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The Audi RS3 driven in the Salalah Oman. (MATT BUBBERS for THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
The Audi RS3 driven in the Salalah Oman. (MATT BUBBERS for THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

Road Test

Review: 2018 Audi RS3’s turbocharged engine makes for a fun ride Add to ...

Camels are bad at sharing the road. Cows tend to at least observe lane discipline, and can often be seen travelling in an orderly line. Donkeys are so stupid they won’t notice a big-rig bearing down – so you can forgive one if it doesn’t fully grasp the rules of the road.

But camels are plain rude.

Do not be fooled by their lackadaisical gaits and grinning faces. The road is their toilet, their meeting place, a nice spot for an impromptu herd reunion. Camels act like they own the place, which, in fairness, they do. This is the desert and we are on their turf. They aren’t spooked by the predatory growl of Audi’s RS3, or intimidated by its screeching tires.

Perhaps the camels see the RS3 for what it is: a harmless little toy.

Audi is offering its entry-level RS model in Canada for the first time. Europeans have enjoyed the RS3 as a hot-hatchback since the first one appeared in 2011. Car critics praised it for its unique five-cylinder engine but often took issue with its lacklustre handling.

So Audi fitted a lighter, more-powerful engine and sharpened the chassis in an attempt to remedy the situation in time for the RS3’s North-American debut this summer. Is it enough to make a good first-impression?

The best part about the RS3 is still that engine. The new inline five-cylinder is 26 kilograms lighter than before, which makes a big difference in a small front-engine car like this. The turbocharged motor makes 400 horsepower and 354 lb-ft of torque.

Yes, 400 horsepower in a sub-compact, entry-level sedan. Can we just take a moment to appreciate that fact? Ferrari’s 360 Modena made 395 horsepower when production ended in 2005. Porsche’s entry-level 911 makes “only” 370. In the RS3, 0-100 km/h takes 4.1 seconds, a dead-heat with BMW’s M3, which is a class above.

Oman has two things going for it: endless white sandy beaches and endless, empty roads. On these empty roads, driving inland from Salalah into the hills, the RS3’s engine is happy to rev, unlike most turbocharged mills. String it out to 7,000 rpm and it still makes peak power. There’s meaty torque available everywhere and the throttle response makes you feel like Leonard Bernstein conducting the New York Philharmonic.

Of course, Audi knows this engine is a gem. A spokesperson said the five-cylinder is “the most powerful purchase motivation for our customers worldwide.” It’s the RS3’s chassis that’s going to be the bigger question mark.

On a set of downhill hairpins, the rear wheels slide around almost like we are driving on ice. The tarmac is slippery, but it is the RS3’s unusual tire setup which is to blame – or thank, depending on your point of view – for this rowdy behaviour. The (optional) front tires are wider than the rears. With traction control off and the drive mode set to Dynamic, the RS3 keeps us on our toes, ready to counter oversteer when it inevitably occurs. It’s even possible to get the RS3 sliding into a turn with a timely lift of the throttle or dab of the brakes. Then, if you’re on the power quickly, you can hold a neat little drift through the corner.

It’s roomier and more fun to drive than a Mercedes-CLA AMG. It’s not as sharp a driver’s car as the BMW M2, but the Audi has the practical benefit of having two extra doors and all-wheel drive.

Audis – even the high-performance Audi Sport RS models – tend to drive like they’re on rails: all grip, no fun. So the RS3’s new-found hooliganism is a welcome surprise. It makes the car more involving, more rewarding to drive quickly. Is this the beginning of a new era for Audi Sport? It will launch eight new RS-branded models by the end of 2018, so we’ll soon find out.

Perhaps the RS3 isn’t so harmless after all.

Tech Specs

  • Base price: $62,900
  • Engine: 2.5-litre turbocharged five-cylinder
  • Transmission/Drive: Seven-speed automatic/All-wheel drive
  • Fuel economy (litres/100 km): n/a
  • Alternatives: BMW M2, Ford Focus RS, Mercedes-AMG CLA, Cadillac ATS-V sedan

Ratings

  • Looks: Only the sedan will be offered in Canada. The Sportback five-door will remain a Euro-only model. Audi has given the RS3 a full go-faster makeover with all the usual bits: wider track with suitably flared wheel arches, lower suspension, an angry-looking grille, and a pair of fat oval tailpipes.
  • Interior: The cabin is best-in-class compared to BMW and Mercedes rivals. Audi’s “virtual cockpit” is standard, putting a big map in the instrument cluster if you so desire. The central screen can be retracted into the dash, creating a clean, uncluttered space. A Bang & Olufsen stereo is also standard. Only the manually-adjustable seats let the Audi down.
  • Performance: Magnetic ride adjustable suspension is standard. Steel springs are available in the $1,750 sport package but there’s no point in paying extra for them. The roads in Oman were too smooth to make a definitive judgment on the RS3’s ride but it may prove a little too stiff for comfortable cruising on cracked Canadian roads. Practical, surprisingly fun to drive, a whole new era for RS?
  • Technology: Carbon ceramic brakes, a $5,800 option, are a first for a car in this class. They offer impressive power but are slightly harder to modulate initially than the steel discs. The big front tires which make the RS3 so fun are a $400 option. The Quattro all-wheel drive system can shuffle up to 100 per cent of the torque to the front or rear as needed. Dynamic drive mode favours the rear while Comfort sends more torque to the front.
  • Cargo: It’s a sub-compact sedan, but feels roomier than its only direct rival. Rear-seat space and door openings are bigger than on the Mercedes CLA.

The Verdict

8.0

You’ll like this car if your Fast and Furious: Tokyo Drift days are behind you, almost.

The writer was a guest of the auto maker. Content was not subject to approval.

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