When I got the invitation to drive Audi’s new RS3 sports sedan in Athens, Greece, I had a strange feeling, one I’d not encountered before. For the first time, the launch of a new internal combustion engine car felt, well, weird. I’ve been so used to recent launches and announcements being EV-focused that an exciting new combustion car launch suddenly carried more gravity because it felt like it may be part of the end of an era.
On top of that, this was the launch of a five-cylinder car, something that is quite likely to be the last of its kind. But don’t be sad! The car’s a blast, and that’s always worth celebrating.
(Full disclosure: Audi flew me all the way to Athens, Greece, let me poke around the Acropolis (which I recognized from halftoned black-and-white pictures in my old copy of Gardener’s) fed me stuffed grape leaves, tolerated my chasing after Twingos and street cats, and refrained from mistreating me in obvious ways.)
Odd-number-cylinder engines have always been weird. In cars, you’re really only likely to encounter a three-banger, and those are for economy reasons, not for fun. There’s no seven-cylinder anythings, so the five stands alone as the really desirable odd-piston engine.
Turbo inline-fours are absolutely ubiquitous in modern cars, and a smallish sports sedan like the RS3 could easily be expected to have such an engine. But, of course, it doesn’t, and the reason it doesn’t is that Audi has a real history with the formula of (5 cylinders) + (4 driven wheels)= quattro, and that history spans four decades of making really quick, fun, and engaging cars.
The five-banger way up front in the RS3 is the key to the car’s character, as it has a unique sound, unique feel, and novel engineering that includes that engine being connected to Audi’s first true torque splitter system for the rear wheels.
There’s so much Very Serious Engineering that went into this car, and what makes it great is that all of that Very Serious Engineering is in service of some really irrational things: loud noises, gut feelings, intangible emotional effects, and even the ability to drift, a form of driving that makes noise, smoke, consumes fuel and tires, and literally gets you nowhere fast.
It’s really the exact opposite of the fundamental transportation purpose of a car, yet Audi engineers worked long and hard to make sure it could do it. And, they succeeded, and I know this because they let me drift it around, like an idiot:
Look at that! You can even see what that torque vector thing was doing, which I’ll describe in more detail soon.
What I want you to take away here is that in this age, on the cusp of the likely takeover of battery electric vehicles, we get this reminder of what makes combustion cars so great: that rare combination of engineering and irrationality.
Combustion cars take the liquified remains of dead dinosaurs and shock that fluid until it explodes, shoving metal slugs through metal tubes, over and over, and those dancing metal lumps — along with a bewildering clockwork of springs and valves and belts and flaps and pumps and and and eventually spin shafts to make wheels turn, somehow.
It’s loud and complicated and byzantine and intoxicating for those who love it.
Electric cars spin shafts because magnetism says they can, and it all happens silently, in a tidy cylinder. EVs are quick with lots of torque because that’s just baked into how they work — ICE cars fight for their torque and power, and when you encounter a car like the RS3, so carefully designed to be an engaging machine that makes you excited first and gets your ass to work second, you have to really appreciate this core reason why so many of us are so taken with cars.
Because they’re ridiculous, if we’re honest. And wonderful.
Okay, let’s dig into this wonderful, ridiculous Audi RS3 in more detail.
Traditionally, Audi hasn’t built particularly showy cars, but they’ve always had a consistent sort of visual ethos, one that started right from when Audi was born as a four-stroke upgrade of the old Auto-Union DKW. This ethos was all about a certain kind of clean, tidy, functional crispness, as you can see here on this mid-’60s Audi F103:
The new RS3 looks very different, of course, but at the same time shares the straightforward proportions, clean, decisive lines, and confident stance of all Audis since that old F103.
It’s not a radically-designed car, but it is handsome. The Sportback wagon version is perhaps even better, but due to some fundamental unfairness of the universe and maybe payback for some unknown sins, we won’t get that one in America.
It’s maddening, I know, but I’ll try to keep my shit together and focus on what we do get: the sedan.
You’ve also likely noticed the colors here. Audi really understands the value of good colors, and the RS3 comes in some fantastic Skittle-colored shades like that red, the incredible green, and this delightful, unashamed yellow:
The candy colors here are perfect for what this car is all about: gut-level sensory fun and transforming the more serious aspects of the car’s design into something that feels energetic and wild. If they never sell a single one of these in silver, black, or white, I think the world will be a better place.
