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Lime Rock is an improbable gem, a charming 1.5-mile circuit built on a converted cornfield in bucolic northwest Connecticut. There are seven turns, strict noise regulations, no grandstands. Touring and GT cars have banged doors here for six decades. The history is so thick, you have to brush it away from your face.
(This test originally appeared in the November, 2017 issue of Road & Track - Ed.)
We’ve come to test a pair of intriguing new Audi sedans. Waiting for the New England mist to lift are editor-in-chief Kim Wolfkill; Stephan Reil, head of technical development at Audi Sport; and Brad Kettler, in charge of the division’s U.S. customer-racing program. Also, the wicked-fast Audis.
Rolling off a trailer in the parking lot is a spotless RS3 LMS, Audi’s new factory-built entrant for the fledgling TCR International Series (TCR). The touring-car series allows privateers to campaign production-based four- and five-doors in a format similar to the FIA World Touring Car Championship, but at a lower cost, thanks to more grounded regulations.Advertisement - Continue Reading Below
Under a tent nearby sits a brand-new Audi RS3 road car, the company’s latest turbo all-wheel-drive sedan. Though it shares a name with the race car, and both ride on parent company Volkswagen Group’s MQB platform, the two have as many differences as similarities. Yet they share the same ethos.
“Before, Audi was the car for people wearing suspenders, with a wiener dog in the back seat, just trying to have a safe way home,” said Hans-Joachim Stuck, Le Mans winner, F1 veteran, and the face of Audi’s early sedan-racing efforts, rounding out our Lime Rock contingent. “But with the racing and the engineering of turbo engines, of all-wheel drive, Audi is now seen as premium.”
The history around these cars is thick, too. To put them in context, we’ll spend a day pounding the RS3 on East Coast back roads and hit Lime Rock in the RS3 LMS.
Like every story about a fast Audi, this one starts with the Quattro.
That boxy, brilliant Eighties liftback defined the brand as we know it today. The brains behind the project, Volkswagen Group godhead Ferdinand Piëch, saw potential for a pioneering, tech-focused premium car company in America. The Quattro, the world’s first practical all-wheel-drive performance car, became proof of concept. The marketing department branded the hell out of it. To protect the trademark, the company established quattro GmbH at Neckarsulm, two and a half hours outside Audi’s modern-day Ingolstadt headquarters. Quattro eventually went skunkworks, creating boutique hot-rod riffs on Audi sedans and wagons. Sold across Europe, these RS models gained a cult following. But only a handful made it stateside, each in scarce quantity, which just added to the mystique. Last year, quattro GmbH relaunched as Audi Sport, signaling a transition from novelty act to volume player. The firm will bring four new RS models here over the next 18 months.
The new RS3 is the first of them. Upgrades over the S3 include 19-inch wheels, Pirelli P Zero summer tires, a retuned suspension, bigger front brakes, flared fenders, beefier wheel hubs, and increased track width. Plus changes to lighting, bumpers, spoilers, and skirts.
The interior doesn’t seem like much—essentially standard-issue S3 with Alcantara inserts and manually adjusted, quilted-leather buckets—until you push the start button. That wakes the 400-hp, single-turbocharged, 20-valve twin-cam inline-five squeezed under the RS3’s stout hood. Keeping with tradition, the block sits ahead of the front axle, albeit mounted transversely. The idle is lopsided and coarse, unnerving and weirdly appealing. Stephan Reil can’t get enough of it.
Reil has led development on every RS car since 1998, and his fingerprints are all over this one. He told us that execs originally considered using a highly modified, Volkswagen-sourced four-cylinder. The prototypes hit 400 hp. They left him cold.
“We have a word in German, the literal translation is ‘the turbo hole.’ Okay, well this was the turbo canyon,” he said. “I do not want to overstate my importance, but I made quite a lot of noise about the low-end torque and how the RS3 was needing the five-cylinder. Not only for the driving benefits, but also for the sound.”
