The inline-four, V6, V8, and even the V12… all commonly used in the automotive industry. But a five-cylinder? Not so much, at least not anymore. Audi is the only automaker in the US still producing a five-cylinder engine, and the new 2022 Audi RS3is the latest model to benefit from its glorious noise and seemingly endless thrust. While that five-pot engine carries over from the previous RS3, it's been beefed up for the new model, producing 401 horsepower and 396 lb-ft of torque while retaining Audi's signature - all-wheel drive. While the latter may have been substantially overhauled, now featuring a Drift Mode, its primary focus is grip, blasting the 3,649-pound sedan from 0 to 60 mph in just 3.6 seconds on its way to an optional 180 mph top speed. Add in the fact that it has standard six-piston brakes and the option of semi-slick Pirelli P Zero Trofeo R tires and the RS3 is ready for track duty.
Far more than a one-trick pony, the new RS3 is based on the current A3, blending larger proportions with an upmarket interior for a luxurious experience despite its subcompact size. This is crucial when going toe-to-toe with the Mercedes-AMG CLA 45. To find out whether the new generation has what it takes to beat AMG's finest subcompact rocket, we flew an hour outside of Las Vegas to find out.
See trim levels and configurations:
2.5L Turbo Inline-5 Gas
The current A3 is a handsome sedan, so it stands to reason the RS3 wouldn't leave the design studio as a mongrel. Audi has gone aggressive with the exterior styling, adding a massive black honeycomb grille that matches larger RS cars and broad lower air intakes. 19-inch five-spoke wheels hide red brake calipers, while a sports suspension lowers the ride by 0.4 inches compared to the S3, giving it a more eye-pleasing stance. Other RS-specific details include a rear spoiler in gloss black or optional carbon fiber, a sport exhaust system with two oval-shaped faux tips, and a rear bumper with an integrated diffuser.
We particularly love the matrix-design LED headlights, which feature a unique checkered flag pattern and entry sequence that shines R-S-3 on the driver's side. Buyers can select from a wide range of colors, including no-cost hues like Turbo Blue and RS3-specific Kyalami Green. For $595, the metallic hues include Glacier White, Daytona Gray, Kemora Gray, Python Yellow, and Tango Red. A $750 Black Optic package is available with black wheels, black badging, and a black roof while a $2,750 Carbon package adds carbon fiber mirror housings, rear spoiler, and side sills.
Though there are no mechanical changes, Audi retuned its unique five-cylinder turbocharged engine to produce 401 hp and 396 lb-ft, up 7 hp and 15 lb-ft from the outgoing model. With more power on tap, 0-60 mph drops from 3.9 to just 3.6 seconds. The top speed is limited to 155 mph by default, but 180 mph can be unlocked via the Dynamic Plus Package, which also adds larger carbon ceramic brakes and a carbon fiber engine cover. Power goes out to quattro all-wheel-drive through a fast-shifting seven-speed dual-clutch transmission that shifts seamlessly during normal driving but rapidly when hustling. Despite its breathtaking performance, the RS3 manages reasonable fuel economy: 20/29/23 mpg city/highway/combined.
More impressive than the power increase is the new RS Torque Splitter, seen for the first time on an Audi product. It replaces a typical rear differential with an electronically controlled multi-disc clutch on each driveshaft. The system can apportion the entirety of the rearward torque to either rear wheel to be used for full torque vectoring, not the phony kind via braking. It even enables an RS Torque Rear mode, letting the RS3 can pull off incredible RWD-style drifts.
Driving the Audi RS3 is like piloting a Volkswagen Golf R that's been beefed up to the max. This shouldn't come as much surprise, since both cars ride on Volkswagen's MQB platform, and have dual-clutch transmissions and AWD systems that can apportion more torque to the rear axle. That being said, the RS3 has a unique personality thanks to that special engine. The five-pot harkens back to Audi's racing history, emitting a charismatic growl that sounds closer to a V10 than the four-cylinders most rivals use. The optional RS sports exhaust makes the sound more present, though we'd turn to the aftermarket to make it even louder.
It may be the entry-level RS car, but there's nothing lacking about the RS3's performance. Launch control savagely blasts you off the line, and the RS3 is only a tick behind an RS6 or RS7 to 60 mph. The seven-speed DCT lets the engine rev before engaging its clutch packs, sending the car into a calculated launch before executing a hardcore shift into second gear. From there, the five-pot engine pulls hard to its redline before rapidly shifting to the next cog. This is supercar acceleration wrapped up in a subcompact sedan.
