For a driving junkie, two-and-a-half years is a long time to be confined to Singapore’s crowded roads and constipated traffic.
With COVID travel restrictions finally easing, the chance to scratch the driving itch finally came this July, and with my equally car-mad teenage son we made plans for a no-holds-barred lap of Peninsula Malaysia, covering some of its best driving roads. This would be revenge travel, petrolhead-style.
And what better car to take on a big drive than Audi’s new RS3 sedan? With 394bhp and 500Nm of torque from a turbocharged 2.5-litre 5-pot engine – nine-time International Engine of the Year, no less – shoehorned into a compact all-wheel-driven saloon, it has all the performance you could want, hitting 100km/h in 3.8 seconds.
Apart from our car’s eye-searing Kyalami Green paintjob and aggressively-styled bumpers front and rear, the only other hint at the potency lurking beneath that three-box bodyshell are the bulging wheelarches that distinguish the RS models from lesser Audis.
But which of Malaysia’s endless menu of great driving roads to head to? The eastern coastal road up to Terengganu and beyond was a tempting option with its long, undulating straights and its gorgeous views of the South China Sea and unspoilt, coconut tree-fringed beaches.
But the mountainous Titiwangsa region running north-south down the central spine of the peninsula is the true driver’s paradise, with no end of deserted, twisty tarmac to explore in a great driving car.
The first driving route entered into the Audi’s sat-nav, therefore, is a sinuous road from Hulu Langat on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur to the town of Kuala Klawang, about an hour’s drive away.
And what a road it proves to be – freshly-surfaced, rising and falling dramatically as it carves its way through the foothills of the Titiwangsa mountain range. The views are distractingly great too, looking out over lush forested valleys as far as the eye can see.
I switch to Dynamic mode on Audi Drive Select and the RS3 is instantly in its element, diving eagerly from apex to apex, gripping the smooth tarmac ferociously, its quattro drivetrain ably deploying the ample power doled out by that delightfully musical engine.
The engine itself is relishing the revs and singing to its 7000rpm cutout, punching the car out of every bend with tremendous verve and seemingly thrilled to be let off the leash after the 300km slog up the North-South Highway.
On tighter turns the effect of the RS3’s torque splitter is tangible. This clever device, appearing for the first time on any Audi, replaces the conventional rear differential with an electronically-controlled multi-disc clutch pack which actively and constantly juggles torque between the two rear wheels.
In particular it apportions torque to the outside rear wheel during hard driving to sharpen the cornering line and help rotate the rear end.
This, coupled with the RS3’s tyre-size combination (unusually it sports fatter 265-section tyres at the front and 245-section at the rear) does impart a slight but discernible rear-led attitude when flooring it out of something like a second-gear uphill corner.
But as we progress further towards Kuala Klawang, potholes, pits and ruts begin to appear on the road surface, gradually and then with more frequency. We also start to pass roadside embankments shorn of foliage – clear signs of recent landslides – with the road being reduced in width by half at some places due to the tarmac having simply fallen away.
So we slow, and about 30km from Kuala Klawang we find the road closed entirely due to uncleared landslides and rockfalls ahead.
So we turn round and head back northwards onto the North-South Highway past the capital and to the Sungei Buloh rest halt for a quick bite and to meet up with some friends from Kuala Lumpur who will be joining us on our road trip (in a surprisingly rapid Ford Ranger Wildtrak Bi-turbo truck and a Triumph Tiger 900 Rally Pro bike).
Thereafter a few more hours of expressway drudgery ensue, as we head north towards our lodgings at Cameron Highlands.
But even on the interminable trudge up the highway, the RS3 proves the perfect companion. In Comfort mode its ride is luxury-limo supple, its warbly engine note recedes into the background and the virtues of its 15-speaker Bang & Olufsen sound system come to the fore, all combining to make the miles swish by unnoticed.
