Longer, wider and meaner than before, the 2022 Audi RS3 is small but mighty. It bursts out of its flared fenders with 401 horsepower and boasts a new electronic rear differential that enables a drift mode. I was able to put the RS3's new capabilities to the test on the road, track and skidpad, and it's every bit as impressive as I expected.
Tapping unlock on the RS3's key fob sends the front and rear LED lights into a welcome dance that culminates with a fun "R-S-3-checkered flag" in the driver's-side front lights. As always, Audi paid particular attention to lighting technology, with sequential LED turn signals at either end and Matrix LED headlamps unique to the RS3.
The RS3 largely retains the understated, geometric styling of the A3 and S3 sedans upon which it's based, but closer inspection reveals major tweaks that boost both performance and visual aggression. The RS3 rides nearly an inch lower than the base A3, its wheel arches flared significantly to make room for meatier wheels and tires. On top of that, the front track is 1.6 inches wider than the previous RS3's. Air outlets cut into the rear of the front flares further emphasize the wideness and help to cool the RS3's brakes.
The RS3's angrier front bumper design leads the way with a gloss black grille surround that flows into darkened headlamps. My example also features the Black Optic Plus package, a $750 option that blacks out the Audi rings, rear badges and roof, and adds a matte black finish to the standard 19-inch wheels.
A small lip spoiler sits atop the trunk lid, just above a massaged rear bumper with gloss black, hexagon-pattern details, and a black rear diffuser that envelopes the dual oval tips of the RS3's exhaust.
2022 Audi RS3 Is Powerful, Poised and PriceySee all photos
Behind the blacked-out single-frame grille lives the RS3's 2.5-liter inline 5-cylinder engine, which is turbocharged to the tune of 401 hp and 369 pound-feet of torque. Interestingly, that's a 7-hp increase over the European version of this car and 15 more lb-ft than the previous RS3, all thanks to unique tuning for our North American model. Our RS3 is also louder than the one across the pond courtesy of a unique exhaust that lacks the Euro-mandated particulate filter, allowing the loping burble of the inline-five to be better heard. All that power makes its way through a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission with steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters.
With the gearbox in its sportiest setting and launch control active, I'm able to test the RS3's acceleration on an arrow-straight stretch of highway near the California-Nevada border. With a thin layer of desert sand blown over the tarmac, the subcompact sedan has its work cut out for it, but the Quattro all-wheel-drive system adjusts quickly to the compromised grip, digging in and rocketing the RS3 from a standstill to 60 mph in 3.6 seconds. I wasn't able to test the RS3's top track speed of 180 mph (when upgraded with the $5,500 Dynamic Plus package), for obvious reasons.
RS Torque Splitter rear differential
A new addition to the 2022 RS3's Quattro system is the RS Torque Splitter rear differential that allows for more control over the front/rear torque split and adds lateral torque-vectoring capabilities to the rear axle. The RS Torque Splitter uses a pair of multi-disc clutches to shift up to 100% of the available torque to either rear wheel, helping to control yaw as the RS3 decelerates into and accelerates out of corners.
The balance of power between the front and rear axles is determined by the RS3's six Drive Select modes. Comfort mode prioritizes front-wheel drive and efficient power delivery; Auto balances front/rear distribution; Dynamic sends the lion's share of torque to the rear axle.
The RS3 features a trio of RS-specific drive modes. RS Performance is tuned for balanced and neutral on-track performance with special care taken to minimize understeer and oversteer. RS Torque Rear is a rear-wheel-drive mode that allows for controlled drifting. Finally, RS Individual is a user-customizable setting that lets the driver dial in their own mix of suspension, steering, powertrain, exhaust tone and differential settings.
RS Sport adaptive damper suspension
The RS3's RS Sport adaptive suspension was redesigned for this generation. The new hydraulically adjustable dampers replace the previous generation's magnetic units. Audi says the new dynamic chassis control (DCC) setup offers more precise management over damping and the ability to make millisecond-quick adjustments to changing road conditions and driver inputs. Upgrades in the suspension department are rounded out with stiffer springs, beefier anti-sway and control bars, increased camber and strengthened wheel hubs.
