Fine-handling, well built and equipped and a sound financial package. But does it have the character of rivals?
The S3 is a very good car. It’s fast, fine-handling, well built and equipped, appropriately styled and also represents a sensible financial package – so it’s very appealing. However, for all its competence, the car is still lacking in character. The test will be to see how the S3 fares against its most serious premium rival – BMW’s 130i M Sport. This will decide which is the more emotionally engaging, and if that really matters.
Creating a hot hatchback might seem easy – bolt on a big bodykit, add large alloy wheels and drop in a powerful engine. But when it comes to the premium area of the market, things get more complicated. Buyers demand the go, but not necessarily the show – and they don’t want to give up the luxury, either.
Take Audi’s new S3 as an example. At first sight, it seems to walk the line between hot and haughty. The flagship model packs 261bhp, but chooses to underline its potential with subtle styling tweaks that give clues to the fact that this isn’t a regular A3.
Climb inside, and there’s just about enough to set it aside, too. Low-key S3 badging on the leather wheel, dials, gearknob and door sills complement aluminium-effect air vent surrounds and pedals, while cloth and leather front seats add to the package. Otherwise, it’s a fairly standard A3 interior – which is no bad thing, as it’s soundly constructed and ergonomically impressive.
Under the bonnet, the 2.0-litre FSI features a new turbo to lift performance. Below 2,500rpm, the S3 remains smooth and free-revving. Press on, however, and the engine really wakes up, offering a thrilling charge towards the red line.
Peak power comes at 6,000rpm, while 350Nm of torque is available from 2,500-5,000rpm. The result is a best-in-class 0-62mph sprint of 5.7 seconds, while flooring the accelerator through all six gears will keep the S3 accelerating hard to a limited 155mph. When pushed, the whistling turbo sounds good, but in general the engine note is nowhere near as charismatic as that of the five-cylinder Ford Focus ST.
The S3’s six-speed manual has a short throw and works slickly, but the masses of torque mean you don’t really have to change down unless you fancy a blast.
While 261bhp is the most power wrung from the TFSI engine, it doesn’t intimidate the driver – Audi’s quattro four-wheel-drive system and fat tyres help create a very stable and nimble car. Even with the stability control turned off, the S3 offers masses of grip and changes direction very well.
The suspension is 25mm lower than the standard car’s and features revised spring and damper settings. As a result, the S3 has a sporting, supple ride with the emphasis a little more on comfort than ultra-taut body control. While the car is a little unsettled over poorer surfaces, the ride is generally compliant. Push hard through a tight, fast bend, and the S3 will predictably crouch down on the outer side and carve obediently through. This mix of comfort and control works well – reminding you that you’re in a premium hot hatch, not a rough-and-ready boy-racer special.
The S3’s power-steering is better than the system in lesser A3s – it’s not as light, and has a little more feel. But while the brakes are effective, the pedal could do with more feedback.
In terms of costs, the newcomer is only marginally more expensive than its flagship BMW and Mercedes rivals, and Audi is expecting class-leading residual values and running costs. All of which makes the S3 an extremely capable hot hatch and a sensible investment, too.