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New 294kW Audi RS3 takes back performance crown

Car trivia is not quite the right of passage that it once was. The ubiquitous smartphone and overly resourced internet have brought expert-level petrolhead status to those who don’t always deserve it. I put to you the simple question, what was the last five-cylinder Audi four-door performance car on sale in South Africa?

Not an easy one, is it? If you’ve just murmured “C4 S4” to yourself, congratulations. The early 1990s car had 169kW and revolutionised Audi’s image in South Africa. Since then, five-cylinder performance Audi’s have always been either two-door TTs or five-door RS3s.

As hyper hatches have cannibalised the compact performance sedan market since AMG’s introduction of A45, the possibility of a five-cylinder four-door Audi performance car revival was doubtful. That was until Mercedes released CLA 45 AMG, an event which didn’t go unnoticed by Audi’s RS GmbH engineers. The compact performance sedan had suddenly become viable, again.

There’s something charmingly heroic about RS3, the true keeper of Audi’s greatest heritage, which is not as much all-wheel drive as it is the five-cylinder engines. After the original Quattro proved all-wheel drive as a mechanical engineering solution to providing all-weather performance and exploiting mid-corner traction, many imitated and elevated the technology. By the late 1990s, Mitsubishi and Subaru were arguably building AWD performance cars notably more sophisticated than Audi’s own. The one feature few others were willing to evolve was a five-cylinder high-performance engine. Volvo tried, briefly, but only Ford and Audi endured – until new Focus lost a cylinder too.

I have no idea how they make the cost accounting around RS3 work. In a world where scaling is everything, it’s the outlier: an engine serving a mere three applications (RS3, Q3 and TT-RS).  You could never imagine AMG, who power 37 models with only five different engine designs, investing and evolving a 5-cylinder engine unrelated to any other part of Mercedes-Benz’s business. Audi does and we should all be grateful.

Behind that RS-themed grille, with its quattro badged inlet funnel, is a 2.5-litre five-cylinder which boosts all of 294kW, tantalisingly close to the psychological 300kW barrier and crucially, making RS3 the most powerful compact four-door performance car you can buy. By rights, this engine should not exist but development of Group VW’s uber-powerful EA888 2-litre turbomotor has stalled, gifting the characterful R5 engine a lifeline.

Despite the top-trumps value of its outputs, the true appeal of RS3 sedan is in the delivery of those numbers. Five-cylinders are special because they fire at 144-degrees of crankshaft rotation instead of 180, sparking an order of 1-2-4-5-3. Notice something? Indeed. The first and last cylinders in RS3’s block fire before the middle one, which means 294 of the smoothest kilowatts you’ll ever control with any car’s throttle.

If five-cylinder engines are so great, why aren’t there more of them? Modularity and emissions. Engineers now believe that the optimal cylinder size is 500cc which is why you see 1.5-litre triples, 2-litre fours, 3-litre V6s and 4-litre V8s becoming the industry standards. Apply this theory and a five-cylinder must be 2.5-litres and that additional half a litre of capacity would negatively influence emissions and consumption. Only by a bit, yes, but in a world which has gone CO2 mad, it’s reason enough not to. Why else do you think Ford downsized Focus RS from a 2.5 five to a 2-litre four?

Audi’s immensely proud of its five-cylinder quattro heritage and the commitment to keeping that fifth cylinder at the one end of RS3’s engine block makes all the difference. At 1515kg it’s not a terribly light car, despite Audi’s much vaunted aluminium-everything construction. AMG’s CLA45 is an academic 5kg lighter but somehow RS3’s 14 additional kilowatts are a lot more capable than they would appear. The claim is 0-100kph in 4.1 seconds, but in the same way that you know when your service provider is lying about data speeds, in the real world, it’s greatly quicker.

Resign yourself to the outstanding traction from Audi’s latest generation quattro system, which now continuously varies torque between all four wheels, and RS3 is valiantly the fastest Audi of all. In perfect conditions, it will run 0-100kph in 3.8 seconds which could be an issue of some buyer’s remorse for RS6 and R8 owners.

Alters direction beautifully too. The steering isn’t brilliantly alive with feedback but it’s quick and the quattro system arranges torque to those drive wheels which are going to tighten your line, instead of erring into understeer, customarily the bane of front-engined RS-cars. I take issue with Audi’s ‘aluminium-solves-everything’ engineering approach at times, but this latest RS3 engine is 26kg lighter, a weight saving that occurs in a crucial place, above the front axle. As a result, the five-pot engine’s weight loss deserves much credit for new RS3’s rewarding reduction in understeer.

The only disappointment is that fifth cylinder’s lack of aural recognition. As the boost rushes and your body is forced into the contours of those beautifully quilted leather sport seats, any distinctive five-cylinder beat is imperceptible. No pops. No crackle on the overrun. Gallingly, an S3 sounds more of an occasion.

Ultimately, I can forgive RS3 for its muteness. This is an inspiringly fast car with immaculate power delivery, if lacking in accompanying acoustic drama. You’d have to pay twice the price to go as fast in something else with a boot.

It’s also the guardian of a great tradition for Audi and supports the revival of a segment which had all but died. There was a time when the only compact four-door cars you could buy capable of bothering Porsches and Ferraris were Subarus and Mitsubishis which looked so out of place, you always had to explain to security personnel in tree-lined northern Jozi suburbs that you were in fact merely visiting friends, instead of facilitating a crime.

RS3 is none of that. Those gorgeous five-blade alloys, the absence of an obnoxious boot spoiler and that typically welcoming Audi cabin, always ergonomically perfect and now comprehensively digitised, illustrate that style and speed can coexist between four-doors.

Compared to its Sportback sibling, RS3 sedan is more expensive and has 20-litres poorer luggage space, but if you’ve matured beyond all this hot hatch silliness, I’m not required to provide rational reasons for why it’s better. This is simply the greatest four-door RS-car Audi has built since B7 RS4 and proves that when you add that fifth ring to Audi’s emblematic four, the result is Olympian.

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