a 12 o’clock mark on the steering wheel, and a new available layout for the Virtual Cockpit digital instrument cluster. Look to your right, and you’ll spot the familiar 10.1-inch touchscreen that displays an intuitive infotainment system. There’s a ton of tech, but it’s neatly integrated into the cabin so it’s not overpowering or overly distracting.
A standard RS3 comes with six-piston steel brakes, but you can option it with a carbon-ceramic brake system if you so choose, which cuts about 22 pounds of weight. Another option includes the head-up display, which Audi says is a first for the RS3.
Heart Meets Brain
When it lands, the RS3 will compete directly against the Mercedes-AMG CLA45, which is powered by a 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine tuned to 382 hp and 354 lb-ft of torque. It’s similar to the RS3 in the sense that it’s a small sedan built on a front-wheel-drive platform and fitted with permanent all-wheel-drive, and it’s plenty fast even though it’s down on both power and torque, but Affalterbach chose to wrap this layout in a swoopy package that proudly places style a few notches above practicality. Rear-seat passengers will be less inclined to ride with you in the CLA than in the RS3.
BMW hasn’t pelted a car in this segment—at least not yet. If you want a small four-door sedan with a roundel on its nose, the M235i xDrive Gran Coupe is as spicy as it gets in Munich, though with 301 hp it’s more closely aligned with the S3 than with the RS3 in terms of performance and pricing. The outgoing M2 is one of the best modern BMWs and I have high hopes for the next-generation model that’s presumably around the corner, but the coupe layout pegs it right in the TT’s league.
The RS3 injects a dose of practicality into driving. Get a Porsche 718 Boxster or a Mazda MX-5 Miata and you’ll have a blast, too, but you’ll need a second car to take your kids to school. There are a lot of motorists for whom the RS3 could realistically become a year-round daily driver, meaning it ticks both the heart and the brain boxes. What remains to be seen is pricing: Audi will announce it in the first half of 2022. Expect nothing less than the 2020’s base price of $56,200.
Audi Sport is at the top of its game. Packed with character thanks in part to its five-cylinder engine, the RS3 is the type of car that reminds you driving isn’t merely a millstone around society’s neck, one that only robots can free us from. It can also be thrilling, in the same basic sense that some folks find skateboarding entertaining or a way to lift pressure off of your shoulders after a long day.
It’s difficult to quantify this aspect of the machines that make many of us tick, especially in an industry obsessed with headline-grabbing numbers, but the overall experience is an important part of the constitution of a sports car’s character—more than mere specifications. Cars like the Audi RS3 are worth celebrating.
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