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Audi RS3 Sportback (2012) long-term test review

By the CAR road test team

Long Term Tests

11 May 2012 10:30

Taking over and overtaking in the RS3 - 11 May 2012 

As Anthony ffrench-Constant will soon be performing certain Civic duties, the CAR office has commandeered his RS3 Sportback for a couple of months before it returns to the Audi Mothership. And as I climbed into it a few weeks ago, I thought ‘here we go again’…

The RS3 is embarrassing to look at, let alone be seen driving in: those black and red wheels make Graham Norton seem shy and retiring; there’s more grille and air intake at the front than actual bodywork; and as you come up behind others in this red hot hatch with daytime running lights ablaze you get used to seeing the driver in front assess you in their rear view mirror, then shake their head in disgust, pity or something else not exactly complimentary.

And in those road test conditions where you jump from one car to the next, hoon off around some sheep-blighted Welsh mountain, then swap cars again, the RS3 will ultimately be left dynamically wanting by the 1M. Back-to-back, both are stiff riding, and it’d be a close contest between which was fastest over a given road, but the BMW just bites into corners where the Audi starts to miss that apex and your intended trajectory. And if you’re Ben Barry and commute via the back roads with the ESP off and the rear tyres of your M5 alight, then the rear-driven 1M offers something silly and smokey that the Quattro-chassised RS3 can’t.

But although the 1M and RS3 are priced within a few quid of each other (£40,040 vs £39,950) and produce the same 335bhp and 332lb ft (369lb ft for the BMW on overboost if we’re being pedantic) they’re very different creatures. The difference between it and the 1M is much like the distinction once made by Ben Oliver between his Golf R and the Megane RS CAR was also running at the time: the Volkswagen was a fast hatch, the Renaultsport a hot hatch.

Those hip-hugging BMW seats are too tight, tiresome and focused for everyday use, whereas you and any of your family can happily sit in the RS3’s squishy chairs without wondering why your kidneys are being pinched. Four doors and a hatchback roofline mean it’s easier to carry friends or family over five feet tall than the 1-series M Coupe.

When you live with it day after day, that combination of S-tronic gearbox and four-wheel drive and turbocharged torque all make sense. My daily commute has recently tripled in length so there’s stop/start traffic to deal with, where the lack of a clutch pedal is a boon. When you’re just not interested in going fast you can mooch along listening to Chris Moyles, Chris Evans, or that noise that the rest of the CAR office frown upon but I like.

Then when you do want to overtake it’s easy: plant your foot flat – whether it’s dry or wet. And if that’s somehow not enough, slip the gearstick in S and press the Sport button for a sharper throttle response. There aren’t many overtaking opportunities that the RS3 can’t take advantage of, and I’ve found overtaking opportunities in the RS3 that don’t exist in the Evora S. The brakes are monstrously strong, and without Drive Select to muddle things the steering is cleaner and crisper too.

Drive it flat out, hoping to unlock some moment of magic and you won’t discover anything apart from the fact the RS3 uses more fuel than an oil field fire. But live with it, as Anthony has done, and as we’re now doing, and you’ll appreciate its talents. Talents that appeal to more people, more of the time. Put it this way: last night I had the choice between the RS3 and my Lotus. And I took the RS3, embarrassing wheels and all.

By Ben Pulman


More of the CAR team get to try the Audi RS3 - 3 May 2012

As Greg said in his last report, the Audi RS3 has spent much of its tenure in Mudfordshire in the good care of rural-living, mud-slinging Anthony ffrench-Constant, but we've managed to poach the keys off him for a few weeks. Many of the CAR team are now woofling around Cambridgeshire, enjoying the five-pot acoustics and trying to fathom what makes this maxed-up Audi A3 tick.

It's an intriguing car: one of those go-faster cars that any Tom, Dick or Harry can just jump in and go. Very fast. With 332lb ft on tap at just 1600rpm from its 20-valve turbocharged 2.5-litre five-cylinder, it's just monumentally repid in a gurgling, effortless kind of way. And the four-wheel drive means it can be deployed most of the time, irrespective of the weather conditions underfoot.

