Whatever happened to the five-cylinder engine? Twenty-five years ago, it seemed as if every major motor manufacturer was making them, enamoured of the inline five’s compactness (it’s only a little longer than a similarly configured four-cylinder), and the facts that it’s lighter, only slightly less smooth and considerably cheaper to build than a straight six.
Mercedes kicked off the trend in the 1970s. It was emulated by VW/Audi and then picked up by the likes of Volvo, Land Rover, General Motors, Honda and Fiat – and soon, fives were being churned out in their millions. And then just as quickly they went out of fashion, victims of ever more rigorous fuel-efficiency and emissions regulations, the concomitant pressure to reduce engine sizes and the widespread embrace of forced induction across the motor industry.
Engineers may have long demonstrated a preference for engines configured in multiples of two, rather than for prime numbers, but enthusiasts continue to reserve a special place in the heart for the five. That’s partly because of the engine’s distinctive and sometimes magnificent sound, which derives from the unusual firing order of its pistons.
Indeed, petrolheads wax lyrical about a “quint” that first saw service in ’76, punched way above its size and still soldiers on more than 40 years later. I’m talking about the Audi five, a heroic engine that helped win the 1983 world rally drivers’ title for Hannu Mikkola, swept the great Walter Röhrl up the brutal Pikes Peak hill climb in less than 11 minutes some four years later, and then, in ’89, powered Hans-Joachim Stuck to three outright wins and a further four class victories in North America’s IMSA GT Championship. If achievements such as those are insufficiently cred-worthy for you, remember too that the Audi five subsequently served as basis for the V10 used in the Lamborghini Gallardo and Huracán, as well as Ingolstadt’s own R8.
Although today a niche product that’s confined to just three high-performance variants in Audi’s vast model range, the company’s straight five continues to bask in something resembling cult adulation – and it’s not hard to figure out why. Now boasting an aluminium block and displacing 2.5 litres, it summons a massive clout: tuned to produce 400 metric horsepower (which computes as 395 old-school bhp) and 465Nm of torque, it puts 911s and F-Types to shame, and embarrasses ’90s-era supercars with ease.
This most powerful production version yet was introduced in last year’s TT RS Coupe, and has since made its way into the RS Q3 SUV, as well as the RS3 compact. For several years locked in combat with Mercedes-AMG’s A 45 as to which can claim to be the world’s hottest hatchback, the RS3 has now been edged into the lead by the latest horsepower boost.
A hatchback with 400 horsepower? The idea’s almost unthinkable, but as I’ve just been handed the key to an RS3 Sportback – mine to play with over a long weekend – I’m about to find out for myself just how bonkers this little Audi can be.
With a silhouette that’s better described as utilitarian than sexy,
and an unassuming if nonethe-less purposeful battleship-grey paint job, my Sportback looks businesslike without screaming for attention. There are, however, clues aplenty as to its exceptional provenance.
Few hatchbacks, for example, roll on massive, black, 19-inch alloys shod with ultra-low-profile Pirelli P Zero rubber, and nor are they likely to sport drilled, wave-front brake discs with bright red callipers. Then there are the massive front air intakes flanking the black honeycomb grill, the spoiler that extends the roofline far out above the rear window, the diffuser beneath the back bumper and the pair of oval tailpipes. This RS3 may not be flamboyant, but it’s certainly no Q-car.
If you’re familiar with cars that bear the red logo of Audi’s high-performance offshoot, there aren’t too many surprises about the Sportback’s interior. Upholstered almost entirely in black, save for pops of red on the stitching of seats, console, steering wheel and safety belts, as well as the inserts of the jet-engine-style air nozzles on the fascia, it’s the perfect man-cave, though one that’s every bit as restrained, beautifully finished and ergonomically friendly as you’d expect an Audi cabin to be.
There are thoughtful touches here and there, like the Alcantara panels on the small and wonderfully wieldy multi-function wheel, while a further reminder that this is no ordinary hatchback is found in the boost gauge at the bottom of the tachometer. As an entry-level introduction to the heady attractions of RS motoring, this could hardly be bettered.
That impression is only amplified – and quite literally so – when I jab the console-mounted starter button and two-and-a-half litres of turbocharged, five-cylinder muscle erupt into life, first with a loud cough and then a rapid-fire, Gatling-gun clatter before settling down to a more unobtrusive (though still somewhat lumpy) idle. Yet pulling gently away from the kerb, with chassis and drivetrain turned down to their most relaxed drive-mode settings, the RS3 becomes the personification of civility, its engine smooth, flexible and quiet, and its dampers effortlessly soaking up the undulations of Hong Kong’s notoriously pitted highways.
It can’t last, of course. Before long, I start fiddling with the Drive Select system, choosing Dynamic for the engine, steering and exhaust (though leaving the quattro all-wheel drive in Comfort). Exiting a toll plaza and seeing an empty road ahead, I nudge the selector of the seven-speed S tronic gearbox into Sport mode and floor the accelerator.
All hell is let loose as the Audi throws off any pretence to gentility and transforms into a street fighter. The power and the noise kick in instantaneously and relentlessly, the volume amplified by exhaust-system flaps that open to emit a thrillingly raucous, hard-edged rasp. With gruff snorts at each upshift to punctuate the headlong rush, it’s like riding aboard a loud and bad-tempered animal.
Audi claims the RS3 hits 100km/h from a standstill in just 4.1 seconds, an absurdly quick time, though one I have no reason to doubt. Should you live in Germany or feel magically immune to speeding fines, the company also offers to raise the car’s top
whack from the electronically governed 250 to an even more ballistic 280 – in which case you’ll probably option the carbon-ceramic brake
Frankly, on the evidence of the test car’s standard steel rotors, the RS3 stops perfectly reliably without the carbon anchors, while thanks to the quattro system, it grips the tarmac like a limpet (though as it will also vector 100 percent of torque to the rear wheels, at times there’s also the sensation of a rear-drive car, rather than the expected understeer).
Of course, there’s a limit to cornering grip, and at some point the car will come unstuck, but I’m neither brave nor fast enough to discover where that point is (and unless you’re a complete headbanger, I suspect you won’t either). Handling is well balanced, controlled and fluid, and though the steering is a little remote at lower speeds, it’s both quick and precise.
As to the RS3’s thirst, Audi quotes an average 8.4 litres of gas for every 100km; when I hand the car back, the computer tells me I’ve managed 8.9. I admit that’s hardly abstemious, and especially not for a hatchback, but this is one with almost 400bhp up front that I’ve been exercising fairly hard. With a lighter foot on the right pedal, I’m convinced the official figure would be easily achievable. Green the RS may not be, but neither is it a green-eyed, planet-destroying monster.
On which note, I’m returning the Sportback with more than the usual reluctance. It’s not just that this giant-killing hatchback is such hugely good fun, but with a joyless future of squeaky-clean, driverless electric Ubers beckoning inexorably, I do wonder for how much longer we’ll be permitted such gloriously incorrect indulgences.
But no, let’s not visit that brave new world just yet. Let’s stay in the present a while longer – let’s be thankful that cars such as the Audi RS3 still exist, and that we are around to enjoy them.