2019 is turning out to be a year of contrast for Audi. In one corner we have the all-new, fully-electric E-tron which has just been unleashed on the UK, and the updated, super-frugal V6 TDI versions of the S4, 5, 6, 7 and SQ5 which were revealed to the world recently. In the other corner, a new-ish R8 is joined by a refreshed RS3 and a tweaked TT RS.
It’s a weird mix, isn’t it? It’s as though a bunch of people within the company didn’t get the memo about the way the world is going. Rather than retire its shouty V10 and inline-five turbo engines, Audi has tweaked both. They now running petrol particulate filters, meaning they’re good to go until the current emissions regulations expire until 2021, and potentially beyond, depending on how the next set of rules shape up.
It’s this strange transition phase we now find ourselves in, where shouty petrol engines sit alongside shiny new vehicles that are all about lowering fleet emissions figures, and it’s being repeated everywhere. Just look at that joyous Porsche 911 Speedster we drove recently, developed at the same time as the new Taycan EV.
Conclusion? The electric age isn’t here yet. Petrol isn’t done, and some of unleaded’s greatest hits are still around, still playing their music. And loudly.
Audi may have had to turn down the gain on its 2.5-litre five-pot a touch, but it still generates a beautiful, full-bodied sound that’s unlike anything else around right now. Throw whatever cliched description you like at this thing - off-beat thrum, throaty warble, roaring ur-Quattro reincarnation - it’s deserving of all of them and more.
Whether it’s in the RS3 or TT RS, you do - perhaps unexpectedly - have to rev it to get the most out of it. It properly comes on song from about 4000rpm, with peak power coming in at 5850 and lasting until the 7000rpm redline. There’s a little lag, but not a troubling amount, and when it comes to changing gear, the seven-speed ’S Tronic’ dual-clutch transmission will happily smash in a new cog with gusto. You’ll find yourself taking manual control often, though - for sportified driving, it’s just not quite on the ball.
Both of these are cars you buy primarily for the engine. And why wouldn’t you? Signing on the dotted line for any other main reason would be like going to Nandos because of the decor and not the vast quantities of chicken you’ll regret eating the next day. But it’d be a huge mistake to assume the 2.5 is all the RS3 and TT RS have to offer.
Let’s start with the RS3. Dynamically, Audi claims it’s unchanged - other than the exhaust fiddling, the RS3’s only alternations lie in the specs. And yet, the steering does just feel a little sweeter than I remember it being. Sure, it’s lacking any real feedback (which is so common now I’m bored of saying that, and you’re probably bored of reading it), but it’s beautifully weighted and almost shockingly quick off-centre.
And the chassis can keep up - the front end on the RS3 has an incredible bite to it. The original one had a reputation for being an understeering pig on the limit, but this version (and the pre-update car, for that matter) is a masterclass in neutrality. If you’re really brutal with the throttle, it’ll even give a bit of adjustment at the rear.
The RS3 saloon we started the day in used fixed-rate dampers, and was none the worse for it. It’s erring on the firmer side of the spectrum, but it’s never uncomfortable, and leaves the car unflustered even by ill-placed lumps and bumps mid-corner that in many cars would cause a code brown. Having later tried the adaptive setup on the TT RS, we’d have to say it isn’t worth it - it’s too stiff in dynamic mode, so you merely end up switching the magnetorheological dampers back to ‘comfort’.
The conditions during our day with the cars near the Scottish highlands were all over the place - in other words, quattro weather. But arguably, the RS3 is more impressive when it starts to dry out, because it’s barely any quicker. Conclusion? Wet weather barely seems to tax the four-wheel drive system.
I’ve driven the pre-update versions of both the RS3 and TT RS before, but only in isolation. Stepping from one to the other turns out to be something of a revelation - a lower centre of gravity, an 80kg drop in weight and the mere sensation of your arse being much closer to the tarmac means the TT RS feels absurdly quick after being in its larger brother.
It does that intestine-scrambling, how has that piece of scenery already flashed passed thing that normally only a supercar can do. But then if you glance at the figures, they do look to belong to something much more exotic. 0-62mph in 3.7 seconds? Three years after the third-get TT RS burst onto the scene, that still seems silly. It’s as fast as the first-gen R8 V10 Plus, for Pete’s sake.
On the limit, though, it does behave very similarly to the RS3, even if it is noticeably keener to change direction. Given that it has a tiny boot and barely useable rear seats, it does seem a bit mean that at £53,905, Audi is charging £7620 more for the TT RS than an RS3 Sportback, or £6620 more than the saloon.
That’s not significantly more than a BMW M2 Competition, but while you can’t add a lot of in the way of options to the baby M car, the TT RS we drove weighed in over £67,000 after some liberal box ticking. Ouch.
Go instead for the new Audi Sport Edition (£50,285 for the Sportback, £51,285 for the saloon), and you won’t need to add a whole lot else in the configurator. The RS3, then, seems like an easy sell. Indeed, Audi has always shifted it in much greater numbers.
For the engine alone, it’s worth that price. That you get the razor-sharp handling, smart looks, decent practicality and a good turn of comfort in the mix too might just make the RS3 the performance bargain of the moment.