On a recent drive to Wales, we tiptoed around wet lanes in our more powerful rear-drivers like the BMW M5, Lotus Evora and Infiniti M35h. But climb into the RS3 and you can play at being Walter Rohrl in his 1980s Quattro. It's fast, pointy but ultimately a rather blunt tool. It's certainly different in character to the identically priced and powered BMW 1-series M Coupe. We're currently averaging some 25mpg, so it's got a bit of a thirst on it.

You'd never guess the RS3 was nearing the end of its life. We drive the new 2012 A3 range soon so the days are numbered for this end-of-life run-out special. Yes, the cabin is a little more plasticky than more modern Audi offerings, but it's hardly out of date. It's also a reminder that Audi still knows a thing or two about making fun, sporty cars - even if it does still suffer the odd hit and miss.

By Tim Pollard


An Audi to remind us of Robert de Niro, waterfalls and other people’s kids - 24 April 2012

Because Anthony ffrench-Constant, who lives in some Tolkeinesque outpost called Mudfordshire, has been the keeper of our long-term Audi RS3, not too many of us at CAR HQ have had a crack at it. But, with the car nearing the end of its time with us, fate has offered us a window.

And it takes only a roundabout or two to establish that the RS3 is a much better car than it looks. This is partly because, with its prematurely ageing bodyshape mated to the most embarrassing alloys yet seen on any Audi, it looks a right lash-up. But it’s also because of several huge surprises.

The first surprise is how well balanced the car is. No sign here of trademark Audi understeer – even in the wet the RS3 feels light enough at the front to inspire hectic cornering, which you always plan for with a Quattro drivetrain but often end up regretting when the front wheels scrub wide. The RS3 has a wider track and wider tyres at the front than at the rear, and those fronts are marshalled by massive, brick-wall-spec brakes. It’s a hugely reassuring thing to drive fast.

And driving fast has never been easier. Against absolutely all-comers the RS3 is fabulously fast – a match for just about anything in any real-road scenario. Its turbocharged and intercooled five-cylinder engine offers a waterfall of torque and power, but the trouble with waterfalls is that a deluge is often less rewarding than a well-measured stream. And this baseball-bat approach to the job is the reason why the RS3 is hard to love. Its chassis and power delivery aren’t what you would call nuanced.

Driving in a fast convoy on some of those legendary Welsh B-roads recently I was reminded of that brilliant bit in the film Ronin, in which Robert de Niro is driving dementedly the wrong way through traffic, gritting his teeth and sawing at the wheel. We now know that he was using a dummy wheel and that the stunt driver was seated beside him, doing the actual driving. That’s the RS3, except it’s YOU that’s the stunt driver.

Two other things to bear in mind before casting judgement: first, the ride is so brittle and unforgiving at low speeds you simply have to crank it up to 11 to get any sense of what it’s for. And this means you will be done for speeding within, say, six weeks of purchase. And second, the RS3 costs north of £40,000 which, for a small Audi, is a ransom fit for a king.

Anthony has enjoyed the car and it’s easy to see why. It is an absolute hoot. But, like somebody else’s noisy but lovable child, it’s kind of nice when you hand it back.

By Greg Fountain


How the RAF affected the colour of an Audi dashboard - 24 February 2011

Thrumming thirstily home recently, my judging duties at a local smorgasbord ‘n’ Fattest Bachelor contest completed, it struck me just how easy an after-dark Audi dashboard is on the eye; an entire Amsterdam side street of softly suffused red, minus the talc cloud and tacky lingerie.

But how, I mused, do manufacturers decide what colour to back-light their instrument binnacles? I’d always assumed that a teuton of Tefal-heads spent months amongst the mushrooms – abetted by flocks of wild-eyed fauna strapped to attention in the manner of Alex in A Clockwork Orange – agonising over precisely the correct hue to guarantee peerless clarity and instantaneous legibility. Until, that is, reports filtered through of a meeting chaired by VW supremo Ferdinand Piëch, held to determine whether or not Audi interior lighting should remain red. Famed for a loathing of air-conditioning so intense he carried a tool-kit everywhere with which to open fixed hotel windows (which may go some way to explaining why the Frankfurt show is always so unspeakably hot), Piëch pointed out that, during the war, the Luftwaffe used green instrumentation, whilst the RAF favoured red. ‘Look who won that one,’ he concluded.