Despite being labeled Comfort, the RS3's softest suspension setting is still rather firm -- not so stiff as to be punishing over bumps and uneven pavement, but I reckon about as firm as the less aggressive S3's Dynamic setting. Audi tells me it tuned the Comfort setting to be usable on bumpier race courses -- such as the Nürburgring Nordschleife where the RS3 set the compact car lap record of 7 minutes and 40.748 seconds -- while the firmest setting is appropriate for smooth circuits like the Spring Mountain Motor Resort where I'm putting the RS3 to the test.
The RS3 comes standard with large, 14.8-inch cross-drilled steel rotors with aluminum three-piston calipers and a variety of aerodynamic tweaks that yield a 20% improvement to brake cooling over the previous sedan. However, I lined up at the entrance to the track in an example that had been upgraded to the Dynamic Plus Package, which includes 15-inch ceramic rotors which save about 22 pounds of unsprung weight while providing increased thermal capacity and greater resistance to fading. Either way you go, the rear stoppers grab 12.2-inch steel rotors.
Audi also swapped the standard 265/30ZR19 Pirelli P Zero performance street tires for optional P Zero Trofeo R semi-slick track rubber. This $450 addition atop the Dynamic Plus option sets the RS3 up for the best racing performance on a hot, dry track -- the automaker's engineers tell me that the RS Performance mode was optimized with these tires in mind -- though it also compromises wet performance significantly. So while the Trofeo R rubber is street legal, it's probably not the best option for daily driving. (Audi actually makes owners sign a disclaimer before checking the Trofeo R option box.)
Turned loose on the track, the RS3 is a beast, but also remarkably easy to drive. Spring Mountain's flowing fast corners allow the rear differential to showcase its torque vectoring, controlling understeer as I explore the enhanced grip afforded by the track tires, rolling onto the throttle a touch earlier with each lap. The ceramic brakes also shine here, running up to the tighter hairpin midway through the course, shaving speed admirably lap after lap with no detectable fade.
As the sun disappears over the horizon, I prepare to test out the RS3's drift mode on a skid pad. Setup is as simple as selecting the RS Torque Rear drive mode, which locks the Quattro system into rear-wheel drive and the transmission into manual mode. Now, I've never been a drifty driver -- I'm too cautious, preferring grip and speed to smokey slides -- and have struggled before on drift courses, but I'm able to fairly easily hang the RS3's tail loose around the cone course. This mode works wonders.
The combination of 401 hp scrambling for grip at the rear wheels, a short and agile wheelbase and intelligent torque vectoring makes it easy to adjust the attitude of the sedan with deft flicks of the accelerator and the quick, variable-ratio steering.
Pricing and competition
The 2022 Audi RS3 starts at $59,995 including the $1,095 destination charge, which is about $14,000 more than an S3. For the money, the RS3 is a more potent and performance-oriented option than the Mercedes-AMG CLA45 and also battles fiercely with the BMW M2 Competition for small car supremacy. My road-prepped example features $2,750 for the upgraded RS Technology package's MMI Navigation, Bang & Olufsen sound system, head-up display and traffic sign recognition, as well as $1,000 for the RS Sport exhaust. Add $350 more for blind-spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert and $750 for the Black Optic Plus appearance upgrades, and you get the $64,845 price of my test car.
The track-prepped Kyalami Green example reshuffles the options, ditching the tech package and adding $2,095 for paint and RS Design package upgrades, $2,750 for carbon fiber exterior trim, $5,500 for the Dynamic Plus upgrade with ceramic brakes and $450 for the semi-slick race tires. With a few smaller additional options, it arrives at $72,890 as tested. That's perhaps too expensive for a subcompact sedan -- even a 401-hp one -- but beyond price, there are other reasons to think twice before checking every option box. While these track-focused options are excellent upgrades for RS3s primarily used on the track, the race tires and brakes can be a detriment to daily driving with poor wet-weather performance and increased noise.
The RS3 is a tremendously capable tool that perfectly balances agility and comfort on the street, track-tuned performance and skidpad shenanigans. The cost of entry is a tad high for a vehicle this small, and more logic-oriented shoppers drivers will perhaps find a better balance of value and useable performance in the also excellent Audi S3. However, for uncompromising and well-heeled shoppers looking for the rare ride that not only does everything, but does it all well, the 2022 Audi RS3 is one of the best of the bunch.
Editors' note: Travel costs related to this story were covered by the manufacturer, which is common in the auto industry. The judgments and opinions of CNET's staff are our own and we do not accept paid editorial content.