Can the swan song for the turbocharged 5-cylinder take the win the Motor Authority Best Car To Buy 2023? It’s fun enough that it might.
The Audi RS 3 has made it to the final round in the award competition by planting its flag in the fun-to-drive category with expressive styling, a distinctive exhaust note, and mechanical changes that aim to delight the driver.
The RS 3 starts with the bones of the Audi A3 sedan, and adds mechanical bits to crank the performance to 11. Audi chucks the base car’s 201-hp 2.0-liter turbo-4 in favor of a 2.5-liter turbo-5 with 401 hp and 369 lb-ft of torque. It’s an old-school engine with turbo lag, but once the power comes on it, it arrives with a deep, Group-B rally-inspired exhaust note in part due to the 1-2-4-5-3 firing sequence.
Every RS 3 has a 7-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission, so unfortunately there’s no option to #GiveAShift. The transmission selects the right gear for the occasion most of the time, but it sometimes doesn’t kick down early enough under hard braking. The steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters help, but even those won’t allow a kickdown until there’s a bit of a gap below redline. Hit the power band right, and the RS 3 slingshots out of a corner. Hit it wrong, and it feels bogged down.
The standard all-wheel-drive system features some heavy updates for the latest generation RS 3. A new electronically controlled rear differential can send all of the engine’s power to the rear wheels and also shift it side to side in the rear. In Dynamic mode, an RS Drift mode can be enabled (track only, please) that dials the traction control all the way back. It’s easy to kick the rear end out and perform power slides in the RS 3. That’s a far cry from the last car, which relied on lift-off oversteer to get the rear end to kick out.
Audi staggers the tires of the RS 3, but not in the usual way. The front 265/30ZR19 tires look like steamrollers compared to the rear 245/35ZR19 rubber. This contributes to the RS 3’s ability to claw its way around a corner while sliding the rear end. It’s a different experience, but one that delights anyone behind the wheel.
Audi ditches the magnetic ride control suspension with the latest RS 3 and adds its dynamic chassis control (DCC) system. Sensors measure how the body moves vertically in relation to the wheels, and the system works to minimize wheel bounce while in RS Performance mode. Because of this, the RS 3 feels a bit softer than other performance cars and there’s noticeable body roll.
The RS 3 still has a weight balance problem. With 59% of the weight up front, the car can get squirrelly under heaving braking on the track. This never reared its head during our street tests.
The cabin is well appointed and feels a full step above every finalist this year except for the Cadillac Lyriq. Priced at $59,995, the RS 3 comes standard with a 12.3-inch digital gauge cluster, heated 8-way power front sport seats, nappa leather upholstery, a panoramic sunroof, parking sensors, adaptive cruise control, and a 10.1-inch touchscreen infotainment system with wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. The $1,000 RS sport exhaust system is a must, but the $2,750 RS Technology Package that adds navigation, a Bang & Olufsen sound system, a head-up display, and a 6-month trial of Audi’s Connect Plus system (which turns the RS 3 into a rolling wifi hotspot) seems a bit indulgent.
While the RS 3 isn’t perfect, it’s an absolute riot both on the street and the track. With its turbo-5 power and front weight bias, it feels like the end of an era for both the industry and Audi. Will its unique form of fun be enough to cinch the win for Audi over an outrageous SUV, a luxury EV, and three hot hatches? Check back on Jan. 4 when we reveal the winner, along with the champs from our sister sites, The Car Connection and Green Car Reports.
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