Which is why all the RS3 lacks in grade-A late-night cosiness today is continuous-loop log-fire footage playing on the MMI screen. Actually, the other thing it lacks is backlighting to the door mirror control, which has flickered its intent to fail for a couple of evenings before finally giving up the ghost for good. My natural inclination is to blame this on the all-consuming jaws of that ruddy dog, but I’m pretty sure the missus hasn’t taught it to drive. Yet.

By Anthony ffrench-Constant


Newly acquired pets rightful place in the RS3, the boot! - 12 January 2012

I’m happy to report that the thorny issue of who actually does wear the trousers in my house has finally, and irrevocably, been resolved. For the last six months I have been saying, as often and volubly as possible, ‘We Are NOT Having A Dog…’
So it’ll come as no surprise to you to learn that, after a short trip abroad the other day, I returned home to find a 12-week-old black Labrador bitch called Winnie firmly installed, contentedly chewing the crutch out of my best trousers. The name, I should explain, is conjured neither in honour of the famous Black Dog that occasionally dampened the wartime resolve of Winston Churchill, nor that dreadful Zoth Ifrican thugesse, the ex-Mrs Mandela. Rather, it pays appropriate homage to the sumptuously appointed Winnebago we’ll be forced to move into once the dog has finished eating our existing abode.

Far happier gazing adoringly at its mistress whilst retching gently in the front footwell, the dog is reluctant to occupy its proper place in the passenger pecking order; well astern. This, considering I’ve even had the decency to consign the load cover to a life of dust-gathering in the shed is – much like the smells that occasionally quarantine the cabin – a bit rich.

Then again, having grown a whisker since arrival, she now barely fits. In plan form, the loadspace boasts an ample area. Thing is, both rear seat and tailgate slope sufficiently to narrow the gap at large dog neck level to something more akin to the village green stocks.

Still, that does at least limit the range of cranial travel under hard acceleration and braking. Cornering is a separate issue altogether, with which neither of us has yet quite come to terms: bump-thump, I get; thump-yelp may take a little longer.
On a more pragmatic note, I’ve discovered that one issue which can never be resolved is the irritation of the radio blaring into life every time I switch the ignition on.

Obviously, I can hardly gripe about the radio coming on if I left it on when I last switched off the car. But what’s maddening is the shouty, over-excited, amphetamine-laden Chris Evans volume at which it does so, no matter how much I turn the volume down at the end of a previous excursion. Bizarrely, this pre-set volume cannot be adjusted within the depths of the centre console MMI, as with many other Audis.

Happily, though every inch as baffled as I by this peculiar control system oversight, the nice man from Audi was at least able to show me how to adjust the clock, which now, finally, tells me the correct time in Mudfordshire, not Paris.

By Anthony ffrench-Constant 


The Audi RS3 is just not exciting enough for Jethro - 28 December 2012

The RS3 is a good car in many respects: beautifully built, practical, well equipped, fast and amazingly secure. However, beyond the obvious, Audi’s white-hot hatch is rather less appealing – for me, at least. It doesn’t feel at all special inside and the sombre interior actually looks a bit old fashioned, the five-cylinder engine suggests that this car has hidden depths… but then you start driving and find it’s about as deep as a puddle after a light shower.

The RS3’s key qualities are superb traction, strong performance (although it feels nothing like as quick as the acceleration figures suggest – S-tronic and Quattro combine to make it launch to 60mph very impressively) and a competent, safe chassis. It goes where you point it very quickly indeed. But despite the rousing five-cylinder warble and the seamless S-tronic twin-clutch gearbox, it just isn’t exciting. Not even a little bit.

I’m sure many of you are screaming that an oik like me just wants a car that oversteers for England. While there may be an element of truth in that, it’s not the whole story. What I want is some subtlety, some feedback, some sense that my part in the RS3 experience is more than just a sack of potatoes plonked behind the steering wheel. The Audi doesn’t deliver that thrill. It goes quickly, then it understeers a bit. The end. I know the 1M has its flaws but it feels twice as special and is about a hundred times more exciting.

By Jethro Bovingdon 


The Audi RS3 gets a thrashing, in Wales, not by Anthony - 15 December 2011

I struggled manfully (and with limited success) for three days in north Wales on our best sports cars of 2012 shoot (CAR, November) to protect what is, first and foremost, our everyday family transport from taking a thrashing. I was forced, you see, to hand over the RS3 to the worst tyre-shredding excesses of my younger, braver and, okay, leaner peers.

