If you’re reading this, I’ll bet dollars to donuts you know all about the ur Quattro, the original Quattro Coupe sold in the United States from 1983 until 1986. Supposedly, 664 cars were imported—legally at least; a few more made it in somehow. In 1983, the techno-wonder debuted with a price tag of $35-large, a decent amount more than the Porsche 911 at the time. Sporting big box-flares, a turbocharged inline five-cylinder engine, and most importantly all-wheel drive (unheard of in performance cars in the 1980s), the Quattro was the true car-geek’s performance choice. The turbo five-cylinder continued on for several years in different platforms, but it never had the same impact of the ur Quattro. There is a reason we are still talking about it 30 years later.
When Audi brought the turbocharged inline-five back in 2010, it lived under the hood of the first TT-RS; enthusiasts rejoiced. Partly for the return of the iconic warble produced by the odd-numbered engine, but also at the thought that it might end up under the hood of something like the S5 or even the Quattro Concept, which Audi began teasing not long after the announcement of the engine. I was one of those enthusiasts. I thought the TT-RS was a fantastic idea, and although I didn’t get to drive one until the car made it to the States in 2012, I still loved dreaming about the possibility of a five-cylinder-powered S5.
The truth is, it never would have lived up to enthusiasts’ expectations. The supercharged 3.0L V-6 that eventually replaced the 4.2L V-8 in the S5 was basically the perfect choice for that car at the time. The current S5 uses a turbocharged V-6, which is also a better choice for the cars with the longitudinal drivetrain layouts. Very quickly: In Audis with the engine and transmission sitting longitudinally, the entire engine sits forward of the front axle. Other manufacturers make all-wheel-drive cars with the differential either sitting under or alongside the engine, so the engine’s mass is more centrally located. Since a V-6 is only three cylinders long instead of five, it is the better choice. The V configuration also gives a lower center of gravity than an inline engine, so while the idea of a longitudinally mounted five-cylinder stokes the fire of nostalgia, physics comes along and extinguishes our flame—again.
That five-cylinder is, however, ideal for mounting sideways—transversely—across the front of the cars you see here, the TT-RS and the RS3. While it is related to the five-cylinder engine Audi debuted at the Geneva Auto Show in 2009, this is in fact all new. To start with, the block is now aluminum, giving it an immediate weight advantage. Audi didn’t stop there; the upper portion of the oil pan is now built from magnesium, the crankshaft has been drastically lightened along with most other components being subjected to rigorous optimization. It all adds up, or subtracts down, to nearly 60 pounds in weight loss over the previous inline-five. Along with the weight loss, it also produces considerably more thrust; the new engine is rated at 400 hp and 354 lb-ft of torque—that’s compared to the old car’s 363 hp and 343 lb-ft. All of this and even more knowledge was bestowed upon me before driving the two new cars at Lime Rock Park, the historic racetrack located deep in the forests of Connecticut.
I’ve put a decent amount of mileage on track and street in both the previous RS3 and TT-RS. I love both cars, but if I’m honest, I’ve never really felt as though they justify the price premium over the TT-S or the S3 (and maybe more so the Golf R). They’re quite good, but just can’t quite pull together the mix of performance and X-factor to really be called legendary. I can’t imagine anyone will worship them in 30 years the same way as the aforementioned ur Quattro.
Prior to this event, I had never driven Lime Rock. I was familiar with the 1.5-mile track as it’s been the venue for everything from Trans-Am and SCCA racing to IMSA and American Le Mans and even NASCAR. The track is short but challenging, and for the sake of full disclosure, I didn’t get enough laps to really learn both the track’s and the cars’ limits. With that said, some real opinions can be found by poking around at the limits in a few select corners.
As the cars warm up in the pits, a truly keen ear can hear the distinctive warble of the five-cylinder. The average person probably won’t notice until the car is singing under load. Both cars are styled more aggressively than the S-versions with deeper front spoilers and bigger air intakes. The RS3 gets wider front fenders to accommodate the reverse staggered tire fitment; wider tires on the front axle, something that should be far more common than it is.
