The new Audi S3 is all about understated looks. You need to search to find sporty clues
On paper, the Audi S3 should be a surefire winner. It is very fast and boasts excellent grip in all conditions. There is also the prestige of the Audi badge and seamless build quality to take into consideration. However, it is simply not as entertaining to drive as it should be. Its VW Golf GTI cousin is much better, and costs £7,000 less!
With performance models from all the mainstream car makers hitting new heights, the driver's revolution shows no sign of slowing. It began when VW launched its latest Golf GTI, but Audi now has the challenge of producing its own premium car using the same parts bin as VW - so does the S3 measure up?
It's been a long time coming, but the model has finally hit the UK. And, as with its predecessor, the new machine is big on subtlety. Apart from the silver mirrors, a deeper front bumper and a rear diffuser, you would be hard-pressed to pick it out among a line of standard A3s. Even the 18-inch alloys blend in, with only the large S3-embossed brake calipers adding extra presence.
The interior is just as understated. The S3 logos pop up again: this time on the gearlever, steering wheel and rev counter. There are also heavily bolstered front seats and aluminium trim for the pedals, but that's about your lot for sporty extras. The cabin is, however, beautifully put together.
Once on the move, this is a very fast three-door. While it shares the VW Golf GTI's 2.0-litre FSI powerplant, the engine has been tuned to produce a thumping 261bhp. Performance is blistering - 0-62mph takes 5.7 seconds, and the top speed is limited to 155mph. Acceleration is strongest above 4,000rpm. Yet, the rest of the driving experience doesn't match up.
While the quattro drivetrain provides plenty of grip - especially when pulling out of slow corners - there is precious little involvement. This is due mainly to the steering, which is not only too light, but also lacks feedback.
This, combined with the Audi's firm suspension, makes it hard to keep the S3 on a consistent line through bends - constant correction is needed. BMW's similarly priced 130i is far more rewarding and fun to drive. In day-to-day motoring, the S3 is safe and predictable - but it is not especially exciting. The Golf GTI offers far more for the keen driver to enjoy. There is little compensation in terms of comfort, either, with the S3's suspension struggling to cope with B-road bumps and undulations.
Opt for the Audi and you do get plenty of kit as standard. The £26,995 price tag is in part due to the costly four-wheel-drive system, while the marque's image and impeccable build quality also count for a lot. However, buyers would have to value performance and image over sheer driving fun to pick the S3 above its rivals.