His team made it happen, overhauling the 2.5-liter from the old TT RS. Here, the engine features a different block with a new, aluminum crankcase and oil pump, and a lightweight pulley set. The crankshaft is hollow-bored, the oil pan is magnesium, and the cylinders are plasma-coated. The fuel system now offers port direct injection. A larger turbocharger pushes more boost.
The results are stiff with drama. Peak torque, a thumping 354 lb-ft, arrives at 1700 rpm. Then wait a beat while the turbo spools. The lag adds character, and the payoff is huge. Full smack comes a hair below 3000 rpm. It’s an event, an onslaught of surge that doesn’t quit, pulling like mad right up to the 7000-rpm redline. The sound mixes pounding induction hiss with dinosaur death rattle. Storming down Highway 97 upstate, the intergalactic hot-rod vibe was strong.
And the numbers don’t lie. Audi claims a 0–60-mph time of 3.9 seconds. During testing, the RS3 managed 3.7 seconds—matching the 707-hp Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat—thanks in large part to the sophisticated launch-control software guiding the Audi’s dual-clutch automatic. Reil said the integration is a harbinger.
Historically, Audi’s approach to RS has been hands-off. Base-model cars were shipped to Neckarsulm and tuned small-batch. They returned sporting large twin turbos or Cosworth-tuned engines or silly-colored paint. Sometimes all three. Engineers got a wide latitude; early cars were subversive and a little raw. But in a major philosophical shift, the RS line is now being developed alongside Audi’s base models, in collaboration with Audi corporate, instead of tuned post hoc.
“Before, [creating a high-performance variant] was easy. You add the horsepower, brakes, maybe tires, and, boom, it was done,” Reil explained. “But we could not continue our old way, making the RS version after. The main car is too complex. The cost of engineering is too high.”
Reil is not concerned about watered-down product, insisting the arrangement gives Audi Sport better access to new components. The RS3 carries a next-gen version of Audi’s Haldex all-wheel-drive system, which uses electromagnetic couplings and a hydraulic multiplate clutch differential. The system can now send 100 percent of the engine’s torque rearward. RS-specific calibration engages the rear differential “as much as possible, always,” Reil said. Stability control is fully defeatable.
Altogether, it’s a potent setup. On farm roads around Lime Rock, the RS3 didn’t mind being chucked around or unsettled by heavy throttle inputs. The chassis felt lively, even returning tidy, controlled slides. That new aluminum-intensive engine takes 57 pounds off the front axle, part of a concerted effort to alleviate nose-heavy handling traits. It works wonders, and the Dynamic package goes one step further, adding a reverse-staggered (255/30 front, 235/35 rear) wheel and tire arrangement. For $1450, it’s a bargain. Front-end grip is a league beyond the 375-hp Mercedes-AMG CLA45, the RS3’s only real competition.
Our test car also had the $4800 Dynamic Plus package. Drawn from Reil’s affinity for the Nürburgring (RS3 mules logged more than 10,000 miles there), it brings an advanced tire-temperature monitoring system, raises the top speed from 155 to 174 mph, and adds carbon-ceramic front brakes. They offer big stopping power and near-silent operation during normal use. But the package also replaces the forgiving, adjustable magnetic dampers with a fixed sport suspension. It’s a rough ride. Only track rats need apply.
The steering represents a better effort than previous fast Audis; engineers admit steering feel has been an Audi weakness of late, so they threw out the old variable-ratio rack for a progressive unit. There’s a fair amount of body roll baked in, said to help differentiate the RS3 from the new four-passenger TT RS, which shares the same basic chassis and drivetrain. The Technology package’s 14-speaker Bang & Olufsen stereo sounds spectacular. The optional sport exhaust sounds even better.Advertisement - Continue Reading Below
The biggest hiccup is the gearbox. It’s benign around town and delivers punchy full-throttle upshifts in sportier settings. But in manual mode, there’s a noticeable lag between paddle pull and gear engagement, especially under partial load.
