We’ve praised the Audi A3’s driving dynamics, but one thing we have struggled to embrace is its stubby proportions and muted styling. The sedan looks much the same in RS 3 form, just tacking on a sportier grille and new side sills, diffuser, and exhaust tips almost as part of a costume.
The diminutive sedan makes an unlikely Mufasa. You’d never guess it had such a commanding roar until you turn on the ignition. Although maybe not as throaty as the engine in the Jaguar F-Type R, the RS 3’s powerplant is at least worthy of being discussed in the same sentence. Because the engine note, particularly when paired with the optional sport exhaust, might be the most enticing part of the car. From its 2.5-liter turbocharged five-cylinder engine, the RS 3 produces 400 hp and 354 lb-ft of torque.
How did it perform in our battery of tests? The red rocket hit 60 mph from a standstill in just 3.6 seconds, significantly better than the 2015 A3 2.0T, the quickest new A3 we’ve ever tested with a time of 5.4 seconds, as well as our long-term S3 at 4.4 seconds. The RS 3’s key competitor, the 2017 BMW M2, managed the run in 4.2 seconds—although to be fair, it only packs 365 hp.
A 2016 Ford Mustang GT, with 35 more hp than the Audi, made its mark in 4.6 seconds. If we continue to reach for comparable models, we’ll notice the V-6-powered Jaguar F-Type S set a time of 4.3 seconds.
In the quarter mile, the RS 3 recorded a time of 12.1 seconds at 112.9 mph. That’s ahead of the M2, which completed the task in 12.9 seconds at 107.1 mph. The RS 3 managed 24.4 seconds at an average of 0.82 g in the figure eight, this time bested by the M2’s 23.9 seconds at an average of 0.83 g.
Not only did the RS 3 perform well in our acceleration and handling tests, but the car also proved quite manageable on a daily basis, even when you keep it in Dynamic mode most of the time, which we did. Although stiff, the suspension feels composed and handles road imperfections with tact, unlike some other firm cars that feel brittle over harsh surfaces. At moderate to high speeds, road noise penetrates the cabin, but wind noise barely makes an impression.
Braking was the most difficult thing to get used to in the RS 3. The carbon-ceramic brakes respond sharply when you press the pedal, although as road test editor Chris Walton pointed out, that bite trails off as the car slows down. Still, the RS 3 was able to brake from 60 mph to a standstill in a respectable 109 feet.
The most mature model in the A3 family, the RS 3 exhibits a confident ride and precise steering that contrasts with the somewhat-shaky and vague S3. The interior also stands apart from the rest of the line, from the soft Alcantara on the steering wheel to the standard Nappa leather sport seats with diamond stitching. Those are our favorite parts of the interior, along with Audi’s optional 12.3-inch virtual cockpit digital instrument cluster that displays high-quality maps right in front of the driver. Perhaps our least favorite part is the tight back seat, though we didn’t expect anything different on a car this size.
As there should be for $54,500, there are a good number of standard features including the leather seats, heated front seats, panoramic sunroof, LED headlights, a parking assist system, and heated mirrors. Other goodies—including the ceramic brakes, the aforementioned sport exhaust system and Virtual cockpit, an RS fixed sport suspension, and lane change assist and rear cross-traffic assist that alert drivers of impending obstacles—are optional. Unfortunately, there’s no head-up display available. All in all, our model rang in at $66,775.
We suspect most consumers looking for a subcompact sedan will find their match with the already-peppy A3. But the RS 3 exceeded my expectations and proved both a stealthy launch missile and a refined road car. That’s impressive considering that it shares bones with an entry-level sedan.