Oh the anguish and torment... What to do if you really would like to own an Audi TT, but need the practicality of an A3? Fret no more folks, as Audi has just launched the S3, a three-door luxury hatchback with a comfy cabin that also offers a claimed 0-100 km/h time of under six seconds! The big question, however, is whether it justifies a price tag of near R350 000, especially seeing as a number of nice-to-have features are extra-cost options.
Sophisticated sportinessTo clearly mark out the Audi S3 as a more sophisticated offering than cheaper "boy-racer" hot hatches, there is nothing garish about its exterior design. In fact, casual on-lookers may not even notice the 25 mm lower ride height, chrome-edged grille, more aggressive front bumper and silver mirror housings. Even the very attractive 18-inch alloy wheels could be seen as aftermarket items applied to a run-of-the-mill three-door A3. But that's not to say the S3 is not attractive. In fact, its subtlety is very endearing.
Swing open the large doors and the clues to the car's special position in the Audi hierarchy remain hidden. Yes, there's a flat-bottom steering wheel similar to the one used in the brilliant RS4, some aluminium trim and an S3 badge here and there, but you'll have to delve into the extensive optional extras list to make your S3 look noticeably different to any other A3. Satellite navigation and heavily bolstered sports seats are two of the optional extra boxes that owners may want to tick, but note that they're rather expensive, with the seats alone adding around R40 000 to the purchase price.
That said, the standard features list is not too bad, and includes climate control, a radio/CD system with remote audio controls, cruise control and six airbags. Automatic wipers and lights are also optional.
Thankfully, the basic A3 cabin is a good one, with an excellent seating position courtesy of the raised transmission tunnel (gear-lever falls nicely to hand), height-adjustable seat and rake/reach-adjustment for the steering wheel. The seats (even the standard ones) are supremely comfortable and rear legroom is better than you'd think by looking at the three-door body. The boot is nicely sized and shaped, too.
Grunt, all the timeUnder the bonnet is the same 2.0-litre turbocharged, direct injection petrol engine that also powers the TT, but for use in the S3 power has actually been upped to 188 kW. A number of changes have been made to reach this power figure, including the fitment of a larger turbocharger and intercooler, changes to the cylinder block, intake system and cylinder head. The torque figure is very promising, with 350 Nm claimed to be on tap from 2 500 to 5 000 rpm. And, in a somewhat surprising move, the S3 uses a traditional six-speed manual transmission driving all four wheels via Audi's trademark quattro system. This model is not yet offered with the dual-shift transmission.
With a 0-100 km/h time of 5.7 seconds, the S3 is a lightning fast machine, but even more impressive is the engine's flexibility. That torque curve is clearly not just marketing speak, as the S3 responds cleanly and keenly to any throttle input above 2 500 rpm, resulting in explosive overtaking acceleration. Third gear, in particular, is a do-anything gear, and makes the S3 lots of fun to drive on, for example, a curvy mountain pass. The transmission is also generally good, though changes could be a little faster, especially during down-shifting.
Grip and gun itIn general, fast Audis of the past that have featured quattro all-wheel drive have been understeer-prone disappointments. The S3, thankfully, can't be classified as such. The low speed ride is very firm, though well controlled, and smoothes out beautifully as speeds rise. Similarly, the steering is perhaps too light at town speeds, but gains some weighting when the car is pushed through corners at higher speeds.
What remains lacking is feedback - the feel is numb - but at least the accuracy is good. Most impressively, the Audi S3 manages to feel more agile than its weight would suggest. It helps that some of the suspension components are made from lightweight aluminium. It resists understeer well and remains quick to respond to steering angle tweaks up to very high limits. In the end, however, some enthusiasts will still say it should be more rear biased, but if that's the case you'd have to start questioning whether they want quattro in the first place. As it stands right now, the all-wheel drive system allows you to get on the power very quickly when exiting a corner, with the extra grip and massive torque fairly blasting the S3 towards the next curve.
VerdictIt's important to understand Audi's positioning of the S3. This is not a hot hatch, even though its performance and mechanical package may suggest so. The S3 is aimed at sophisticated buyers looking for a swift, comfortable, quality product from a premium brand that doesn't shout its abilities. In that context it's very hard to find a rival that can seriously challenge the S3. It's a superbly polished product from a very confident company.
We don't like:
Engine: 2.0-litre, four-cylinder, turbopetrol
Power: 188 kW @ 6 000 rpm
Torque: 330 Nm @ 2 400 rpm
Transmission: six-speed manual
Wheels: 18-inch alloy
Top speed: 250 km/h
0-100 km/h: 5.7 seconds
Fuel economy: 9.1 litres/100 km
Similarly powerful and priced to the Audi, the BMW's big appeal is rear-wheel drive, which gives it very entertaining handling characteristics. Unfortunately it can't really match the Audi in any other department.
Slightly down on power but the performance figures are similar. The Alfa has gorgeous styling and a very charismatic engine, but also decent build quality, making it one of the best Alfas of modern times.
Powered by a 3.2-litre V6 engine that delivers 184 kW and 320 Nm of torque, this uber Golf packs a serious punch. Also offers all-wheel drive security and grip, but is available only with the DSG transmission. Too expensive.