My wife and I had our first child back in November and, in preparation, decided that I should probably get a car with 4-doors to better accommodate our growing family. So, although my 2010 (MK6) Volkswagen GTI was in excellent condition and had all the space needed, it only had 2 doors (as any proper GTI should), so it made for a pretty good excuse to buy a 4-door rocketship. Enter the 2017 Audi RS3. I took delivery in late August 2017, and this is a now 8-month, long-term ownership report.
All 2017 RS3’s came preconfigured with the following packages:
Dynamic – with the red brake calipers, sports exhaust, and reverse staggered wheels (the front wheels/tires are wider than the rear to improve handling / reduce understeer).
Tech – with the virtual cockpit, Bang & Olufsen sound system, and MMI Navigation Plus with MMI touch
Carbon Fiber Inlays – the doors and dash have carbon fiber inlays.
I’m not going to go into stats, tests, or press information on this car, as pretty much every major (and minor) automotive publication has that covered, and I am not an auto journalist. However, I am someone that has owned the car for 8 months, drives it daily, and more closely represents the real world usage. I did not get a chance to take this car on the track at Lime Rock or around the windy back roads of New England (though I do hope to get some track time in with this one), but I can tell you how it fits a rear facing car seat and how it does in rush hour. As with my ownership report of the Santa Cruz Tallboy 3, real world reports didn’t exist when I purchased the car, so here’s what I’ve found.
First and foremost, anyone that is considering this car is doing so for the performance. And, in my opinion, it does not disappoint; the car is wickedly fast. I haven’t yet figured out how to breathe when using launch control with my lungs compressed against the back of my rib cage, and the ease at which it gains speed is just begging for trouble. My first car was an inline 5-cylinder turbocharged Volvo, so the appeal of the venerable odd cylinder Audi offering drew me in, especially after watching some old Group B rally footage. All of the reviews talk about the engine’s unique firing order and cadence, and on cold start the engine has a very mechanical warble that is almost concerning until you grow to love hearing the unique growl.
The car also handles well. Audi’s get a bad rap in this department, but they have really done a lot to reduce the understeer and improve the overall balance of the car. I don’t get to drive a ton of cars, but when I do I have a (bad?) habit of trying to push them to see where their limits are. I think identifying that is how you learn to best drive it. And I feel confident that the RS3 is capable of being pushed beyond what I can ever provide it. Similar to a 997 Carrera 2 I had on loan a few years back, punishing it up Palomar Mountain in Southern California, I just couldn’t seem to get the car to even feel close to being unsettled. (Though there is some of the thought that once you do break a rear engine, rear drive car like a Porsche loose on the side of the mountain, there isn’t much recovery.) Like that, the RS3’s turn in and suck you around switchbacks and mountainous corners ability is very sure footed and seems like a race horse that knows what to do even if you don’t.
Driving the car (hard) down Highway 89A off the back side of Jerome towards Prescott, Arizona, with the windows down was a chorus of the pack of angry hornets buzzing from the engine and the pops on downshifts into the corners coming from the exhaust. I’ve driven this road a number of times in my GTI, and a modified Mitsubishi Evo IX before that, and this car goes harder while maintaining more composure than the Evo ever did, and will then pamper you in comfort once you’re back on the flat roads.
So, yes, I love this car’s performance. There’s a lot of comparisons to track times and stats with the BMW M2 and others, but really, from a real world perspective, it goes hard, it’s fun to drive, and all of the performance is certainly there. I will be excited to see how it does on the track, especially as compared to my memories of the Evo IX performing very well.
Maybe one the car’s biggest selling points is how well it can perform and then behave completely the opposite. Some on the forums have referred to this as “Camry mode”, and it’s absolutely a selling point that car magazines fail to mention. Putting this car in comfort mode (and driving it reasonably) will make for a perfectly reasonable mode of transportation for your Grandma or conservative colleague. The interior is plenty comfortable, and generally speaking it looks like a sporty A3, with most of the accents standing out to those in the know more than the unassuming passerby. This duality or Jekyl and Hyde persona is part of what makes this car such a joy to own, it can really be the best of both worlds.
Interiors are highly subjective, but I don’t think most would argue that this one is very clean at the least. In typical German fashion, everything is located where it should be and is well laid out, and everything “feels” high quality and solid. I think the mostly monotone color combination will appeal to most, but had I been able to build my own, I think I would have opted for the contrasting red stitching to give it a bit more pop.
At 5’7” I definitely don’t have any issues with room in the front of the car, and would actually prefer the driver’s seat bolsters to be a bit snugger. The back seat has plenty of room for a rear facing car seat, and the driver’s seat could be moved back another 4-6”. I could easily do two car seats in the rear, but I do suspect you would lose the third space. With the rear seats folded down, there is a good amount of room for cargo, and I can still easily slide my mountain bike in with the front wheel removed, though not my road bike with both wheels on, like I could in the GTI. It’s hard moving from the cargo volume of a hatch to a sedan.