Some car seats induce acute backache after a few hours behind the wheel, but not these – in a full day of almost non-stop driving, there is not a twinge of discomfort, the Nappa leather-trimmed RS sport buckets bear-hugging us reassuringly through bends while remaining cosseting at a cruise.
Eventually we leave the highway at Simpang Pulai and spear eastwards up a gloriously flowing road that meanders upwards into the peninsula’s central mountain range.
After the interrupted Kuala Klawang run, it’s a wonderful place to unleash the RS3 as the road runs uninterrupted for over 50 kilometres, an almost endless series of medium- and high-speed bends taken mainly in third and fourth gears, perhaps with a blast up to fifth on some of the longer connecting straights.
It’s also wide, making for easy overtakes and meaning that you don’t get stuck behind a lumbering truck for bend after frustrating bend.
Eventually the turn-off sign for Cameron Highlands appears and we join the trucks, buses and assorted other traffic crawling their way up the mountain. But even here the RS3 has capacity to thrill.
Drop down a couple of gears on its 7-speed dual-clutch gearbox using the handy steering-mounted paddles, and the resulting phenomenal acceleration and sure-footed all-paw drivetrain allows us to hurtle past whole lines of traffic on the short straights before pulling back safely in line again.
Our bright green missile is by far the fastest thing up the hill that day. The huge brakes – 375mm diameter at the front and 310mm at the rear – are tireless too, slowing us from speed time after time without fade.
Next morning, partially-rested after a night’s sleep hampered by noisy nearby traffic, we head back down the mountain and onto a road which has already entrenched itself as a favourite for keen drivers and bikers.
Officially it’s called Federal Route 185, but in driving circles it’s known as the Gua Musang road, because from the foot of Cameron Highlands it cuts laterally east for a full 100 kilometres to the remote town of Gua Musang in Kelantan.
And those may well be the most memorable 100 kilometres you will ever drive. For most of its length the road drapes itself, ribbon-like, over an elevated region known as the Lojing Highlands, an almost uninhabited area with vast vistas and flowing hills.
The road is very lightly used, almost devoid of traffic in some places, but seems to have been built in expectation of much higher volume. It is mainly a two-laner in each direction, with some stretches even expanding into a double-carriageway.
All the way the RS3 carries simply massive speed, its ample power blasting it up the long, gradual inclines while its immense grip and beautifully-balanced chassis help it hold its line perfectly on downhill curves taken at unprintable velocities.
After catching our breath (and some lunch) at Gua Musang town, we continue to venture east through typical Malaysian trunk roads and then some narrow, twisty lanes cutting through endless oil palm estates until we eventually emerge at Tasik Kenyir – South-East Asia’s largest man-made lake, created in the 1980s when several rivers were dammed to flood the hilly region’s entire valley, to supply water and hydro-electric power.
The lake is truly immense, its surface spanning 260,000 hectares – over a third the size of Singapore. With ample freshwater marine life it is a haven for anglers, and the surrounding virgin rainforest is home to all manner of indigenous fauna, including the occasional elephant and tiger, and countless species of hornbills.
The roads skirting the lake are wide and sweeping, with glorious views of the lake and the surrounding forests. They would have been superb to drive too, had they been better maintained. As it is they are blighted by countless unmended ruts and potholes, many deep enough to wreck a car’s suspension or at least puncture a tyre.
So we proceed gingerly, swerving around each cavity, eyes on stalks for the next potentially trip-ending surface hazard. Even our biker pal on his Triumph Tiger all-terrain bike with its massive 240mm of front suspension travel has to slow his pace and stay vigilant for the larger depressions.
With Tasik Kenyir checked off our list, the Gua Musang road takes us back to our Cameron Highlands base, where we rest up before rising early the next morning for what is to be our longest driving day.
Yet again we head back down and onto the Gua Musang road – no complaints there, you never tire of this amazing, endlessly-challenging ribbon of tarmac – but this time instead of continuing eastwards past Gua Musang, we take a sharp left north towards the town of Jeli, 110km away.
