Mountain Wheels: High-output Audi RS3 is a driver’s dream come true

Built on the same platform as the Volkswagen Golf R, the Audi RS3 goes full race car with 401 horsepower and a distinctive, five-cylinder soundtrack.
Courtesy photo

In terms of 8-inches-of-snow practicality, my gushing about the absolutely sublime Audi RS3, a civilian race car, loses just a bit of its mountain credibility.

But it’s also the most fun vehicle I’ve driven in a long time, as I had it last weekend and safely cruised the passes with high-performance winter tires. So let’s stretch the envelope and call it a moderately all-season vehicle. And an absolute screaming speed machine, at that.

The Audi Sport line is like the other Germans’ AMG and M models, an in-house opportunity to provide astronomical performance upgrades to a wide range of vehicles.

And the second-generation 2023 RS3, priced at $58,900 as a starting point, is a pretty good indication of just how heavily modified the small A3 platform can get.

Here, it’s powered by an upgraded version of the very distinctive 2.5-liter five-cylinder turbo engine that pushes 401 horsepower and 369 pound-feet of torque. It’s also got a modified version of the Quattro all-wheel-drive system, complete with a complex torque-splitting setup that can move that power around, side to side and front to back.

The result is a 56-inch high, 179-inch long, 3,630-pound car that is maybe the fastest thing I’ve driven, this side of the equally high-output, ultra-compact-sized Mercedes CLA 45 AMG.

In safer weather conditions, the RS3 will do 0-60 in 3.6 seconds and is track rated to 180 mph. Two years ago, the RS3 managed a time at the German Nurburgring race track that equaled the first-generation Bugatti Veyron, if that’s any indication of the car’s power.  

It’s also got a drifting mode, part of that torque management system, and provides a level of automotive excitement that you don’t get in normal vehicles.

The RS3’s price is a relatively affordable opportunity to see just how fearsome the Audi Sport models can be, at least the ones that are offered on the U.S. market. That jumps to $80,000 for the 444-horsepower RS5 or the total brutality of the $125,000-plus RS6 Avant wagon, which gets an outlandish 591 horsepower.

In RS3’s case, the output is significant enough to literally pull the car sideways on a solid burst of acceleration. And that turbo boost just seems to go and go and go, limited only by road and driver desire. The grip is quite spectacular on dry surfaces, not bad with the high-performance winter tires, and the 14.8-inch brakes and performance calipers up front also help to bring it back out of orbit.

While the “dynamic” setting in other Audis provides a mild character change, here it’s an absolute Bruce Banner situation. Add the optional sport exhaust and its oversized oval tips and the slightly bizarro engine note of the turbo five-cylinder is even more wild, especially under full throttle.

Credit the RS3’s peculiar 1-2-4-5-3 firing order in that engine for the acoustics; flat out, it sounds like an exotic rally car, because … well, it’s from the same family. Drive it more sensibly and it will also get 29 mpg on the highway.

Unless you order one in day-glow green, it manages to keep all of that fury under its hat, minus the enthusiasts who see the RS3 badging and understand what the car’s capable of.

The low-key presentation includes a wickedly low front grille and angled LED headlamps, plus goofy LED side lamps that do an animated R-S-3 display at startup. The super-matte, open-spoke 19-inch wheels are beautiful and there are legit brake vents behind the front wheels, and a subtle tail splitter on the trunk. Like the CLA 45, if you don’t know what the car is, you’d have no idea what it can do.

Inside, it’s also a strangely austere but pleasant experience, with quilted leather race seats and a driver-focused layout — including the air vents — plus lots of shiny black and metal-look trim.

Controls are very simple, with a tiny metal toggle as the RS3’s shifter, a swirly haptic audio knob and a starter button, as the entire contents of the console. Two rows of toggles control the AC and some auxiliary functions. The real focus is the paddle shifters, which offer maybe the most interactive and smoothly intense shifts I’ve experienced this side of a real supercar. Dynamic, as mentioned, is very, very dynamic.

Support Local Journalism

Support Local Journalism

As a Summit Daily News reader, you make our work possible.

Summit Daily is embarking on a multiyear project to digitize its archives going back to 1989 and make them available to the public in partnership with the Colorado Historic Newspapers Collection. The full project is expected to cost about $165,000. All donations made in 2023 will go directly toward this project.

Every contribution, no matter the size, will make a difference.