The virtual cockpit is very cool, functional, and I love features like the shift lights on the sport display, and the maps in the cockpit itself, though I do wonder how this part of today’s cars will look in 10 years. Will they look like the screen on a Blackberry? It’s great that I can pick and choose and reconfigure the data in pretty much any way I would potentially want to see it.
Moving to the technology and controls, the car is mostly very modern, and although I generally find most vehicle’s navigation and interface to be clunky, Audi typically gives you multiple ways to do the same thing, which at first can be overwhelming, but it is accommodating once learned. I particularly like the ability to write in your inputs to the MMI system since voice activation seems to never be accurate. This is my go to method of plugging a destination into the navigation, and is pretty easy to use overall. The car comes with a 6-month trial to Audi Connect which provides wifi throughout the car, local info like gas prices, attractions, and destinations, as well as Google Earth displays in the maps, which are quite attractive when displayed on the pop-up screen or in the virtual cockpit. I opted not to pay to continue this service, so my maps now look dated, but the functionality is mostly retained for navigation, I just don’t have things like street view.
It came up recently that Google will be making an update to maps that will make pre-2019 models no longer capable of displaying Google Earth after 2020, which is somewhat disappointing. It should also be noted that many of the features in the MMI Connect App, such as the ability to check if your doors are locked, locate your vehicle, etc., either aren’t available for the RS3 or just don’t really work. In general, the technology is all there and provides everything I could really ask for, but I sometimes can’t help but think I’m not fully utilizing all of its capabilities either due to the interface or the vehicle not supporting some of Audi’s general convenience features.
This is kind of echoed in the omission of homelink. In a $60,000+ compact sedan, I have a plastic garage door opener clipped to my sun visor like its 1992. The base model A3 comes standard with homelink to program your garage door opener to keep with technology from the last 25 years. I’m sure Audi will justify this as saying that it’s an Audi Sport car and it’s geared towards the enthusiast and with performance in mind, as they did with the lack of power front seats. And in general, I could probably digest that justification, as I don’t really mind the fine tuning adjustment of good manual seats, and one less motor to break peace of mind. BUT, if they’re going to spin those as “sports oriented decisions” then why is a huge glass sunroof standard?
In general, I like sunroofs, when they work. I live in Arizona, and my last two cars did not have them, and thought it would be nice. However, the knocking rattling of the sunroof chassis in this car does not make it worth it. The car has been in twice for warranty to address this already, and so far the second time seems to be working, but I hope Audi will continue to improve this.
That’s a lot of negatives in the last three paragraphs, but that really is all of the negatives. I’m really quite satisfied with the car otherwise. There are a few bugs and/or quirks in the software, but I have hope they can be sorted out. The main bug is that the * button on the steering wheel can be programmed to a number of different menus or features. I have mine setup to bring up/change the drive select mode, so I can quickly cycle through without taking my hands of the steering wheel. Seemingly, if you press this button too soon after starting the car, it hasn’t had a chance to boot up fully and may not work. One or two additional times out of ten it does nothing as well. This isn’t a big deal considering the drive select button on the dash is there and has always worked, but it is annoying.
The main quirk is the car starts with the exhaust valves open to get a nice loud pop and rumble on warm startup. However, it defaults to closing the exhaust valves no matter what setting it is in or was previously shut off in. So even if you start the car in dynamic mode (with the exhaust sound in “dynamic” (loud) setting) or in an “Individual” setting with the exhaust set to dynamic, you will have to pull up the drive select menu and reselect that same mode to get the valves to reopen. I guess for those that prefer the quieter exhaust this isn’t an issue, but I purchased the car with the sports exhaust in the dynamic package, and I want to hear it! So, every time I start the car, I have to pull up the drive select menu to select a setting with exhaust sound set to dynamic, even if I’m already in that setting.
The only other quirk with the drive select options involves the transmission. In addition to the drive select settings that have a transmission setting, moving the gear shift beyond “D” and into “S” engages a sport transmission mode with much more aggressive shift patterns. So, any of the drive select modes can be livened up with the “S” transmission, and even when switching the transmission into manual, it will behave differently if you switch it to manual from “D” or from “S” first.
The Day to Day
The day to day livability and driveability of this car are great. You can put it in comfort or Camry/Stealth mode and easily cruise around town with all of the comforts and conveniences you could really want, while getting pretty reasonable gas mileage. For reference, my driving is pretty consistent week to week, and I averaged 29-31 mpg in my GTI. I now average 23-24 mpg, but I also have, quite literally, twice as much horsepower as my GTI did. My daily commute is pretty short (less than 25 minutes), and I have found when providing the engine more time at temp, my gas mileage is typically a little higher, in the 25-27 mpg range. If I’m on the freeway, 30 mpg is not out of the question, and that’s pretty good for a car with this much power.