As for the rest of the experience, Audi's civility policy pays dividends towards the daily drivability. The standard RS Sport Suspension includes dynamic chassis control with two modes: Comfortable and Dynamic. Even in Dynamic, the RS3 rides smoother than the CLA 45's standard setup, meaning you can drive it longer without needing a chiropractic adjustment. This is a car we'd be happy to drive every day, occasionally taking it to the race track.
If you are inclined to drive your RS3 on the track, this little car will surprise you. The optional Pirelli P Zero Trofeo R performance semi-slick tires provide supercar-like grip for just $450, helping the RS3 stick like glue around corners. Understeer is non-existent thanks to the RS Torque Splitter, which can rotate the car by sending more torque to the outside rear wheel. We've never driven a front-biased car that rotates so well under throttle. It's pure magic. The RS3 is so quick, it set the compact record at the Nurburgring with a time of 7:40.748. Even novice drivers can tear up the track with ease in this car.
The RS3 is based on the S3's cabin, though it's a bit more aggressive to suit the RS attitude. Noticeable changes include RS-specific sport seats with hexagonal stitching and an RS-specific steering wheel with an RS mode button. Fine Nappa leather seats come standard, finished with black or red contrast stitching but for $1,500, the RS Design Package adds Micrommata Green Dinamica accents with matching seat stitching, air vent center bars, and seat belt edging. This package also includes RS logo floor mats and Carbon Atlas matte inlays.
As far as tech is concerned, the RS3 comes well-equipped a 10.1-inch MMI touchscreen display plus a 12.3-inch Virtual Cockpit with several design modes. Adaptive cruise control, lane departure warning, and park assist are all standard while a $2,750 RS Technology Package rolls in built-in navigation, Bang & Olufsen audio, a head-up display, and traffic sign recognition.
The RS3 is not a large vehicle, so don't expect A8 levels of space. That being said, the back seat is less of a torture chamber than the CLA with 35.2 inches of legroom and 36.6 inches of headroom. Those numbers are just 33.9 and 35.7 inches in the coupe-like Mercedes. Score points for Audi there.
At 8.3 cubic feet, the trunk space is less impressive - 2.6 cubes fewer than the outgoing model and 3.3 fewer than the CLA. However, with a 40/20/40 split to the rear bench, longer items can be loaded in without much fuss and the rear seats can still be used for an occupant or two if the items you need to carry are long and slender.
Audi made some major improvements to the latest A3 and S3, despite utilizing the same basic architecture and powertrains. Now, the RS3 benefits from those same upgrades but takes the evolution to a new level in the aesthetic and drivetrain departments. The RS3 is among the most aggressive designs we've seen from Audi but the interior remains premium and tasteful. Despite wearing the RS badge, the RS3 remains compliant on the street without ruining its enjoyability on the track. It's a tough balancing act, but one Audi has executed without stumbling.
Previous RS3s have always been strong performers but lacked the dynamic finesse we'd hoped for. When AMG dropped a bombshell with the second-gen CLA 45, Audi couldn't afford to drop the ball. It hasn't.
The Mercedes-AMG CLA 45 feels more hardcore to its detriment on the road. Its interior looks more dazzling, but if you go touching stuff, Audi clearly hid the entry-level cost-cutting more effectively. The CLA 45 is a delightfully silly car, but the RS3 delivers the same smile factor without beating you up in the process.
At $58,900 excluding destination, the RS3 is pricier than the Mercedes-AMG CLA 45 ($55,900) and the 306-hp S3 ($45,800). But the RS3 has more power, more standard equipment, and an extra cylinder. And the Audi's cabin feels more premium with fewer hard plastic surfaces. Tick every option (plus a metallic color) and the RS3 will exceed $74,000. But you don't need to go that far. If we were buying one, we'd be perfectly content with the base car plus the RS Technology Package ($2,750) and the Black Optic Package ($750), totaling $62,400. Both of the free colors (Turbo Blue and Kyalami Green) look outstanding, so we'd stick with one of those.
The $1,000 sport exhaust is tempting, but we believe an aftermarket system would make the RS3 sound throatier. If you plan to track the RS3, the $5,500 Dynamic Plus Package is worth the upgrade to get the ceramic front brakes. The Trofeo R tires are a no-brainer for $450, but not if you plan to drive the car every day in any sort of cold climate.
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