Regardless, the RS3 is an exceptionally good car, a practical-minded monster that punches above its class. Audi also stresses the pedigree. The new engine shares its 88-millimeter bore spacing with the original Quattro. Same with the 1-2-4-5-3 firing order. The word “quattro” is even embossed across the RS3’s nose, in classic Eighties typeface, a nod to the homologation-special Sport Quattro badging scheme.
The heritage cues are nice, if misplaced. The RS3 isn’t offering the novelty that a Quattro coupe did three decades ago. The small crossover in your neighbor’s driveway probably has a turbo engine and all-wheel drive.
That doesn’t mean the RS3 isn’t special. The car’s limited run of 250 models for 2017 sold out quickly. “You see AMG and M badges on every freakin’ corner now,” said one product planner. That won’t happen with the RS brand.
The RS3 is not a proof of concept, but rather an exciting execution of it: accessible speed, decent cargo space, an exclusive nameplate. In terms of dynamics and value, the RS3 is probably the most compelling Audi sedan ever sold here.
Sitting in the paddock at Lime Rock, the RS3 LMS looked completely and utterly correct. It has the right proportions, the size-too-big shoebox fenders, and slick livery. The pronounced and sharp front splitter. The top-mounted rear wing, risers like withered claws gripping a carbon-fiber park bench. This is the modern touring-car aesthetic.
It was drizzling rain as Brad Kettler finished checking over the RS3 LMS. Kettler is a veteran mechanic, engineer, and crew chief. He previously worked on Audi’s endurance-racing program, playing an essential role in four Le Mans wins. “The only thing he didn’t do was the catering,” said lead driver Allan McNish, when asked about Kettler during a 2015 interview. As Audi Sport’s head of U.S. customer racing, Kettler has jurisdiction over LMS models. This one is as much his baby as those Le Mans prototypes were years ago, which is kind of the point. Audi Sport sells the RS3 LMS in more than a dozen markets worldwide. But every U.S. customer car is shipped from Europe directly to Kettler’s shop in western Indiana, where it’s fastidiously prepped for competition. The idea, he said, is to bring Le Mans–level car prep and safety to clients at a reasonable price, around $135,000—far less than a GT3 or even a GT4.
“You couldn’t replicate this car for that much, as far as parts and labor,” Kettler said. “Then you consider that it’s homologated internationally, it’s backed by Audi, it comes with a real VIN”—he opened the rear driver’s-side door, exposing the 17-digit factory code water-jet cut into the beautifully crafted roll cage—“and suddenly this starts looking like a bargain.”
Kettler walked around the car, pointing out more details. The custom fire-suppression system made with hospital-grade copper; the 26-gallon fuel cell, complete with handy digital gauge; the stock-looking dash and door panels, all molded to hug the roll-cage plumbing. The bodywork appears flawless. There isn’t an errant wire or rough edge in sight.
The production steering wheel and instrument panel made way for a removable OMP wheel and crisp, legible AiM digital dash. Also missing: the RS3’s five-cylinder and all-wheel-drive system. Per TCR regulations, the LMS must use a turbo engine between 1.8 and 2.0 liters. Here, Audi Sport went with Volkswagen Group’s EA888-code four-cylinder—basically an S3 powerplant with minor tweaks, like software tuning and intercooler upgrades. Output is 330 hp, and torque comes in at 302 lb-ft. The series also bans traction control and active differentials, like the RS3’s neat Haldex system, so the LMS makes do with front-wheel drive and a mechanical limited-slip.Advertisement - Continue Reading Below
“The view isn’t terribly different from the normal RS3,” Wolfkill said, strapping in. The controls are straightforward and easy to operate. “The seat is lower and positioned further back, slightly reclined, and the steering wheel is closer, providing better leverage.” The OMP wheel adjusts up and down and presents the driver with a palette of buttons controlling everything from the radio and dash display to the fan, wipers, and lights.
Started up, the four-cylinder lacks the complex tone of the street car’s inline-five, let alone the sheer volume of Stuck’s old five-cylinder IMSA sedan. Still, there’s no mistaking its purposeful burble for anything but that of a full-bore competition machine.
