Payne: Audi RS3 hellion wants off its leash

Posted by Talbot Payne on July 21, 2022

Boyne City — My Audi RS3 is hungry.

Hustling along County Road 56 west of Boyne in PERFORMANCE Mode, I come upon two slower cars. Adaptive Cruise Control slows me to 50 mph behind an SUV but the automotive gearbox doesn’t upshift — holding at 3,500 RPM in 4th gear with all 369 pound feet of torque at the ready. OK.

At the first broken center line, I stomp the throttle. The gearbox automatically downshifts ANOTHER gear to 3rd and the RS3 devours the SUV instantly, settling back into line at 50 mph behind the next victim, a minivan. Sensing its next prey (and my willingness to oblige its appetite), the RS3 incredibly remains in 3rd gear — the engine quivering at 5,500 RPM.

BOOM! The minivan is toast in the blink of an eye, the Audi sprinting by at 7,000 RPM redline in 4th gear. The Audi obliterates the next pair of ess turns before I rein it in. The tailpipes crackle and pop, satisfied burps after a quick meal.

In this era of electronic wizardry, the gap between luxury and mainstream has shrunk rapidly. With mainstream athletes like the $52K Kia Stinger GT, it becomes harder to justify the $30,000 brand jump to, say, a comparable Audi S7. In the VW Group, the Golf R is the pinnacle of V-dub performance with sensational handling, power, all-wheel drive. I wondered if its cousin Audi RS3 — built on the same MQB platform — could justify its $30K premium hike over the V-dub.

It makes its case the old-fashioned way: with raw speed and wicked looks.

Golf R is a sleeper car, a hellion in drag that will surprise muscle cars at a stoplight. You won’t recognize its signature quad tailpipes until it’s past you. Ooooooh, so that was a Golf R! My Kemora Gray metallic RS is about as subtle as a rocket launcher.

The 2022 Audi RS3 made quick work of the M-32 twisties with dual-rear-clutch, torque-vectoring AWD that provide excellent road traction.

This is the junior member of Audi’s RS (short for Rocket Ship?) family that includes the 591-horse RS and RS6 Avent monsters — the latter the most awesome station wagon I’ve piloted. Junior RS3 doesn’t want to be ignored at the dinner table.

The front fascia is covered in black as if it’s been stuffing its face with asphalt all day. Under the hood is not the Golf R’s 315-horse turbo-4, but a mighty 2.5-liter turbocharged inline-5 making 401 horsepower. The beast needs air — lots of it — so every inch of the front is covered with intakes, including center grille and two massive gills.

Then Audi paints everything black — even the Audi rings — for added menace.

Aft of 19-inch black (natch) wheels wrapped in gummy Pirelli P Zero Trofeo R tires is air scoop — shades of the Civic Type R. Indeed, Audi RS3 has more styling in common with the loud Type R than the stealthy Golf R. There are huge rocker panels and lots of fake black cladding and …  what, no rear wing?

RS3’s lack of rear hatchback is a disappointment (only the sedan is offered here, while Europe gets hatch and sedan). Rear boot storage is less than Golf, as is rear headroom. But twin exhaust pipes the size of ship cannons at least give the rear menace like the front. Speaking of room, however, RS3’s four doors are an upgrade to its similarly equipped predecessor: the 400-horse TT RS coupe.

The 2022 Audi RS3 offers quilted leather seats and a sunroof for premium comfort.

The Rocket Ship’s all-wheel-drive system is up to task of channeling the engine’s power.

RS3 not only wants to play with its big brothers, it wants to play on the race track. This is a track-focused production car like the Porsche Cayman GTS or BMW M2. Riding around town in COMFORT or AUTO modes, and the beast is docile. The driveline is not so laid back. It’s often on edge — its shifts abrupt, its throttle touchy.

There is also lots of turbo lag. Only at speed does RS3 feel truly content as the high-strung PERFORMANCE mode keeping the shift points high in the rev range.

Over my favorite, M-32 twisty road in northern Michigan, I alternately used paddle shifters and PERFORMANCE mode — the AWD system rock solid all the while. No torque-steer, no excessive push. A sophisticated twin-clutch assembly in rear (shades of the glorious Ford Focus RS track rat. I miss it so) replaces the old single-clutch Haldex unit, allowing for true torque-vectoring at each wheel. Take RS to the track where you can find the limits of car’s limits.

On back-country public roads, the combination of 401 ponies and AWD grip launched me to insane speeds, and I made liberal use of adaptive cruse control to keep me legal through small towns and bustling burgs. ACC also came in handy on I-75, where the system did a reasonable job as an assistant driver which allowed me time to learn the car’s ergonomics.

Like Golf R, RS3 is quirky. That is, it is nearly devoid of rotary knobs.

The 2022 Audi RS3 shows off its red, performance brake calipers.

A haptic touchscreen dominates the console with wireless Android Auto (and Apple CarPlay) which I put to good use on my travels north. Climate? Controlled by toggle switches. Volume control? Move your finger in a circular motion on an iPod-like button.

Anchoring the console is my favorite feature: a chicklet shifter similar to Golf R or Porsche 911, which easily selects REVERSE-NEUTRAL-DRIVE with flicks of the wrist. The simplicity is a contrast to the cluttered Audi consoles of old, with shifter, rotary controller and volume knob all arguing for space.

Audi has been a pioneer in locating more information in front of the driver via steering wheel buttons (a redundant volume scroll wheel, for example) and configurable instrument display. RS3’s cockpit is typically excellent. An RS3 button sat at my itchy right thumb ready to toggle between DYNAMIC, INDIVIDUAL and PERFORMANCE modes — each changing the instrument RPM display.

My only beef was that PERFORMANCE mode triggered an awkward, ladder-like RPM display. Better is DYNAMIC mode’s horizontal band — like a race car.

The 2022 Audi RS3 gets 401 horsepower from a high-strung, 2.5-liter 5-cylinder engine.

The RS3 muscles its way into a highly-competitive $60K pocket bull ring that includes the Tesla Model 3 Performance, Mercedes CLA AMG-45 and BMW M2. The latter is peerless in its handling and the Model 3 addictive with its electric torque — but with all-season AWD, eager engine and aggressive attitude, the RS3 can trash talk with any of ’em.

Just be sure and feed it the occasional minivan.

2022 Audi RS3

Vehicle type: All-wheel-drive, five-passenger performance sedan

Price: $59,995, including $1,095 destination fee ($71,390 as tested)

Powerplant: 2.5-liter turbocharged inline-5 cylinder

Power: 401 horsepower (requires premium gas), 369 pound-feet torque

Transmission: 7-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 3.6 seconds (mfr.); top speed, 180 mph

Weight: 3,649 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA 20 city/29 highway/23 combined

Report card

Highs: VW Golf R on steroids; RS button

Lows: Quirky control ergonomics, gets pricey

Overall: 3 stars

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.

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