My drive partner and I have been flogging Audi's new RS3 all morning, taking turns on dromedary watch as the other hurtles us into the desert scenery, scarring the otherwise eerily quiet landscape with our sport sedan's distinct, five-cylinder bark. It's not a typical co-driver assignment on these vehicle launch trips, camelspotting. But we've quickly learned that keeping a wary eye out for split-hoove denizens is vital when wheeling through Oman's Dhofar mountains at speed.
For their part, the camels -- along with the cows, goats and the occasional donkey -- seem utterly unbothered by the presence of our Viper Green bolide. Otherworldly paint aside, you almost can't blame the free-range livestock for not noticing. Even with Audi's optional black optics package, this RS3 is somewhat demure looking, planted and subtly aggressive rather than adopting the sort of hot hatch winged street cred favored by my 22-year-old. Classy and not quite a Q-ship, the RS3 is nevertheless significantly more reserved-looking than rivals like the Mercedes-AMG CLA45 and.
It's only later I learn that Oman's camels are extremely valuable, routinely costing up to 10,000 rial -- about $26,000. If you're so unfortunate as to hit one during the day, our local fixer says you must track down the farmer to whom it belongs and offer restitution. Fail to do so, and you risk jail time, speeding or no. (Fortunately, bargaining is acceptable, he notes). What happens if you inadvertently bag Joe Camel at night, I ask? If you happen to survive the impact, you're in luck: Since it's widely known that camels blithely sleep on roadways to take advantage of their stored solar warmth, the law is apparently more understanding of your predicament. Even with the RS3's bright LED headlights, it's for that reason that I'm relieved our drive takes place under the withering Middle Eastern sun.
Fear not -- no animals were harmed in the making of this review, be they of hump, moo or bleat.
It's three plane rides and well over 24 hours of travel door to door from my Detroit-area home to Salalah, Oman, but fortunately, the RS3, the stunning local scenery and the hospitality of locals prove well worth the epic schlep. The RS3 may already be familiar fare to Roadshow's European readers, but up until this point, it's been unavailable in North America, where we've had to make do with the less-powerfulupon which it is based. Originally introduced in 2015, this 2018 model is effectively a mid-cycle refresh, but it's been so comprehensively revised as to practically feel like a new model.
For one thing, this is the first time a sedan trim will be available. Audi has big plans for this little hot rod -- it expects global sales to increase sixfold -- and a lot of that optimism stems from this new body-style. The RS3 will still be offered in five-door form in other markets, but for hatchback-averse countries like the United States and China, a traditional sedan shape is expected to help boost sales.
Speaking of boost, it's deeply impressive that Audi has gone to the trouble of concocting a brand-new, 2.5-liter turbocharged engine for the RS3 and itsbrethren. It would've been easier and far less costly to bore out the company's ubiquitous 2.0-liter TFSI four and crank up the PSI, but that's not the route Ingolstadt's engineers and bean counters have gone.
This isn't the same five-pot as found in the previous RS3, either. It's an all-new aluminum-block unit, with 400 horsepower and 354 pound-feet of torque from 1,700 to 5,850 rpm. Not only is it more powerful, enabling a 60 miles per hour sprint in just 3.9 seconds and a governed top speed of 155 mph, it's 57 pounds lighter than the outgoing iron-block lump owing to parts like an aluminum oil pump and a magnesium oil pan. The resulting engine sounds great, and with its 1-2-4-5-3 firing order, you won't mistake this car's sound signature for a turbo four or a six-cylinder.
Audiophiles will also note that going with an inline five-cylinder is also a historically sympathetic move. Some of Audi's greatest race and road cars, including its Group B rally specials and the RS2 Avant, have been powered by this unconventional engine configuration. The presence of an I5 helps make the whole car feel more special, which is something it needs considering how expensive it'll be.
Ah, yes, the price. Audi USA has priced the US RS3 at $54,900 to start, and it'll be available as a sedan only. (Sorry, hatch lovers.) That's a fair sum of cash, not only rather costlier than Benz's AMG CLA45, it's roughly double the entry fee of the A3 sedan upon which it's based.
Still with me? Good.
Improbably enough, the RS3 feels worth the money.
Thanks to its lighter engine taking weight off the nose, inch-lower suspension and wider stance (0.8 inches up front, 0.6 inches out back), the 3,300-pound RS3 not only handles exceptionally well, it feels delightfully frisky while doing so, something transverse-engined Audis have periodically failed to do. Use the Drive Select controls to firm up the steering, firm upshifts from the mandatory seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox and put a longer leash on the electronic safety nannies, and you'll find a chassis with considerably more wiggle room.
