AT A GLANCE

The Courier-Mail - Motoring - - First Drive -

OMAN, on the Ara­bian Gulf, seems an odd lo­ca­tion for the launch of Audi’s fire­cracker RS3 hatch and sedan.

Most peo­ple think of the Gulf’s less-than-chal­leng­ing straight roads and end­less sand dunes — not the ter­rain to ex­ploit han­dling, trac­tion and snappy per­for­mance.

The puz­zle is solved when we leave the beach­side re­sort town of Salalah, where Oma­nis es­cape the heat.

From Salalah, the Dho­far Moun­tains rise dra­mat­i­cally to peaks of 2500m via a se­ries of en­tic­ing, yet slip­pery switch­back roads — and the RS3, with all­wheel drive and 294kW five­cylin­der turbo, is in its el­e­ment as we sprint to the clouds.

Snow is never a prob­lem but the roads are as slip­pery as black ice thanks to the co­pi­ous leaks of oil and grease from ven­er­a­ble Mercedes and DAF trucks lug­ging loads from the nearby quar­ries.

Then there is the camel poo that marks the outer edges of most cor­ners.

Audi’s quat­tro all-wheel drive sends most of its torque to the rear wheels but re­acts in mil­lisec­onds if the tail breaks away, trans­fer­ring power for­ward. The RS3 scram­bles out of tight up­hill cor­ners and reins in the way­ward rear on down­hill turns with lit­tle fuss.

Our test car’s op­tional 370mm car­bon-ce­ramic front brake discs with eight-pis­ton calipers get a proper work­out on the long, steep de­scents back into Salalah — yet show no signs of fad­ing. There is no need to shuf­fle down the gears to re­tard the progress.

The gear­box is VW Group’s trusty seven-speed dual-clutch auto with pad­dle-shifters.

There is no con­ven­tional man­ual op­tion, which may dis­please those seek­ing more in­ter­ac­tion with the car. Much of the RS3’s ap­peal comes from sen­sory over­load, not solely when punt­ing around the hills.

Even be­fore set­ting off there is a nod to Audi’s hal­cyon days in ral­ly­ing — start the en­gine and the dis­tinc­tive five-cylin­der bark from the twin pipes re­calls its orig­i­nal quat­tro rally cars from the 1980s.

The 2.5-litre turbo en­gine not only gains an ex­tra 25kW but also cuts 26kg from the front axle load thanks to a new all-al­loy block shared with the TT RS sta­ble­mate and a ligh­tal­loy crank­case.

This pro­vides a mas­sive im­prove­ment to the feel of the front as you push on, wip­ing out most of the pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tion’s un­der­steer.

When it’s al­lowed to wind out to its 7200rpm red­line, the AUDI RS3 PRICE From $80,000 (est) SAFETY 5 stars, 6 airbags EN­GINE 2.5-litre 5-cyl turbo, 294kW/480Nm TRANS­MIS­SION 7-speed dual-clutch auto; AWD DI­MEN­SIONS 4478mm (L), 1801mm (W), 1397mm (H), 2631mm (WB) WEIGHT 1515kg 0-100KM/H 4.1 secs TOP SPEED 280km/h in­line five’s dis­tinc­tive song is an au­ral de­light, even re­call­ing the V10 in the brand’s R8 su­per­car.

The ex­tra power brings the 0-100km/h time down from 4.3 sec­onds to 4.1 , quicker than cars twice the price.

Pre­vi­ously only avail­able as a hatch, the new RS3 will come in sedan form as well. The sedan will ar­rive in May or June, while the hatch will fol­low in the third quar­ter .

Prices will rise from the late $70,000 mark to the low $80,000s but will come with Audi’s dig­i­tal cock­pit read­out as stan­dard.

In what’s a fa­mil­iar but suc­cess­ful for­mula for Audi’s RS in­te­rior pack­age, min­i­mal changes have been made to the A3’s cabin save for suede door trim in­serts and di­a­mondquilted leather seats.

The sports wheel, in look and feel, copies the lat­est Porsche trend and has the mul­ti­func­tion but­tons float­ing off the wheel within reach of the thumbs.

Ex­ter­nal pan­els are largely un­changed ex­cept for marginally broader front guards to ac­com­mo­date the 20mm wider front track.

It looks sleeker and fat­ter at the same time due to large sill ex­ten­sions, a rear valance that houses the oval pipes and gi­ant air in­takes be­low the bumper, all signed off with sig­na­ture brushed al­loy high­lights around the nose and on the mir­rors.

The pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tion RS3 was a huge hit — Audi Aus­tralia sold 950 last year, which equates to roughly one in four A3 sales.

There’s lit­tle rea­son to be­lieve the new model will be any dif­fer­ent.

If tail-out shenani­gans from a sporty Euro­pean takes your fancy, stick to a BMW M2. If you seek a com­pe­tent all-wheel drive moun­tain hug­ger that pumps out more horse­power than the Mercedes AMG A45, then the RS3 is well worth a se­ri­ous look.

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