Some­times amaz­ing things come in small pack­ages

The Mercury News Weekend - - DRIVE - By Mal­colm Gunn WWW.WHEELBASEMEDIA.COM

TheHonda Civic Type-R is the new poster child/bench­mark of com­pact-car per­for­mance. Per­haps Audi has some­thing to say about that.

The gen­e­sis of the 400-horse­power all-wheel-drive Audi RS3 starts with the A3 sedan.

This hum­blest Audi mem­ber ar­rived as a sedan for 2015. The near-lux­ury model is a de­cent enough run­ner with a tur­bocharged 170-horse­power base en­gine and is priced in the low-$30,000 range. The hangup for the A3, how­ever, is that that kind of money will get you a well-equipped mid­size sedan from Honda, Ford or Toy­ota, one that has more power and much more rear-seat room. For fans of Ger­many-based sport­ing ma­chin­ery, that likely won’t mat­ter much.

The more pow­er­ful S3’s 292-horse turbo four-cylin­der yields a snap­pier four-door, but the fun fac­tor is di­aled up to 10 with the RS3’s ar­rival.

From the out­side, the hot Audi is all busi­ness, es­pe­cially if your “busi­ness” in­volves Euro­pean per­for­mance ve­hi­cles and the pi­lot­ing of same. The blacked-out hon­ey­comb grille flanked by over­sized air scoops cer­tainly makes a bold state­ment. At the op­po­site end, the lower panel be­neath the bumper (called a dif­fuser) houses a pair of large oval ex­haust pipes that col­lec­tively ex­ude an equally ag­gres­sive de­meanor.

The ex­cla­ma­tion points on the sedan’s de­sign are the fen­der-fill­ing 19-inch wheels avail­able in a va­ri­ety of op­tional fla­vors.

The in­te­rior is tai­lored and de­cid­edly up­scale. Pre­mium leather cov­ers the seats, cen­ter con­sole, door pan­els and flat-bot­tom steer­ing wheel. The sport buck­ets are sup­port­ive and con­sid­er­ate of more portly pas­sen­gers. The driver’s side is op­tion­ally power-ad­justable, but the co-pi­lot’s chair is man­u­ally op­er­ated only.

The tablet-style touch-screen perched atop the dash­board is sub­tle enough that it shouldn’t cause any se­ri­ous dis­trac­tion. It’s rel­a­tively straight­for­ward to op­er­ate.

Driv­ers should be dis­tracted, but in a good way, once they’re set­tled in be­hind the wheel. Press­ing the red-lit starter but­ton ac­ti­vates a tur­bocharged 2.5-liter five-cylin­der en­gine that pro­duces 400 horse­power and 354 pound-feet of torque. That’s a lot of punch for a 3,500-pound car that’s smaller than the much-bal­ly­hooed (and lighter) 306-horse­power Civic Type-R.

The stan­dard seven-speed pad­dleshift trans­mis­sion is a slick piece of work and deftly se­lects the ap­pro­pri­ate gear in seam­less fash­ion. Audi mea­sures the zero-to-60-mph time at 3.9 sec­onds— a full sec­ond quicker than the front-drive Civic Type-R— which places the car in some very fast com­pany. The op­tional car­bon-ce­ramic brakes do a great job at haul­ing the RS3 down in a hurry. The RS3 is rated at 19 mpg in the city and 28 on the high­way (22, com­bined) on pre­mium fuel.

If there is a down­side to the RS3, it’s the sport-sus­pen­sion setup. Even set to com­fort mode, the ride is un­nec­es­sar­ily firm over rough pave­ment.

All this per­for­mance will set you back just un­der $56,000— about $21,000 more than a Civic Type R— in­clud­ing des­ti­na­tion charges, which in­cludes a mod­est as­sort­ment of lux­ury trim­mings. The ex­te­rior in­cludes a panoramic sun­roof, LED head­lights, folded out­side mir­rors rain-sens­ing wipers and sum­mer per­for­mance rub­ber.

Along with per­fo­rated-leather seats, in­te­rior up­grades in­clude a 180-watt sound sys­tem and front and rear park­ing sen­sors.

The RS3 will run just as quickly with­out adding any of the tempt­ing op­tion pack­ages, some of which are mostly dress-up ex­tras. How­ever spe­cial men­tion goes to the ex­cel­lent Bang & Olufsen sound sys­tem plus the suite of dy­namic safety tech­nolo­gies that are worth the ex­tra cost.

The RS3’s small size ver­sus cost will be off-putting to some buy­ers, but per­for­mance en­thu­si­asts un­der­stand that be­ing small also means be­ing quick and nim­ble.

Such buy­ers will also be won over by the RS3’s style and el­e­gance. It’s a oneof-kind pack­age based on a phi­los­o­phy that has yet to be adopted by North Amer­i­can and Ja­pan-based au­tomak­ers.

Audi is a mas­ter at craft­ing seats that are com­fort­able and art­ful. (Photo cour­tesy of Audi) The tur­bocharged five-cylin­der en­gine is unique to the RS3 and makes 400 horse­power. With stan­dard all-wheel-drive and seven-speed pad­dle-shift trans­mis­sion,...

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