The entry-level three-door Audi S3 costs just over £30,000 – if you can resist Audi’s tempting options list. It has a six-speed manual gearbox as standard, and it doesn’t take long to realise that’s all the spec you really need.
We've already driven the S3 Sportback with a six-speed S tronic gearbox, and the way the dual-clutch box shuffles between gears is impressive. But the manual gives an extra connection to the driving experience. The gearshift doesn’t feel chunky or mechanical, but despite its light action, it’s precise, and gives you a better feeling of control over the 296bhp engine.
Under the bonnet is a version of the VW Golf GTI turbo that now develops a Golf GTD-rivalling 380Nm of torque. This arrives at 1,800rpm, and continues to 5,500rpm, giving lots of flexibility – you can stick it in third gear on a country road and barely have to change up or down.
The performance is accompanied by a growly engine note, especially when you select Dynamic mode to open a flap in the exhaust. Although the way the S3 shoots through bends is impressive, there are some small disappointments.
The variable ratio steering, which adjusts the lock depending on how you’re driving, makes parking easier, but doesn’t have the linear feel of a non-adaptive system. The brakes are grabby, too, meaning heel and toe downshifts are tricky.
When you’re not exploiting the four-wheel-drive chassis, the S3 is very refined, although the low-speed ride is jiggly. The interior is pretty sober, but solidly built from materials that make a Mercedes A45 AMG seem a bit cheap. That said, the boost gauge in the rev counter is naff, and the speedo is confusing, reading in 10mph increments up to 50mph, then 20mph thereafter.
The S3 isn’t cheap, but the performance is solid. This entry-level model is the driver’s choice, and saves you £1,480 over the auto, so you can even choose some extras from that options list.