First Drive: 2011 Audi RS 3 Sportback

Why go to Canada in the dead of winter just to drive an Audi, you ask? Because that’s where the badass car on badass tires is. Specifically, the RS 3 Sportback — a tweaked-up version of the A3 that we don’t currently get — shod with chunky snow tires eager to grind the combination of pavement, mud and snow that make up the course at

“Fascination quattro,” Audi’s winter driving program at Quebec’s Mont Treblant, a popular skiing destination.

For those who may have missed the briefing, the RS 3 builds on the venerable A3/S3 quattro platform, replacing the four-pot 2.0T engine with a 335-hp, turbocharged five-cylinder engine and bolting it to a seven-speed S-tronic gearbox from the TT RS. To give it just a hint of the street cred it deserves, it wears wider front fenders, an angrier front fascia and more aggressive rear valance. The modded bodywork is as functional as it is ferocious; those new front fenders, for instance, are made of carbon fiber and allow an extra 22 mm of track width at the front, where the RS 3 puts down most of its output.

The powerplant is more than just a 2.0T with an extra cylinder; it’s a highly optimized variant of the venerable five-cylinder architecture developed by Audi’s own quattro performance team. Proof? How about a specific output figure (134 hp/liter) that’s higher than its most glamorous corporate cousin, the Bugatti Veyron (123 hp/liter, since you’re wondering). Peak power lingers between 5400 and 6400 rpm, and with 332 lb-ft of torque on tap across such a fat section of the tach (1600 to 5300 rpm), the Haldex-equipped quattro system has its hands full getting a grip on the road. The added weight of the five-banger combined with its nose-heavy transverse orientation makes feeding the majority of the power through the front axle a prudent decision for maximum launch effectiveness. The front tires sport an extra 10 mm of section width to help deal.

Audi’s new seven-speed dual-clutch S-tronic transmission is the only gearbox on offer, at least for now. While other small performance Audis like the TT offer both the twin-clutch ’box and a conventional manual six-speed, quattro GmbH boss Stefan Reil chose the S-tronic as the sole option after carefully reviewing sales reports of the less potent S3 Sportback, where the S-tronic rules by a large margin. Conditions in Quebec were less than ideal for assessing the RS 3’s maximum accelerative prowess, but Audi reckons it’s capable of 0-60 mph in under four and a half seconds.

Our brief drive was in a test car fitted with snow tires and most of our short test route included a variety of winter surfaces. In these conditions the RS 3 was more than willing to spin all four wheels as it clawed at dry pavement and downright anxious to rooster-tail the snow or mud. Even more entertaining was the deep, rabid bark of the angry five-cylinder. It’s certainly more composed than an ’80s-era rally car, but the bloodline is obvious when one of the five-pot Group A monsters — which Audi conveniently brought along and was demonstrating in the same area — blows past on full steam.

On the roads around the ice-covered Mecaglisse test track near Mont Tremblant, it’s easy to think of the RS 3 in five-door Sportback form as an everyday rally car; you can almost imagine Walter Rohrl taking Frau Rohrl and Walter Jr. out for a brisk Alpine Sonntag Fahr. Its compact size, improved balance and Group B-like torque make it extremely enjoyable to drift back and forth down our winding access roads. And unlike the vintage rally cars on hand, there’s no need to keep the engine on boil for fear of an unwanted mid-turn boost-slap. To be clear, this is still a Haldex-based quattro, which means power goes to the front until there’s slip, but it’s also evident that Audi is running some of its best differential software to date. We still wish the car had been blessed with the Haldex XWD setup, with its right-left torque-biasing rear differential, but this is surprisingly and refreshingly of less concern now that we’ve driven the car.

And yet, as much as we love the RS 3, we have to admit it’s not quite as impressive as the TT RS. Performance-wise the horsepower difference can be counted on just one hand but the TT RS’s lower center of gravity and lighter aluminum chassis are noticeable advantages. The TT RS is more than 250 pounds lighter, an advantage the RS 3 must give up in exchange for five-door flexibilty.

The RS 3 goes on sale this quarter in Europe, but what about North America? There’s no official word yet, but our own exploration through sources at Audi of America and quattro GmbH leaves us hopeful they will eventually make it happen. We’re hoping they do.

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