Steering accuracy is excellent, weight is appropriate and there's enough feel to navigate winding, unfamiliar roads confidently at breakneck pace. On sweeping open-desert corners and tight mountain switchbacks alike, in Dynamic mode it's possible to use the throttle to pull the RS3's rear end around playfully (ESC can also be fully extinguished if you're up for it) in a way that simply couldn't be done in the S3 I drove in the Great Smoky Mountains last April.
Speaking of which, Salalah's thoroughly modern road network is excellent in that its surfaces are both smooth and only lightly-trafficked by other vehicles once you leave the city. That said, a slurry of fine dust and... there's no delicate way of putting this -- camel and goat excrement -- make some corners unexpectedly challenging. Having Quattro's trustworthy, rear-biased all-wheel drive is a very good thing in such circumstances, and the Dynamic Plus package's ceramic front brakes help to further instill confidence.
It's worth noting that in North America, the RS3 will come standard with magnetorheological dampers, those magic, iron-filing-fluid-filled shock absorbers that adapt instantly to road conditions, firming the suspension for enthusiastic driving and slackening them for potholes and such. A more conventional steel setup featuring adjustable dampers is also available on Dynamic Plus cars, but it's firmer by default and may not be a great fit for those who live in areas with less-than-ideal roads. In Oman, for what it's worth, neither setup felt punishingly stiff, but again, the surfaces were very good.
(Side Note: Dynamic Plus cars also receive carbon-fiber engine covers and have their top speeds let out to 174 mph).
Appropriately, the RS3's cabin feels more purposeful than its A3-based brethren. When it first came out in 2013, the A3's interior felt a little dour and basic, a bit too '90s Germanic Schwarzes Loch -- black hole. But some key 2017 updates, including the availability of the bright Virtual Cockpit 12.3-inch cluster display, have added both visual interest and technical sophistication, plus sport seats with RS branding and a flat-bottom wheel do a nice job of making the RS3's interior feel both more special and more driver-focused. Nobody will ever accuse the RS3's cabin of being "warm," but that feels more appropriate in a high-performance car.
Thanks to the updated MMI infotainment and navigation on the 7-inch center screen, the RS3's interior tech also feels bang up-to-date for its class, and other key attributes include an available 4G LTE Wi-Fi hotspot and both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility. On my drive, I did notice moments where Oman's rapidly expanding road network outpaced Audi's navigation data, but the system's Google Earth overlays showed the way and made it possible to confidently continue on new, otherwise unmapped stretches of road.
While the RS3 should be a great sports sedan for hammering down serpentine roads or hitting the occasional track day, it also figures to be livable on a daily basis. This sedan's traditional roofline means the rear seats are just big enough to accommodate adults (something I can't say for its Benz and BMW rivals), and its 11.1-cubic-foot trunk expands to a much more useful 27.2-cubic feet with the rear seats folded flat. While I'll have to get one back on the frost-heaved, potholed streets of my home state to know for sure, the RS3's ride on its 19-inch Pirelli P Zero rubber certainly comes across as more compliant than what I remember of the AMG, and likely the Bimmer, too.
The RS3's cabin is relatively serene, too. The engine always sounds great, but even with the optional dual-mode RS exhaust opened up, there's still not a chorus of pops and bangs emanating from the rear pipes on overrun. Whether that's a good thing or not may depend on how childish you are at heart -- there were moments when I wanted more adolescent theater.
On the track
At a later event, back here in the US of A, we were able to take the RS3 for a quick spin out around Lime Rock Park, one of America's most historic (and shortest) active race circuits. Though the laps were few and the track sadly reconfigured to avoid its petitie straight, the car felt composed and controllable out there. But, as good as it is on the open road, you could tell it struggled a bit on the track. Body roll was on the excessive side, even with the suspension on its stiffest, and this seemed to contribute to some instability when braking hard out of the circuit's turns.
The seats, while comfortable and plenty supportive on the road, felt a bit too flat to really keep me planted in a long turn, and with the obligatory sunroof, I actually had a lot less headroom than in the much smaller TT RS -- so little that I couldn't really get comfortable with a helmet on. Best to keep it to the street, then.
In the end, the RS3's pricing -- $54,900 to start -- will mean it'll take a special buyer and a certain freedom from financial logic to splurge for this car over its plenty-powerful 292-hp S3 cousin. That's OK, say company executives. They're not expecting huge sales volumes out of the RS3. Instead, they're working hard to build the cachet and following of their Audi Sport performance sub-brand while rewarding the Four-Ring faithful. Judging by my memorable drive, this car should will go a long way toward realizing those goals, and buyers won't need to be in an exotic locale under the watchful eye of a passing camel to fall under the RS3's spell.