The front end is perhaps the most radical part of the design, with a huge, black, mask-like grille that’s almost all an actual air intake (save for the hidden bumper bar area bisecting the top and bottom) and has a sort of bee’s-honeycomb-in-the-Tron-universe mesh pattern.
Massive grilles aren’t always my thing, but I think this works in context, and the nearly all-black front end combined with the bright primary colors remind me of other fun cars from the past, like the little-known-in-America-but-still-cool SEAT Bocanegra.
That front end also houses the headlamps, and Audi’s been clearly having so much fun with their lighting designs that I’m going to give them their own subhead here.
Audi has been doing some really great things with their lighting design in recent years, especially with the kinetic aspect of lights. They’ve introduced sequential turn indicators on cars all across their range, front and rear, for example.
With the RS3, check out this video above there; this is what happens when you approach your RS3: you get this little show, where that matrix of 3x5 LED lights spells out R S 3 and then settles into a checkerboard flag pattern. It’s just fun.
Plus, it’s only on the driver’s side, so this is like a little message just for the driver, saying, “Hey, here I am, your car. What do you say we go tear it up a bit?”
It’s tricky to capture the checkerboard DRLs with a digital camera because of the way the lights’ refresh rate works, but I think you can see it there. In person, it’s very fun and attention-getting.
The taillight design is strong, too, with a distinctive light signature shape and with amber sequential indicators — will these make it to America, or will they get neutered into just blinking red lamps? I guess we’ll have to wait and see. I hope we get the good amber sequential ones.
Audi’s lighting design fits with the whole concept of the car — lots of engineering just to make something a bit more fun. And, again, this is a concept I believe in.
I think what makes the RS3's interior significant is that it stands in contrast to so many modern interiors that seem to be attempting to be more calm, simple, and minimal. The RS3 has zero interest in that and has an interior that is, well, busy.
There’s a lot going on here. And, if I’m honest, I like it. It’s perhaps not serene or calming, but the riot of angles and colored highlight bits and pockets and screens and switches and textures still all work and capture the energy of this car.
This isn’t a calm car. It’s not supposed to be. You’re not supposed to be in some zen-like state of numinous relaxation inside, you’re supposed to be having some fun, maybe looking a little wide-eyed and disheveled, turning to your sweaty, tensed-up passenger and saying, “Holy shit, did you see that?” after you just drifted around a bend on a mountain road or something. That’s what this is about.
I don’t want to make it sound like the interior is uncomfortable because it isn’t. I was able to relax in the miserable Athenian traffic, enjoying the feel of the Alacantara-skin wheel and the beehive-stitched seats. They’re supportive and feel good.
The rear seats are upholstered in the same way as the front, and the legroom is decent, if not amazing.
The RS3 isn’t doing anything especially clever with packaging, but for a smaller sedan it felt roomy inside, and there’s no reason it couldn’t be used as a family car if you wanted to.
The rear does have HVAC vents and very basic HVAC controls — temperature only — along with a pair of USB-C ports.
The trunk is decent-sized, not amazing but certainly plenty usable. And the rear seat folds into a pretty flat load surface for your taxidermied marlins or whatever.
The cupholder situation has the stereotypical German reluctance, with the main cupholders being able to be rotated out of the way, leaving just an oblong storage bin in case you’re too embarrassed to admit sometimes you pour fluids down your esophagus.
Overall, I found the interior to be comfortable and visually interesting, a nice alternative to the minimalistic interior trends.
The new RS3 is an absolute blast to drive. I know modern EVs have more power and are quicker, but there’s so much more to what makes a car fun to drive than just acceleration, something that Audi clearly understands.
The 2.5-liter five there makes 401 horsepower and makes that power from 5,600 RPM all the way to 7,000 RPM, a nice plateau of power instead of a hilltop. It makes about 369 pound-feet of torque, enough to get it from parked to 62 mph in 3.8 seconds, and I can confirm that it felt plenty fast when you smush that pedal.
Top speed is about 174 mph, and can be optioned out to be as high as 180 mph, but where the hell are you even going to do that? Besides, this car feels fun and engaging at speeds far less than that, which is what is important.
I suppose a manual option would be fun, too, but to be honest that seven-speed automatic shifts quickly and well, and I’m certain I couldn’t do any better. Not by a long shot.
I drove the RS3 in three very different contexts: normal city and highway driving, drifting, and on a track.
I showed the drift above from inside, and if you’re curious how that looked from the outside, here you go:
Nice and drifty. Audi engineers credited their new torque-splitter differential for making the car so drift-capable, since the new rear diff can send zero to 100 percent of power to either or both wheels, via a pair of clutches on each half-shaft that I couldn’t get an answer about if they were considered possible consumable items, like a manual transmission clutch that can wear out.
