Ride and Handling
In response to criticisms levelled at the previous model, Audi has made two very significant claims for the new RS3. The first is that the ride quality has been improved by a more forgiving suspension setup, and the second is that the Haldex four-wheel drive system now diverts torque (up to 100 per cent in extreme conditions, apparently) more readily to the rear axle to improve agility and reduce understeer.
Both of those points are hard to argue with. The problem, though, is that the improvements are slight at best. Even with the (optional) adjustable dampers switched to the comfort setting the ride quality is always just a little choppier than you might hope, although it certainly isn’t as unrelentingly stiff as the old car. Under power at corner exit, meanwhile, you’ll only sense the rear-biased torque delivery in very low grip conditions. In the dry, traction is absolute and the new model behaves very much like the old car away from a corner.
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On the road, the grip levels are huge and the RS3 feels completely locked down and nigh impossible to unstick, with solid body control, decent agility and a keen front end. Quick and effective, then, but not exactly thrilling.
It also lacks the lightness of touch of the VW Golf R. That car, which costs some £10,000 less than the RS3, always feels a little more nimble and agile, with crisper steering and a more involving chassis balance. The Audi’s helm feels dull and lifeless in comparison to the Golf R’s and it also lacks the VW’s settled ride quality.
The overall chassis balance right at the limit is understeer – more than you would expect on track, in fact. With a big bung the RS3 will reach comical angles of oversteer on a circuit, but it won’t maintain the slide under power. Ultimately, lapping the RS3 is about managing understeer. With significant brake fade setting in after just two or three quick laps we found the standard cast iron brakes to be wholly unsuitable for track work. Carbon ceramic brakes are available as an optional extra on the front axle and will stand up to track driving more effectively.
The optional winter tyre for the RS3 is a Pirelli Sottozero 235/35 19. Even on a very light dusting of snow, the advantages of winter tyres could be felt. The RS3 stopped remarkably well; under relatively heavy braking it resisted the need for the ABS to intrude.
Maintaining such braking force was welcome as the traction generated from the combination of four-wheel drive and the Pirelli winter tyres was strong. On the exit of corners, with some steering angle on, there was some understeer under power. Once straight though, the amount of grip simply propelled the RS3 up the road with minimal fuss and intervention from the traction control.
Once the small amount of snow cleared, all the winter tyres had to deal with was some low, but not freezing, temperatures and a few damp patches. Traction in a straight line became even more impressive, meaning even higher speeds could be achieved. That also means harder braking, and this made the RS3 feel excitable and made it squirm around.
A slight amount of trail braking into a corner made initial turn-in was encouraging. As soon as you’re back on the power though, the RS3 starts to understeer wide. Lifting off the throttle mid-corner helps quell the understeer, returning it to a more neutral attitude.
In shorter corners where only small steering inputs are needed briefly the RS3 can feel quite satisfying. It's in these short corners where you can get any real gratification: most of the time the RS3 on its optional winter tyre is just midly frustrating.
The overall driving experience has improved compared to the old car, but not by the leaps and bounds we were hoping for. It’s also a little uncomfortable for Audi that there is a another four-wheel drive, turbocharged hot hatch within the Group – namely the Golf R – that costs a great deal less and is actually better to drive.