Rumbling down pit lane, the cabin is free of the usual squeaks and rattles associated with race cars, Wolfkill said—yet another indicator of Kettler’s expertise and Audi Sport’s factory build quality. After a few laps, their efforts are even more obvious.
“The LMS isn’t just sorted—it’s an absolute blast to drive. The four-banger doesn’t seem to suffer any turbo lag. The pull is almost V-6 in nature, smooth and constant, no flat spots or dips before redline,” Wolfkill noted. Audi Sport estimates a 0–62-mph time of 4.5 seconds—well behind that of the street car, despite being some 750 pounds lighter. Such is the benefit of all-wheel drive.
Despite the absence of that technology, the TCR car handles beautifully. It takes time to heat up the rear slicks (which are the same size as the fronts—265/660-18). But Wolfkill found no torque steer, and, amazingly, little to no understeer when accelerating out of corners. “This is one of the few front-drive cars out there—street-legal or track-only—that doesn’t behave like one,” Wolfkill concluded.Advertisement - Continue Reading Below
Series rules require either a production-based gearbox or spec sequential unit. Audi Sport went with the former for the car we drove, using a modified paddle-shift dual-clutch automatic from the S3. The LMS also has a rally-style handbrake. “The six-speed is exactly what you expect from a good dual-clutch setup: Gearchanges come easy, clicking up through the cogs precisely and rev-matching perfectly on downshifts,” Wolfkill said. Like its roadgoing counterpart, the race car’s transmission features both manual and automatic modes.
“If you look at the telemetry, with the driver in control, the torque output jumps around,” said Kettler, simulating an EKG readout with his finger. “With the car [in automatic], it’s more like a flat line. The car knows what it wants, how to get the best power delivery at all times.”
Around Lime Rock, left to its own devices, the LMS occasionally shifted up or down at points that Wolfkill found unnatural. Kettler told him to ignore that sensation; on some tracks, the car actually turns quicker laps in full-auto settings. Of course, pulling paddles is more enjoyable and, ultimately, more satisfying. But letting the electronics shoulder that load is a boon for novices, especially when learning a new circuit. It underlines TCR’s emphasis on balancing accessibility and challenge.
To that end, power steering is allowed in the series, but most driver aids are not, including anti-lock brakes. Audi Sport’s unassisted, steel-rotor setup requires a serious shove of the brake pedal—some 140 pounds of pressure—to engage fully.
Helping matters is a healthy dose of downforce, front and rear. “Even at mild speed, the aero pays dividends in grip under braking, as well as rear stability, trailing in and accelerating out of Turn Four onto Lime Rock’s No-Name straight,” Wolfkill said. The car can easily be tuned to rotate more readily. The McPherson-strut front suspension has adjustable dampers, as does the multilink, coil-over-style rear. Ride height, camber, and toe are all variable. The front and rear anti-roll bars each offer three points of adjustment. Rest assured, you’ll be tinkering from an ideal baseline. Like the standard RS3, the LMS’s default chassis behavior is dead-on neutral.Advertisement - Continue Reading Below
TCR held 180 events globally last year, including three Formula 1 support races, and earned its own class at the 24 Hours of Nürburgring. Manufacturers are taking note. Next year, the RS3 LMS will run alongside new competition from Alfa Romeo, Ford, Subaru, Honda, and others. Some of those TCR cars may soon race stateside in Pirelli World Challenge and the IMSA Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge..
A front-wheel-drive car for gentleman racers is a world removed from Le Mans prototypes or the IMSA 90 GTO and Hans Stuck. Just as the RS3 street car isn’t newfangled like the original Quattro. The RS3 and its race-car sibling are more beneficiaries of Audi’s history than reflections of it. The public perception those groundbreaking machines helped create—and the experience the company gleaned making them—allow Audi Sport to now sell a $60,000 small sedan and a low-six-figure turnkey race car. Neither is for people wearing suspenders, with a wiener dog in the back seat. The story started with a boxy little Eighties coupe. Who could’ve guessed it would end up here?
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Source : http://www.roadandtrack.com/new-cars/road-tests/a12469416/audi-rs3-road-and-track-test/