Trying to get a handle on the Audi personality is increasingly tricky. After three decades of coasting along under the auspices of ‘Vorsprung Durch Technik’, the rest of the auto industry eventually caught up with Audi’s technocratic idealism. What’s rather more secure is the company’s lead in terms of perceived quality and sophistication. Audi is still the industry leader when it comes to interiors, navigation and dashboards, with rigorous attention to detail.
As we've often noted, there’s an Audi for every occasion, big or small, sporty or practical. The latest in what promises to be another deluge of new models (eight in two years) is the RS3, a high performance variant of the A3 available in both sedan (saloon) and Sportback versions. ‘RS’ is Audi’s magic performance glitter, a dedicated division that has been building limited run high-speed versions of its regular production models since the 1990s.
The RS3 features a singleframe grille in gloss black honeycomb and a striking RS bumper
The RS3 is notable chiefly because this is the first time the magic dust has been dappled on a compact saloon car – as opposed to something larger, sleeker or more capacious. The move shows how important traditional saloon car markets still are to Audi (the US, China, India, etc.); even as markets like Europe switch to SUVs big and small, a sports car still has a halo effect across a range.
Audi chose to launch the RS3 in Oman, away from the European circuit and not far from those key target markets. The car might be a canny bit of marketing, but there’s no denying its ability. A landscape of wide, fast, empty roads – goats, camels and cattle notwithstanding – Oman offers the kind of fantasy world that best suits the modern performance machine. We can report that the RS3 – in both variants – is both competent and comfortable, with the quattro four wheel drive and numerous other stability aids endowing deity-like control over the car. Way up in the country's sparsely-inhabited Dhofar mountains exists a veritable paradise for drivers, with the kind of wide, empty, far-sighted roads that usually exist only in car ads and on press launches.
The car features a five-cylinder engine, S tronic and quattro permanent all-wheel drive that switches gears at lightning speed
Herein lies the paradox at the heart of the traditional performance car. You simply can’t use it to its full abilities anywhere. With a ‘supercar’, the trade-off for this inability to deploy all the bells and whistles is the sheer visual and sonic drama of ownership and display. The RS3, on the other hand, is a pumped-up compact car, albeit one from a premium brand. It’s designed as a gateway purchase to more (and more profitable) performance (although you can of course specify some very expensive options, like carbon ceramic brakes). The car is even explicitly described as the ‘entry ticket to Audi Sport’ by CEO Stephan Winkelmann, who also notes the RS3 will probably be the sub-brand’s biggest seller.
That being said, Audi Sport models make up less than two per cent of Audi’s total sales; they exist almost purely to garnish the brand. Yet the main course is changing. In Europe, the SUV is the only sector that continues to expand, year in, year out. At the same time, the electric car market seems forever poised for massive expansion. By the end of 2018 Audi will have joined BMW in having its own dedicated electric car sub-division, dubbed e-tron. The role of Audi Sport in enhancing our enjoyment or ownership of these all-electric machines remains to be seen. For all its ability on the road, the RS3’s most important job is to steer Audi Sport towards commercial relevance.