Johannesburg - Powerful five-cylinder engines have a long tradition at Audi, most notably during the 1980s when they powered the legendary Audi rally cars to victories in the golden Group B era.

Group B was eventually discontinued because the cars became too powerful (the turbocharged Audi Quattro eventually produced a hair-raising 440kW!) and nowadays the power of rally cars is limited with restrictors in the air intakes.

In recent years the inline five-cylinder engine has staged a comeback in production cars bearing the four interlocking rings, including the latest-generation RS3 which recently became available in both Sedan and Sportback variants. It’s the five-door Sportback derivative on test here, which at a price of R903 500 sells for R30 000 less than the four-door RS3 Sedan.

The 2.5-litre turbocharged TFSI is a gem of an engine, punching well above its relatively small size in terms of performance, and also delivering plenty of vocal charm.

Its 294kW of peak power is a remarkable specific output of 117.6kW per litre - as comparison Audi’s most powerful production-car engine, the 5.2-litre V10 used in the R8 Plus, makes only 86.3kW per litre. It’s little surprise that the 2.5 TFSI has been voted “International Engine of the Year” in its class for eight consecutive years.

The RS3 fires its power, along with a gutsy 480Nm of torque, to all four wheels through a seven-speed S Tronic dual-clutch transmission and quattro all-wheel drive.

With the assistance of launch control this car is impressively fast off the mark. According to Audi, the five-cylinder power plant whisks the RS3 Sportback to 100km/h in just 4.1 seconds and the governed 250km/h top speed can be increased to 280km/h on customer request.

In our own tests at Gauteng altitude the vehicle managed a blistering 4.03 seconds from 0-100km/h, slightly quicker even than Audi’s factory-quoted figure.

It’s comfortably the quickest hot-hatch we’ve yet tested, comprehensively outgunning hatches like the VW Golf R (0-100 in 4.9 secs) and Ford Focus RS (5 secs), and also running away from high-powered cars like the BMW M2 coupe (4.6 secs).

The RS3 test car also achieved a 12.4 second quarter mile, placing it in some serious high-performance company against rivals with much bigger engines.

The RS3 has a very accessible power delivery with a free-revving nature and very little turbo lag, and all 480Nm is already available at just 1 625rpm.

The vocally charismatic car makes a raspy exhaust sound which gets even grumpier when Sport mode is selected in the Audi Drive Select system, which also sets the steering, throttle and gearshift responses to a more pulse-quickening rate.

Given the scorching performance on offer, our test vehicle averaged a not-too-excessive fuel consumption of 10.7 litres per 100km, though Audi’s claimed figure of 8.3 litres seemed well out of reach.

The RS3 Sportback’s straightline heroics are matched by its cornering abilities, aided by an active quattro system that varies power distribution based on driving style and can send between 50 and 100 percent of the drive to the rear axle.

The test car was equipped with the optional RS sport suspension plus with adaptive damper control, which in Sport mode stiffens the suspension to minimise body roll.

In fast turns the car felt very assured, with a very quick turn-in and all-round pointy handling with none of the understeer that once characterised all-wheel drive cars. This is a quattro system that allows the early-on-the-throttle corner exits that enthusiast drivers so crave.

It’s a very settled and forgiving car that allows you to drive it by the scruff of its neck without getting out of shape.

Around our handling track the brakes also took a lot of punishment without fading, and if you plan on doing a lot of high-performance track days the standard steel discs can be replaced in the front by carbon ceramic units as an extra-cost option.

The RS3 Sportback is visually amped-up with athletic plumage that includes a three-dimensional honeycomb grille and bolder-looking bumpers. Spicing up the rear view is a diffuser with two large oval tailpipes, and an RS-specific roof spoiler.

The standard wheels are 18 inchers but the test car wore 19“ mags with extra low-profile rubber. These made for predictably jarring ride over bumps and potholes, but in general the RS3 delivered a firm ride that wasn’t too uncomfortable on smoother tar.

You’re welcomed into the cockpit by illuminated RS3 signs on the door sills, but otherwise the standard cabin isn’t overwhelmingly sporty in decor. You have to pay extra for the optional RS design package if you want air vents with red accent rings, Alcantara door trim, and stainless steel pedals.

The standard-fit sport seats are covered in black Nappa leather with contrast stitching, but the more supportive RS sport seats with diamond quilt pattern require another dip into your ‘extras‘ budget.

The fancy-looking digital dashboard (Audi virtual cockpit) with its personalisable views is yet another feature that doesn’t come standard. Active cruise control and reversing camera? Yup, they cost extra too, the point being that if you start ticking the options boxes it will quickly push the price close to the million rand mark.

Audi now has seven RS models for sale in SA: the RS 3 Sportback, RS Q3, RS 4 Avant, RS 5 Coupé, RS 5 Cabriolet, RS 6 Avant and the RS 7 Sportback.

VERDICT

The RS3 Sportback is dynamite in a compact package. Pity that a lot of the cool kit costs extra, but the stuff that comes standard does tick the right boxes: it’s an intensely enjoyable car with the pace, sound and handling to satisfy the most demanding drivers.

FACTS

Audi RS3 Sportback

Engine: 2.5-litre, five-cyl turbopetrol
Gearbox: 7-speed automated dual clutch
Power: 294kW @ 5850-7000rpm
Torque: 480Nm @ 1700-5850rpm
0-100km/h (tested, Gauteng):4.0 seconds
1/4 mile (tested, Gauteng):12.4 seconds
Top speed (claimed):250km/h (opt 280km/h)
Price: R903 500
Warranty: 1-year/unlimited km
Maintenance plan:5-year/100 000km

IOL Motoring