Audi S3 Sportback review (2003-2012)
The S3 can't match the handling finesse, steering feel or silky engine of the best premium hot hatches
The S3 employs familiar hardware under the bonnet. But the Golf GTI's 2.0-litre FSI has been uprated, with a new alloy head, bigger turbocharger and modified intercooler, all of which translates into 350Nm and 261bhp. Such torque levels, coupled with traction from the quattro four-wheel drive system, means acceleration off the line is impressive - at the test track, the S3 blitzed the 0-60mph sprint in 5.6 seconds. But there's no escaping this engine is better in standard 197bhp guise. Full boost arrives later, power delivery isn't as smooth or consistent and while Audi claims to have developed something it calls a "sonorous acoustic profile", it sounds flat. At least the black brake callipers, complete with S3 badging, deliver firm stopping power, and the short-throw gearlever provides slick shifts. It feels eager from the word go too - which, combined with stiff suspension that delivers a bouncy ride on broken tarmac, can make it tiring to drive. But then, these cars are meant to be fun! Unfortunately, the S3 fails to capitalise on this advantage. Although fast across country thanks to the turbo's accessible power and the grip and traction of four-wheel drive, it is not especially rewarding. Chiefly to blame for this is the slow-witted steering, which doesn't feel that well-engineered or positive.
Audi's S3 has an image few opponents can match. Its template was set by 1999's first-generation model, which featured a compact frame, 4WD chassis and small-capacity, high-output turbocharged engine. Obviously, Audi doesn't believe in changing a winning formula, as the latest car is little different. But that's not to say there's nothing new or noteworthy about it. It sits low and looks sleek and stylish, and the more menacing nose helps to set it apart from lesser models in the A3 range. However, the deep flanks and low sills manage to make the 18-inch wheels look small. Only available as a three-door, the S3 has a number of rivals, including the VW Golf R32, Seat Leon Cupra, BMW 130i and Volvo's C30 T5.
Open one of the long doors and you're presented with a superbly detailed cabin. We love the chrome rings around the air vents, while build and material quality are a significant step up from some rivals. However, the driver's seat is mounted slightly too high, while those who like to feel secure at the wheel will be disappointed there isn't more underthigh support. Taller passengers will find headroom at a premium in the back, even though the rooflining has been cut away to help things. Room is OK but oddly it's not as spacious inside as a Golf, even though the two share the same platform. The boot is shallow due to the 4WD hardware too, offering less than 300 litres of luggage space. It's not very fuel-efficient either, averaging 24.2mpg in our hands, and servicing costs border on the obscene at £1,150 for the first three check-ups. We'd expect better than 46.2 per cent for the S3's three-year retained value as well.