For every iconic car I’ve owned there has been a defining drive, one journey that highlighted the best the car had to offer. Last week I had that drive in the RS3, the one where you really bond with a car. The 170 miles of challenging road ahead were wet, strewn with freshly fallen leaves and the night pitch black a pursuing headless horseman would not have looked out of place. It was the kind of night when the weather man advises caution and essential travel only or in other words the kind of weather the RS3 was made for. More about the journey in a moment after a quick update at the 6 month ownership point.
It’s been a happy 6 months and around 6000 miles for me and the RS3, which I still maintain is the best all round road car I’ve owned. This month saw the first ‘free’ service, expertly carried out by Cardiff Audi and I quite enjoyed the 2.0T S-tronic Quattro TT they loaned me for the day, what an improvement over the Mk1. By this point there is usually an “if only” with a car, if only it had…, it just needs… but as yet there has been none of this and the RS3 remains faultless. As a machine to tackle commuting traffic it is perfect, supportive seats and S-tronic left to its own devices. S mode and Sport button for the odd moment of traffic light GP and bouncing the glorious exhaust note off the odd tunnel wall. The only problem was self inflicted when I clipped a curb with the rear wheel avoiding a randomly parked car, my mistake and one I’m still yet to get fixed. For a couple of weeks that bugged me right up until I started driving the car again and remembered what this machine is really all about.
Back to the snaking ribbon of sodden A & B road tarmac that brought me home from North Wales last week. It was one of those nights when you just want to get home and I wasn’t expecting the level of involvement and entertainment that was to come. Despite standing water and leaves the RS3 remains utterly assured taking that quick gap at a junction or the shortest overtaking chance is possible when you know you can rely on the grip to deploy the power without any delay or hesitation. Even through the worst standing water the RS3 remains bullet straight. Even the deepest puddles at the side of the road only cause the slightest momentary tug at the wheel before normal service is resumed. Using the centre of the road to avoid the worst of the water led to a few amusing moments with plumes of spray up either side of the car, all evocative of the rally heritage of Quattro. There is something special about a car when you find yourself driving alone in the car and laughing out loud at the sheer fun of it all.
S-tronic continues to impress me, reacting not just to driving style but also the conditions. At several points the road resembled a river and in Sport but leaving the box to decide the shift points I noticed the car short shifting when accelerating out of the slower corners. There is some clever software in there detecting when optimum grip has been reached. Later as the roads dried out – typically about 5 miles from home – and allowed me to use all the power normal service was resumed. Even now when I know the performance the RS3 is capable of the full power launch or exit from a slow roundabout is still as brutal and awe inducing.
The rain was the main challenge and the levels of grip were beyond my expectation, turn in with some balanced power on and there is always grip. Push a little too hard and sure there is some understeer but that’s easily contained either with some minor throttle adjustment or adding a bit more lock, such is the adjustability of the RS3 you can get away with quite a few liberties. The brakes were equally impressive reining everything in neatly for the full 3 and a half hours or so. When I did get a little too deep into one corner there was far more braking still available.
There was only one challenging moment on the whole journey. On a long downhill section coming off one of the mountain roads a stream of water ran right to left across the road at some speed. To add to the excitement this was over a blind crest at the turn in point for the next corner. Braking over the top of the crest the controls went light for a few tenths of a send, brake pedal locked firm under my foot, and despite a slight turn of the wheel I was still headed for the other side of the road. Foot off the brake and another split second for the tyres to find some bite, the slightest hint of throttle and we were heading around the corner, well actually at the apex quite a bit too early. A dab of oppo and everything returned to normal. I have no idea if any of the safety system had kicked back in, I didn’t have time to notice. It’s good to know that even just beyond the limit of grip the RS3 remains adjustable and responsive. Overconfidence in what the car can do is probably the only downside going in to the winter season, it all seems so easy and effortless until you cross that line of grip.
I’ve mentioned it before but I will never tire of thundering out of slow corners, exhaust blaring, fuel droplets exploding and you whummpp up through each gear and that bit of shunt they engineered in on each shift is just fine with me even though I know they could easily make the shifts super smooth. Blasting down the middle of an empty A road through a huge fresh pile of leaves, feeling the power shift around the wheels in response, catching a glimpse of the leaves kicking up behind the car out of the corner of my eye while braking into the next corner is forever burned into my memory.
For me the place where the RS3 shines brightest is in the wet. No other road car I’ve owned comes close. The Evo IX was way too mobile at the rear in the wet and often scared me silly, the Evo was set up for oversteery fun in the dry and that frankly meant dangerous in the wet. The later STi Impreza’s could be equally skittish at the limit. An original WRX or Turbo 2000 would be close for such certainty and grip but in reality you’d still be reaching for 2nd by the time the RS3 S-tronic had hit 3rd and disappeared. Although it’s the last of concerns for petrol heads on a car at this price for such a remarkable hoon a real return of 22mpg (24mpg on the DIS) is also impressive. This is a journey I’ve done often and the Impreza could barely manage this if cruising and would have seen teens at best on this run. I know I’d have beaten my Evo self home too because the tank would have been empty after 150 miles at best.
I was convinced by the RS3 within seconds of the test drive, if I didn’t already own one I’d be buying one tomorrow. Despite this it has continued to get better and better revealing new talents all the time and impressing with a depth and range of ability the road testers and reviewers don’t have the time to experience. Sometimes things are just right and everything from the way Audi look after customers, as an object to own and polish to commuting the RS3 has it all and when it comes to the most important part – putting a smile on your face and creating experiences you’ll never forget – it’s just waiting to be unleashed.
I’m driving the new RS4 at Oulton Park on Friday and really looking forward to comparing the cars back to back. I will update you with my thoughts after the event.
Oh and a few of those other iconic drives I’m comparing the RS3 to:
MX5 1.8is Sport across 12 miles of closed Isle of Man mountain road, along with 200 others chasing the local Alfa 156 V6 police car (yes really!)
Impreza Turbo 2000 in the snow and ice over the Devil’s Staircase.
Evo IX at a wet and slippy Cadwell Park, I still feel tense thinking about it!
A friendly track duel between my S2000 and a supercharged Clio.
Westfield Sport 2000 at Pembrey.
Renault Megane R26.R anytime it got on a racetrack.