Lime Rock has a good variety of corners varying in speed and elevation with quite a few being off-camber. I head out first in the RS3. Both cars use a seven-speed dual clutch transmission, yes even in the TT-RS, which in its last iteration was manual only. Turns out that all those people who got the car here by signing web-petitions and posting on Facebook to get a TT-RS with a manual didn’t necessarily buy the car. What? People not being totally honest on the Internet? Nooo…. If we really do want manual cars to stick around, we have to buy them as new cars from the dealer, not buy a used manual so “some other sucker gets hit with the depreciation.” Anyway.
Wearing a helmet, I have to lean my seat back farther than I would like; actually, it turns out that headroom is a problem without a helmet, but we’ll get there later. The steering wheel has alcantara at the nine and three grip positions with smooth leather on the top and bottom. The cars here are all equipped with Audi’s optional Virtual Cockpit, which seems natural in a car of this caliber. The seats would more aptly be labeled “thrones,” with beautiful diamond stitching on perforated leather covering giant winged backs. They look every bit of the $54,900 price tag.
Pulling out of the pits, my very first thought is, “This engine has to be underrated.” It’s fast. The seven-speed S-Tronic is RS specific, which is a shame; I would love to see this in every MQB car on the road. Not only does it shift faster than you can imagine, it’s far smoother than you can imagine—even compared to VW’s DSGs, which aren’t too shabby. It also follows instructions perfectly when in manual mode. At the end of short straights right at redline, it won’t auto-upshift.
It takes a couple of laps to work up to anywhere near the limits of the car; they are higher than I anticipated, and that’s coming from someone who owns a MK7 GTI and has spent a lot of time in Golf Rs and S3s on other racetracks. Even though this is the most rear-biased all-wheel-drive system ever in an Audi transverse platform car, the RS3s still offers optional 255/30-19 front tires with a 235/35-19 on the rear—it works and I don’t care how weird you think it is. If you have a wider tire on the rear of your front drive, or a front-drive-based all-wheel-drive car, you’re doing it wrong.
After ogling the speed and grip, my next observation is how much body roll the car has, far more than I expected and I’m totally OK with it. I don’t mind body roll and I think for years, car magazines have turned compliant suspension into the boogeyman for no good reason. Building up speed, the RS3 still feels very neutral. It can be coaxed into a little rotation on turn-in with a flick; the soft suspension does allow the rear to unload a little under braking. My session in the RS3 is over nearly as fast as it began. Luckily, I have a better feel for the track before hopping into the TT-RS.
Although this car is a little more than 2 inches shorter than the RS3, it seems to have loads more headroom; the seats are obviously much lower to the floor. Those seats are also much tighter than the RS3s, in a good way, if you plan on driving fast.
The interior is much sparser as well, but again, in a very modern way. The controls for the HVAC are integrated into the vents, and the big red button for the ignition along with the Drive Select control are on the steering wheel. I’ve heard other journalists complain the car isn’t as intuitive, and I partly agree with that. I do, however, feel that if you aren’t a journalist, and you experience cars for longer than a few hours at a time, it becomes second nature very quickly.
Accelerating out of the pits and the 300-pound weight difference in favor of the TT is immediately obvious, even more so in just the first half-lap. Losing weight off the front end has truly transformed the car. I would have to imagine that the TT has the lowest center of gravity of any of the MQB platform cars, with the lowest roofline and least amount of glass, and I would also be surprised if it isn’t the stiffest as well. The TT feels compact in dimensions and quick in reactions. It doesn’t have the flicking rotation on turn-in like the RS3, but it also doesn’t need it. The RS3 puts power down imperceptibly with the rear wheels; it feels like a perfect front-wheel drive car. The TT-RS, however, puts down power in a completely neutral way; it feels like a perfect all-wheel-drive car. Aside from being surprised by both cars, I’m also surprised at the differences between them as well.
I find a natural relationship with the TT-RS very quickly; it feels far more at home on the track than the RS3. The TT is also such a better car than its predecessor; it’s a bit shocking. The suspension feels just as compliant as the RS3’s but the TT-RS feels more tied down. Although they are the same basic platform, the differences are still pretty big.
