It’s been 30 years since the quattro four-wheel drive system first appeared on an Audi road car in the UK, and it’s hard to imagine the effect it would have on the perception of the brand. A few World Rally Championships helps of course, but it was always the road cars that were at the heart of the philosophy, giving the security of traction and grip in all weathers.
Over the years the Quattro tag has been applied to every car in the range – even the latest addition – the baby A1 – will eventually benefit from the high-tech transmission. But it is the performance cars that truly get across the point, and the latest slice of compelling evidence is the RS3.
Based on the existing A3 Sportback, a premium hatchback that has been a frequent sight on UK roads, the RS3 gets a serious dose of aggression and attitude to turn it into a bona-fide performance car. The RS tag signifies the highest level of performance and it inherits the 2.5-litre five-cylinder turbocharged powerplant already seen in the TT RS: the five-cylinder configuration is extremely rare in modern cars and is a nod to the distinctive-sounding five cylinder unit from the original Quattro. Developing a serious 335bhp backed up by 331lb.ft of torque, the RS3 puts its power down through the fiendishly-clever S-tronic seven-speed gearbox through to the quattro four-wheel drive system.
It also looks the business. While a completely standard A3 Sportback is tasteful and relatively restrained, the RS treatment brings deep, aggressive spoilers and air intakes, chunky alloy wheels and a purposeful stance thanks to the lowered suspension. The inside is special too: even though it shares a cabin with lesser versions there is plenty of leather, suede and superb bucket seats.
But a car like this is all about the driving experience. Firing up the RS3 brings a deep, purposeful burble from the exhaust, and a distinctive one at that thanks to the five-cylinder configuration. Slot the transmission into Drive and it will roll happily along, the large band of torque making life very easy for the driver. It takes no more effort to drive in this manner than any other Audi, and from the driver’s seat you could be forgiven for thinking it was a relatively humble machine.
It only takes a moment to reveal the flip side however. For the full effect the transmission needs to be switched to manual mode and the S button pressed, which activates a sound flap in the exhaust and also changes to a more aggressive throttle map. Start to squeeze the accelerator and the response is immediate, a distinct deepening of the exhaust note is accompanied by a rapid and prolonged burst of acceleration. The engine note increases in complexity and resonance as the rev counter closes in on the red line, all the while the speedometer is reading off ever-higher numbers. Flick the right paddle behind the steering wheel and the RS3 effortless switches up a gear, and the engine performs its brilliant act once again.
Squeeze the brakes hard and speed is effortlessly shrugged off, and the stiff suspension keeps everything on an even keel. The steering responds quickly and accurately to inputs, but it is the traction from the quattro system that allows you to exploit all the power much readily than in any two-wheel drive car. You have to trust the system and believe in the physics because it’s hard to get your head around what this car is capable of – press the throttle hard and early and you are catapulted out the other side in a blur.
It may be a simple recipe, but the combination of characterful engines, sharp and sophisticated chassis with a handsome and purposeful design is a delightful one to savour. The RS3 will be more limited than most too, with just a few hundred examples reaching the UK later this year. But for the lucky few, it will be a car to savour.
FACTS AT A GLANCE
Audi RS3, £40,000 (TBC)
Engine: 2.5-litre petrol producing 335bhp and 331lb.ft of torque
Transmission: Seven-speed dual clutch automatic driving all four wheels
Performance: Top speed 155mph (limited), 0-62mph in 4.6 seconds
Fuel economy: 31mpg
By Matt Joy