Audi RS3 sedan

Boot in back and tweaks underbonnet avert a mid-life crisis

TONY OíKANE

Model Engine Max Power Max Torque Transmission Weight 0-100km/h Economy Price On sale Audi RS3 sedan 2480cc 5cyl, dohc, 20v, turbo 294kW @ 5850-7000rpm 480Nm @ 1700-5850rpm 7-speed dual-clutch 1515kg 4.1sec (claimed) 8.4L/100km $82,000 (estimated) June

FIRST OVERSEAS DRIVE

DONíT BE fooled by the 2017 Audi RS3ís new plastics, fresh alloys and extra in-cabin tech Ė this is no mere mid-life update.

Audi Sport hasnít just pumped its least-expensive, A3-based model full of Botox to keep it looking fresh Ė itís given it an underbonnet transplant that sees power and torque figures ascend while trimming kilos.

Thereís an RS3 sedan now too Ė the result of market demand and competition from the Mercedes- AMG CLA45 Ė which is great news, because the four-door A3 is a tremendously handsome basis for a compact performance car.

There are still five cylinders sitting sideways in the RS3ís snout, but the mill weighs 26kg less, and paring these kilos from the RS3ís nose has a small but positive effect on its handling.

The 2017 RS3ís international launch on roads around the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula in Oman presents just the kind of challenges to showcase the new modelís dynamic edge. Oman offers up countless kilometres of surprisingly smooth tarmac, but itís often dusty and greasy as a result of the regionís arid climate and the poorly-maintained trucks that crawl across the Sultanate.

With less grip available than on the average Aussie road, itís the ideal environment to explore the handling envelope of a grunty all-wheel drive, especially in the Dhofar hills that overlook the southern coastal city of Salalah.

And, yet, the astute quattro AWD system allows the RS3 to find ample traction much of the time. The default torque split is 50:50, but if needed itíll shuffle as much as 100 percent to the rear axle. Torque vectoring also helps out with maintaining composure when cornering under power and the RS3 feels unshakeable as a result. Much like the old hatchback did.

However itís on the descent from the Dhofar Mountains that we discover a new facet of the RS3ís dynamics. A string of downhill switchbacks hasten the drop in altitude, and the tight hairpins are a playground for drift fiends.

Thumb the ESC button to relax the electro-nannies, aggressively steer into the corner and the tail will step smoothly out in a predictable and ultra-satisfying arc of oversteer. Once sideways, the angle of attack can be adjusted with the throttle. Anyone who says AWD cars lack handling finesse needs to drive the updated RS3 Ė preferably on a tight and slippery road.

The launch RS3s perhaps feel especially alert because Audi has stacked the deck by equipping most of them with the optional carbon-ceramic brakes and wider front rubber Ė the former removing 12 kilograms from the front axle, and the latter adding 20mm of extra width to the contact patch of each tyre. Less weight plus more rubber at the front heightens the RS3ís talent for quick directional changes, and perhaps contributes to the loose rear end, too.

This might mean you should aspire to spec your own RS3 the same way, but with the carbon brakes expected to be a $10-15K option, we could certainly forgive you for not ticking that box. The more reasonably priced chubby rubber is worth the coin.

Optioned or otherwise, the character of the RS3 remains largely intact, with its appealing combo of all-paw traction and a weapons-grade turbo fivepot, now with extra firepower.

However itís in the details Ė less weight, more neutral handling Ė that the RS3 goes from Ďgoodí to Ďgreatí, which certainly isnít the work of your average facelift.

PLUS & MINUS

Ideal set-up of carbon-ceramic brakes plus wider front boots is pricey Sedanís scaled-down RS4 look; turbo five muscles up; greater agility

Sex or space?

So punters considering an RS3 now have the luxury of choice when it comes to bodystyle Ė but what are the compromises?

Besides the sedan being less flatpack-friendly than the wagon-like Sportback, the differences are few.

The sedan weighs just 5kg more than the Sportback, and both zip to 100km/h in 4.1 seconds and officially use 8.4L/100km. Theyíll be priced in the low $80K region, but expect the sedan to carry a premium.

How much? Well, thereís a clue in the fact the S3 sedan retails for $1600 more than the Sportback.

OR TRY THESE...

Mercedes-AMG CLA45 $88,798

Mercís 280kW flagship small sedan wears a hefty pricetag, and its performance and interior space canít quite match the quicker and more accommodating RS3 sedan. The Audiís newfound chassis neutrality levels the dynamic playing field.

Infi niti Q50 Red Sport $79,900

Top-tier Infiniti Q50 boasts 298kW/475Nm twin-turbo 3.0-litre V6 with Godzilla DNA, coupled with a classic rear-drive platform. A leftfield choice that badge snobs would never consider, but the bang for buck quotient is sizeable.