The torque splitter has an independent sensor system and each of the two multi-disc clutches has an independent control unit to measure each wheel’s speed. Here’s how Audi describes what it does:
During dynamic driving, the torque splitter increases torque delivered to the outer rear wheel with the higher wheel load, which significantly reduces the tendency to understeer. In left-hand curves, it guides the drive torque to the right rear wheel, in right-hand curves to the left rear wheel, and when driving straight ahead, to both wheels. The difference in propulsive forces means that the new RS 3 turns into curves even better and follows the steering angle more precisely. This results in optimal stability and maximum agility – especially when cornering at high speeds. The torque splitter compensates for oversteer by directing the torque to the wheel on the inside of the curve or to both wheels. If the driver takes his or her foot off the accelerator, the engine’s drag torque is also distributed along the rear axle. When coasting, controls are also in place to maintain driving agility and stability. If faster deceleration is initiated via the brake pedal, both of the torque splitter’s clutches are opened.
What I could tell on the track was that it felt great going into corners, stable and confident, even with a less-than-stellar track driver like me.
You could get the back end loose when going hard into the corners, but it proved very easy to recover, and I never felt in danger of losing control. It feels just so good on the track, and while the little track outside of Athens was kind of small and very flat, I suspect that it would be a really satisfying track car almost anywhere.
This sort of car, a classic sports sedan, is more like a lithe athlete of some kind as opposed to something like a muscle car, which is more like, oh, maybe a heavyweight boxer.
If a Miata is a gymnast and something like a Camaro is a boxer, then I’d say the RS3 is like a lighter weight class Olympic wrestler. Does that make sense? Is it a stupid analogy? Probably.
The rewarding feelings you get with this car on the track translate pretty well to normal driving, meaning that when you’re going fast on the highway and you come to a curve, you can take that curve at speed with confidence that it’ll get through it safely and predictably.
In traffic, well, like all fast, fun-to-drive cars, it’s just frustrating because you know how it feels to drive all the ways you currently can’t, but that’s the nature of shitty traffic.
Sure, the RS3 is an internal combustion car, but it’s still a combustion car from 2021, so it has all of the electronic whatevers you expect in a modern car: Apple CarPlay and Android Auto (both wireless via Bluetooth), wireless charging, nav systems with satellite imagery, full-color LCD instrument displays with many customizable modes, a full set of driver-assist systems, including Audi’s Level 2 semi-automated advanced driver-assist system.
Audi’s instrument display is very customizable, and thankfully rejects the trap of trying to emulate physical gauges, and instead provides a bunch of options:
One kind of odd detail was that I actually had to dig around to find a traditional fuel gauge; it’s in there, but the default layouts I saw just included fuel range, which, frankly, gets the job done about as well, anyway.
When it comes to Audi’s L2 semi-automated driver-assist system, I’m going to have to level with you, here: I barely tested it. This is because for a car like this, a car that actually feels viscerally good to drive, I never wanted to turn it on, and during the few minutes I had it on, all I could think about was how I’d just rather drive the damn car, and when’s the next time I’m going to be on an open stretch of Greek road with this car?
Screw you, L2, I’m taking over.
We don’t yet know what the RS3 will cost here in America, because I’m not sure Audi has decided yet, but it was suggested that it would likely start just under $60,000. I think for the sort of person that really appreciates an old-school sports sedan with an odd number of cylinders and is actively seeking something that’s not a sleeping pill to drive, that would be a pretty damn good deal.
Audi’s fuel economy estimates are between 27 and 29 combined mpg, which is reasonably decent, though I bet if you’re having real fun, those numbers will drop. I don’t think anyone with mpg as their primary concern will be buying these, but it’s nice to know it’s not awful.
I may be wrong about this being possibly the last new five-cylinder car to be released, but it’s possible I’m not, too. Inline fours and V8s will be with us a good long while, even as the industry moves inexorably to electron power, so I think if you’re fond of combustion cars, for reasons as irrational and absurd as you’d like, the RS3 should be worth considering.
It’s a sports sedan in every sense of what those words mean: a practical enough daily driver that lets you go about your mundane daily life in something that always reminds you of how much more it can do. If you’re lucky enough, you’ll find time to confirm all those feelings, and, as a result, you’ll be happier.
It doesn’t need to make rational sense. That’s just how it works.