This Gua Musang-Jeli stretch is intended to be a transport stage, so to speak – just a means of reaching the start of the next great driving road on our list – but it proves to be a lovely drive in its own right.
Cutting through deepest rural Kelantan, past the occasional village and countless plantations, traffic is very light and the terrain is gently undulating. The turns, when they come, are sweeping and generally well-sighted, and overtaking is easy.
With the RS3’s suspension in Comfort mode but the drivetrain in Dynamic (Audi’s Drive Select allows configuration of such mix-and-match combinations), we stroke effortlessly along, the car wafting over the road’s occasional bumps and ruts but the engine and gearbox always ready to deliver maximum attack when we need to overtake or when the road opens up.
At Jeli, we turn left and head west towards the town of Gerik, 120 kilometres away in Perak state. This Gerik-Jeli road, also known as the East-West Highway, is another fabled one, running through the mountains and jungles close to the Thai border.
It has a chequered history too – when it was being built in the 1970s through what was then hostile territory overrun by communist insurgents, the commies would occasionally spring from their jungle lairs to launch surprise (and sometimes fatal) attacks on the construction workers, to the extent that the military was deployed to guard the workers as they worked.
Today the commies are gone, but this place still has the capacity to shock and awe. The road climbs gradually to a highest point of 1100 metres, and from its elevated altitude some of the views are truly spectacular, looking out over the untouched hundred-million-year-old Belum-Temenggor rainforests and past the endless mountain ranges stretching in the distance into Southern Thailand.
And it is not just communist terrorists that the builders had to be wary of – occasional road signs warning of elephants and tapirs remind us this is their habitat and we are intruders on their turf. The aforementioned elephants and tapirs apart, these forests are home to the Malayan Tiger, sunbears and gibbons, among other rare wildlife.
And the road itself is as spectacular as the views, serving up non-stop driving magic. Slightly narrower and more sinuous than the Gua Musang road, the Gerik-Jeli stretch nevertheless engages with its well-surfaced tarmac and series after series of endlessly sweeping bends. Traffic density is modest and there are frequent passing lanes so you never get stuck behind anyone for too long.
About two-thirds of the way to Gerik the road traverses Tasik Temenggor, the second-largest lake on the peninsula (after Tasik Kenyir), where we stop intending to catch our breath, but instead end up having our breath stolen by the sheer majesty of the place.
After this, the rest of the trip is much less of an event. A long, easy cruise from Gerik down the North-South Highway to the capital, a couple of days’ R&R in and around Kuala Lumpur, before heading back to Singapore.
On the way home we make a detour to the Sepang circuit to drop in on some friends who happen to be attending a trackday. It’s one of the first trackdays open to our Singapore trackies since the borders reopened, and the turnout is overwhelming, with an amazing assortment of cars hitting the track and every driver returning to the pits after his stint with a big grin.
And even in the Sepang paddock packed with heavily-modified track cars and exotic machinery, the RS3 Sedan draws admiring glances.
I could have asked for no better ally on this trip than the RS3 Sedan. Over nearly 2500 kilometres in five days, it alternately pampered and thrilled us as the conditions required, delivered near-supercar pace and handling over Malaysia’s greatest driving roads, and never missed a beat.
It even proved remarkably frugal, averaging 11.2km/L over the entire journey despite being hard-driven much of the way.
Epic trip, epic car.
Audi RS3 Sedan 2.5 (A)
ENGINE 2480cc, 20-valves, inline-5, turbocharged
MAX POWER 394bhp at 5600-7000rpm
MAX TORQUE 500Nm at 2250-5600rpm
GEARBOX 7-speed dual-clutch with manual select
0-100KM/H 3.8 seconds
TOP SPEED 250km/h (governed)
CONSUMPTION 10.2km/L (combined)
PRICE From $384,395 with COE
AGENT Premium Automobiles