2023 Audi RS 3 Review: a Tiny Sport Sedan that Demands You Push It to the Limit
Be prepared to walk along the razor's edge to reveal the RS 3's potential.
As much as the tide of history might feel as though it's rushing the wrong way to fans of traditional internal-combustion performance cars these days, when you stop and look at the facts rather than the narrative, it's safe to say we still live in a golden age of gas-powered excitement. (I refuse to acknowledge times are bad for fuel-burning fun when the Hellcat still exists and GM just spent untold millions developing a revolutionary V8 for the Corvette Z06.)
That's especially true for those of us who love German speed machines. Just a couple decades back, there were just a handful of such cars available here — one or two BMW Ms and Mercedes-Benz AMGs each, maybe three variants of the 911 — and they often came in compromised form; the iconic M3 was detuned for American use back in the '90s, believe it or not. Smash cut to now: Porsche offers an entire multiverse of performance models, M is cranking out more powerful, more thrilling (if not more attractive) cars than ever, and while AMG's line may have been temporarily weakened due to supply chain issues, they're all back in force for 2023, with a new plug-in hybrid S-Class AMG cracking into new levels of power.
And, of course, we have Audi's RS line, too. While RS models were rare occurrences in grunge era America, today, Audi offers seven so-called Audi Sport vehicles at once — eight if you choose to call the RS 5 coupe and RS 5 Sportback separate models, as the four-ring brand does. While the most exciting development in RS-land in recent years was arguably the U.S. debut of the Rs 6 Avant, the arrival of the RS 3 on these shores back in 2017 was a close second. Now, the itsy-bitsy sport sedan is back for a second generation, looking angrier than ever.
With 401 horsepower and 369 lb-ft on tap and a body the size of a ninth-gen Honda Civic, you'd fully expect the RS 3 to be quick. And quick it is, dashing from zero to 60 mph in 3.3 seconds and doing the quarter-mile in 11.8 seconds at 117 mph, according to Car and Driver — the latter of which puts it neck and neck with a 911 Carrera 4.
But what those stats don't reveal is just how much you really have to cane the turbo-five in order to squeeze all the juice from it. In regular driving, where the gearbox keeps the engine spinning below 2,000 rpm most of the time, the combination of turbo lag and gearbox kickdown lag means there's a mighty pause between gas and go. Check out C/D's 5-60 mph time, which is more indicative of real-world acceleration; it stands at 4.7 seconds, which means it'll wind up seeing the tail lights of a 10-year-old Dodge Charger SRT8 in a rolling race.
Of course, this sporty Audi boasts all-wheel-drive grip, which serves up benefits both off-the-line going straight and in the turns. With so much weight over the nose (keep in mind this is a front-wheel-drive compact car chassis under it all), understeer is the natural behavior you'd expect to find here; to counteract that, Audi has tuned the Quattro system to pump up to 50 percent of all available power to the stern, and given the RS 3 a rear electronic limited-slip diff that can shove all of that power to the outside wheel in turns. It even gives the car a drift mode, should that be up your alley.
It's a great system, and I'm sure it would pay dividends on track. Much like modern super sports cars, though, the limits are high enough that you'll need to be pushing past where you might feel comfortable going on roads with other cars and cyclists and pedestrians and unexpected deer and so forth. Unlike most super sports cars, however, the steering feels both too quick and too remote, synthetic to the point of unnatural — and robbing the driver of much-needed fun at everyday speeds. Like the engine, the steering rack feels as though it were tuned for attacking rally courses or race tracks at 10/10ths. Try as I might, I never found myself jelling with it, always having to re-adjust my line mid-turn — hardly an ideal turn of events, pun intended.
Part of the RS 3's appeal lies in its combination of four-door practicality and bargain pricing, at least for a German sports car of such performance. With a starting price just over $60K and not many options worth speccing, it's easy to imagine the RS 3 as an ideal fit for a single-car household — equally adept at running errands in bad weather as tearing up an autocross on weekends.
And if you're lucky enough to be able to afford such a car when you're young and unmarried, it just might be a good fit as such. The front seats are supportive yet comfortable, and there's a tremendous amount of available legroom if you need it. The control layout easy to learn, with plenty of hard buttons still in attendance and the same delightfully retro-tastic iPod click wheel controller found in the E-Tron GT. And if you go easy on the throttle, you can even rack up nice highway mileage; at 33 mpg at a steady 75 mph, you can do more than six hours straight at that speed before you need to fill the tank (assuming you don't have to empty your tank in all that time).
Should you actually hope to use this sedan as a sedan, however, the usability argument evaporates like morning dew. The rear seats are nigh-on unusable for adults, unless both front and rear occupants are under five-foot-six — and even then, it would be tight. Even child seats would probably be tricky to wedge back there with the front row making proper use of its available legroom. And even if you manage to squeeze four people in there, they won't be able to bring much; the trunk offers a mere eight cubic feet of storage.
Bottom line: impressive as the RS 3 is in terms of sheer performance, making the most of that isn't as seamless as we've come to expect from modern performance cars. If you can live without all-wheel-drive, the Cadillac CT4-V Blackwing offers similar thrills on the track while being more involving on the street. Or, if you really love this chassis but want added usability, snag a Golf R. You may give up half a second off the line, but you'll save around $15,000 — and actually have enough space in back for luggage, to boot.
Oh, and both of those options still let you choose a stick shift, too.
Base Price: $61,995
Powertrain: Turbocharged 2.5-liter inline-five; seven-speed automatic; all-wheel-drive
EPA Fuel Economy: 20 mpg city, 29 mpg highway
A sporty, four-cylinder VW product can be a great option under $50,000. But which one do you buy?