After the short track sessions, I was able to take both cars out for road drives. Again, the RS3 went first. According to Audi’s numbers, at 36.5 inches the RS3 has roughly half an inch less headroom than the TT-RS’s 37.1 inches, but it feels like four times that amount. Just for the sake of argument—humor me—a Golf R has 38.4 inches of front seat headroom. And again, it feels like more. Other than that one niggling point, probably only relevant to people more than 6-feet tall, there is very little to find fault with inside the RS3. I would like the side bolsters to be tighter, but again, I might be in the minority here. The interior is, however, undeniably beautiful and something easily befitting or even exceeding its price. Yes, there is a thousand-dollar interior upgrade option, but I’d be surprised if you noticed the difference between the two cars. I’ll give you a hint: It’s a few stitches on the doors and a few colored pieces on the dash.
If you like technology, which you do—Luddites don’t buy Audis—you will absolutely want the $3,200 Technology Package including MMI Navigation Plus, B&O sound system, and Audi Virtual Cockpit. On top of that, you will probably want the $1,400 Driver Assistance Pack as well—with stop-and-go adaptive cruise control, Active High-beach Assist, and active lane assist. Lastly, I would get the $1,450 Dynamic Pack with the staggered wheels and RS sport exhaust. If it were me, I’d probably skip the $4,800 Dynamic Plus Pack: carbon ceramic front brakes, fixed suspension damping (instead of magnetorheological), a carbon-fiber engine cover, and a top speed governor set to 174 mph (instead of 155 mph).
Out in the real world is were you are going to find most RS3s, I would imagine. The RS3 feels much smaller than something like the 2018 S4; it’s nearly a foot shorter. It is within a quarter-inch of the length of a B5 S4; it’s the same weight, 3,600 pounds—so that should be your reference. The B5 S4 was a revelation in 1999. We’ve come a long way since then, and the RS3 will make you forget that car existed. As you would expect, it is powerful, graceful, and does everything superbly. But memorably? Maybe.
I would like to tell you how it compares to the competition, but it is hard to directly compare it to anything. The closest offering from BMW is a 3-series, which easily approaches 55 grand well optioned. There is nothing special about the Ultimate Leasing Machine. If you can live with two doors, then the M2 is an option for a more “classic” and less techie experience. The closest car has to be the Mercedes CLA45 AMG; it’s there in price and spec, but is a little long in the tooth at this point.
The TT-RS on the road, however, nails the memorably part. I should also say it does everything superbly as well. The lighter weight and tighter package really make everything work. This is a car we will still be talking about in 30 years. On the road or the track, the suspension is exactly what you want. Anyone buying this car and installing coilovers is doing it for no other reason than social media vanity. While some might miss the manual transmission, the S-Tronic is perfect for this car. It’s fast, it’s smooth, and it feels as modern as the rest of the package.
Like I found on the track, the balance on the street is ideal and the car turns as an entire unit. It isn’t unweighting, then flicking, then getting back in the power and letting the front end pull itself around. The TT-RS is threaded through a turn in one motion; in that way, it feels far more GT race car than rally car. It makes me cringe a little to say this, but instead of thinking uber-MQB, maybe think R8 at a third of the price. Speaking of price, at $64,900, it’s 10 grand dearer than the RS3 and jumps to nearly $70,000 with a few options.
If it were my money and I was looking at an RS3, I might not be able to pull the trigger on a nicely equipped car at $64,000. But like I previously said, I don’t feel like there is anything better in the class. The odd thing about the TT-RS is that I would lean toward it, in a class that contains one of the best cars on the road, the Porsche Cayman. Why? First, a comparable Cayman S will be closer to $100,000. On top of that, the TT-RS has an X-factor to it, similar to what the previous-generation Cayman GT4 has. It is a special car that is more than the sum of its parts or its specs on paper. Like the ur Quattro before it, it delivers an experience that is unique in the car world. From the sound of the engine, to the handling, to the architectural study of simplicity of the interior; like the ur Quattro, the TT-RS is something legendary.