Once the brakedust had settled, a couple of thoughts penned by Ben Pulman in summary still resonate.

‘You’ve got to be absolutely on it to feel the benefit,’ he wrote. Ben was actually referring to the Corsa VXR’s differential but, in the case of other contenders such as the Megane Trophy and DS3 Racing, and even perhaps the Mini Coupe, he might just as well have been talking about the machine in its entirety.

Coincidentally, he also said, specifically of the RS3, that ‘unless you think going fast the be all and end all, you’ll get bored sooner rather than later…’

Indeed? It strikes me that all too many of the machines in which we enjoyed such a downright magnificent hoon would not be so much boring as downright irritating to actually live with, unless maximum attack was the order of the day at all times, all over the place.

And quite simply, where can you engage maximum attack these days apart from on a trackday, or across faraway Welsh mountains with only a clutch of spectating Blackface sheep for company?

Huge fun to fling about they may be but, driven on the school potter, you’re left 
with shouty, whiff-of-hoodie couture, inferior quality interiors, less than comfortable driving positions and engines that won’t deliver overtaking oomph unless thrashed mercilessly into life with an often woeful gearchange.

And that’s where the RS3 scores so highly. Despite my reticence about those shouty crimson details on the matt black alloys, it’s quite simply a class act to live with – even when you’re not trying to 
bend your own face into a range of new 
and unusual shapes.

By Anthony ffrench-Constant


Hello to our Audi RS3 -  17 November 2011

Take the revs all the way to 7250, a whisker below the limiter, head back onto the headrest (’cos, one way or another, that’s where it’s going to end up), dump the clutch and floor it. A muffled bang from the back and the car explodes off the line. No fuss. No drama. If there is any wheelspin, I can’t feel it. First gear is used up almost instantly. Watch the rev counter like a hawk to avoid hitting the limiter and yank it into second. Bang. Repeat the process into third. Then it’s into fourth and… across the line.

Thus, in the mid ’90s, grinning like the world’s most disingenuous crocodile whilst ripping off 911 Turbos and an immaculate Ford GT40 at the Brighton Speed Trials, my relationship with Audi’s RS badge got off to the least mechanically sympathetic (yet best possible) start in an RS2 Avant. Okay, so the opposition was crossing the finish line with a somewhat greater terminal velocity than the Audi’s modest 100mph, but the RS2 did all the damage at the outset, yelling to 30mph in less than 1.5 all-wheel drive-sponsored seconds whilst rival monsters were still mithering, motionless, for grip…

Boasting a 2480cc, turbocharged and intercooled five-cylinder engine, this RS3 feels, of all the current Audi RS range, very much the spiritual successor to the similarly armed, 2226cc RS2. With 335bhp and 332lb ft of torque, it boasts 20bhp and 30lb ft more output than its predecessor, and is quoted to reach 62mph 0.8 of a second faster, in just 4.6sec. I say ‘quoted’ because, contrary to the norm for manufacturers’ figures, I managed to best the RS2’s quoted 0-62mph dash by a good 0.2 of a second, and I understand that the RS3 has recently been figured at less than four seconds. Blimey! This may be the fastest ever Audi RS off the line.

If the undercarriage overhaul is anything to go by, it may also prove to be the sweetest handling. MacPherson strut front and multi-link rear suspension extensively fettled and ride height lowered by 25mm, the standard RS3 growls around on huge 19in alloys smeared with a 235/35 film of rubber at the front and 225/35 at the rear, allied to track widths of 1564mm in the bows and 1528 astern. Is there much else out there with both wider track and rubber at the sharp end?

This may be the ideal way to wave goodbye to the misery of understeer (and we shall see), but the £175 option of black, red-rimmed alloys is also an ideal way to instigate a lengthy and voluble debate amongst the local school-run mums on the size of your wedding vegetables. With memories of the Kia Soul Burner’s colour scheme still macheteing their way through my consciousness, I would probably, on reflection, have settled for standard issue.

Still, giddy at the prospect of a good six months hooning ahead, I’ll leave you for now with the thought that, if the best part of £40,000 seems dear, remember that the RS2 Avant cost £45,000 back in the mid ’90s.

By Anthony ffrench-Constant