My “Individual” drive select setting has everything in “auto” except for the engine sound in “dynamic”. I spend majority of my time driving the car in either this or full “dynamic” mode, because, hey, that’s what I bought it for. In addition, flicking the gear shifter back a notch into the “S” transmission setting will make any of the modes much livelier. As mentioned above, this does harp on Audi’s redundancy, in that there is a transmission setting in the drive select options, and the “S” mode when selected by the gear shift is actually in addition to that. So, the car sees its sportiest behavior when in full Dynamic, with the transmission set to “S” or set to “S” and then manual, with the traction control in Sport or off completely.
Needing a sporty 4-door sedan, with the ability for the rear seats to fold down, and preferably with a manual transmission, didn't provide a ton of options. The Volkswagen Golf R was the most obvious choice; all of the practicality of my beloved GTI, more power, and 4-doors, but it just didn't get me that excited. Having the same engine and largely the same interior as the GTI (I would even argue a more bland interior) felt kind of like I was buying a different version of my same car, (which is mostly true). I think the Golf R is a fantastic car, it just that coming from the GTI, it wasn't different enough to get me excited.
The Audi S3, was another obvious choice, though not available with a manual transmission, I had a hard time making rational sense of buying a more expensive Golf R. You do get higher fit and finish on the interior, but it was another one that just didn't make "sense" to me.
I test drove both the E90 and F80 BMW M3's, and strongly preferred the E90, though I just couldn't find one with a manual transmission, and the cold weather package, which was the only way to get it with rear seats that fold down. The F80 felt a bit brash and although it is wickedly fast, I never felt at home in it. The E90 felt vastly more familiar, particularly in the layout of the cockpit, and I think it would have really enjoyed that car.
I also contemplated an Audi RS4. Made in 2007 and 2008, the first RS car to come to America with its monster V8, is not only fantastic looking, but a really fun car to drive and wind out, similar to the E90. I got a bit spooked since they are prone to carbon build up, and I would have been buying a 10 year old car. Ironically enough, after hanging out in the Audi world now, I think I know more of what to look for, and that it might have been a fun way to go. As good as the 7-speed dual clutch transmission in the RS3 is, and even though it can shift far faster than I ever could, I do miss the engagement of the third pedal and moving through the gears.
I suppose I have to mention the Audi S4. I would have been doing so pre-owned, and the supercharged V6, is fast, the looks of the B8 S4 never really got me excited. It is available with a manual transmission, so a big +1 for it there, but it's a big car that I didn't love to look at.
Yes, there are others that could be considered, but without starting a debate, the others weren't seriously considered for one reason or another, right or wrong. If I were to buy again today, I think I would hope to get lucky with an E90 M3 or try and find the "right" RS4, but that's not to say that I regret my decision at all.
This car has already received a few protection “mods” including full front, b-pillars, and rear bumper lip Suntek Ultra paint protection film and Weathertech floor liners. The balance of the car is part of what makes it so good, so I don’t want to do too much more to throw that off, but I do think lowering it slightly, particularly in the front, would really set it off. Right now I’m closely monitoring the forums for feedback on various options and it’s looking like MSS’ adjustable setup is receiving good praise for retaining, or perhaps improving on, stock ride quality, but they’re not cheap at $1200. Emmanuele Designs also just released a spring that look promising at $280, but at a fixed drop.
I am also debating wheels to complement the drop and slightly improve practicality by allowing the tires to be rotated. The Dynamic package has reverse staggered wheels with 255/30/19 on 8.5” wheels in the front and 235/35/19 on 8” wheels in the back. Being that this car is going to see majority of its life on the street, I’m thinking going to a square setup might be a good excuse for buying aftermarket wheels. The stock “Blade” wheels get a lot of negative feedback and I didn’t like them at all in photos, but I’m actually growing quite fond of them the longer I own this car. I think they will only look better if it were slightly lowered, but I still wouldn’t be able to rotate them to improve longevity. Because of the massive 8-piston front brakes, fitment is difficult, especially if you don’t want to use spacers, so options are limited and picking the best offset is challenging to make the car sit just right.
Other than that, I think the only other modification I would consider would be to remove the secondary catalytic converters to increase the exhaust noise. This is actually how the car comes everywhere else in the world (except North America), and straight OEM midpipes are available, which makes it pretty low risk. There are also reports that people are seeing improved gas mileage when doing this, so I suppose I would be helping the planet...
This is not a cheap car, especially for the size, and that's a criticism many give. However, it is an RS car and one that magazines are testing 0-60mph happening in 3.6 seconds, with 4-doors. It's also not a big car, but that's okay with me. It's about the size as the B5 or B6 A4 from 18 years ago, and I just can't get behind how big some of the cars we have these days are. And while appearances are subjective, I think it looks great, and the sound is one thing that doesn't seem to be subjective on this car, it sounds fantastic. It's plenty practical for my day to day, and the performance when you want it and comfort when you need it duality is really good. So, the car it not perfect, very few are, but it does seem to balance my wants/needs/desires pretty well. Plus, I get a smile from the heads I turn every time I hit that start button.