The latest Audi S3 offers a 300PS punch going to all four wheels. Andy Enright takes a look.
The latest Audi S3 gets a 300PS shot in the arm which, when coupled with the quattro all-wheel drive chassis, results in a performance car that could have been designed for the iffy British climate. It's not cheap but it's nevertheless capable of 40mpg. Amazing.
There's something very right about the Audi S3. Always has been, always will be. When the first version was launched back in 1999, it didn't get much in the way of attention. That's because it was unveiled at virtually the same time as the mechanically identical Audi TT 225. Well, I say identical. The engines were the same but Audi tweaked the S3's down to 210PS, so it wouldn't prove quicker than the glamorous TT. I got to drive the two cars back to back and was convinced the S3 was the quicker cross-country vehicle merely by dint of the fact that you could see out of it so much better. Audi eventually upped the power of the 1.8T engine up to the full monty 225PS in 2002. That car was replaced by a second generation S3 in 2006. This was powered by the 2.0TFSI engine, offering a lot more scope for big power. With 265PS as standard, it was one of the quickest point-to-point cars sensible money would buy. It was also offered as a five-door Sportback and with the option of the DSG twin-clutch gearbox. While 265PS would have certainly punted you into the premier league of hot hatches in 2006, these days you need a bit more. When a hot Vauxhall Astra is good for 280PS, Audi knew it needed some serious power. So say hello to the 300PS Audi S3 quattro.
Of course, the S3 has needed to respect its place in the hierarchy. There has been and will be again an RS3 model that's even quicker, but ask yourself whether you really need a vehicle that'll get to 62mph quicker than the 5.4 seconds the S3 will detain you for. Although at first glance the 1984cc turbocharged engine looks similar to that which has gone before, it's completely different, with a clever way of using direct and indirect injection to best effect. With twin balancer shafts and a long stroke, Audi claims it develops a very smooth serving of torque; fully 380Nm all the way from 1,800 to 5,500rpm. That's impressive. The S3 is equipped as standard with a manual six-speed gearbox with a lightweight magnesium case. The optional S tronic twin-clutch transmission features high efficiency and a tall sixth gear. The lower gears are short in the interest of dynamics, as is also the case with the manual transmission. The heart of the quattro all-wheel drive system is an electronically controlled and hydraulically actuated multi-plate clutch. In the interests of balanced axle load distribution, it is located at the end of the prop shaft, in front of the rear axle differential. During normal driving, the clutch sends most of the engine's power to the front wheels. If traction decreases there, the clutch can transfer torque steplessly to the rear axle in just a few milliseconds by forcing the packages of plates together via controlled action. Audi drive select is standard in the new Audi S3. It incorporates the characteristics of the electronic accelerator, the boost of the progressive steering and the shift points of the optional S tronic. The driver determines with the push of a button whether these systems operate in comfort, auto, dynamic, efficiency or individual mode. In individual mode, drivers can compose their own preferred profile within certain limits.
There's a choice of three S3 bodystyles - 3-door hatch, 5-door Sportback and 4-door saloon - but whichever you go for, this sporting variant doesn't tread a lot of new ground from an exterior design perspective. Put one next to another and the new car looks tauter and more athletic but most would have a job to realise they were looking at a new model when viewed in isolation. Buyers get the usual S design cues, with a single-frame grille, in this case with an aluminium-look finish and matt platinum grey inserts. The front bumper features aluminium-look double ribs integrated into the lateral air inlets. When viewed from the side, the aluminium-look mirror casings and the pronounced side sills catch the eye. The rear bumper has also been redesigned. The platinum grey diffuser houses the exhaust system's four oval tailpipes, which feature chrome tips. A large roof spoiler is said to generate downforce onto the rear axle. It certainly does look good. The interior is typically jewel-like, with beautiful detailing but a pared-back feel. The instrument dials are grey, the needles white. Another S-specific feature can be found on the rev counter, which now includes a boost pressure indicator. The optional leather multifunction sports steering wheel has been redesigned with a flat-bottomed rim. In models equipped with S tronic, it also has aluminium-look shift paddles. The pedals and footrest are made of brushed aluminium. The sports seats with pull-out seat cushions are a neat touch and Audi also offers optional S sport seats with integrated head restraints and diamond quilting. The interior of the S3, including the headlining, is in black with contrasting stitching. Luggage capacity is very creditable at 365-litres, and this can be increased to 1,100 litres by folding down the rear seats. In the five-door Sportback model, luggage space out back is 380-litres, rising to 1,220-litres with the seats folded.
You'll pay jut over £33,000, regardless of your choice between 3-door hatch or saloon, and there's the £2,500 option of S tronic auto transmission. Curiously, the 5-door Sportback variant is a couple of thousand less expensive. Inside the cabin, the sophisticated MMI infotainment system in the S3 is well worth taking the time to master. There's a slimline, power-retractable, seven-inch monitor and MMI touch integrated into the top of the rotary push button. The 'Audi Phone Box' system connects mobile 'phones to the vehicle in a convenient way and the sound system from Bang & Olufsen offers excellent sound quality, with LED light guides adding a bit of theatre to the door woofers. The assistance systems in the S3 come directly from the full-size class. The range begins with adaptive cruise control which, when combined with the 'Audi pre sense front' safety system, brings the car to a stop autonomously from speeds below 19mph. Further safety technology includes Audi side assist (to prevent dangerous blind spot overtakes), Audi active lane assist (to stop dozy drivers from drifting out of their lanes on the highway) and camera-based traffic sign recognition (that pictures speed signs as you pass and displays them on the dash). Plus there's a park assist system to help steer you into the tightest space. There are also a number of convenience options, including 'adaptive light' for the headlamps (also with variable headlight range control), the advanced key (that'll unlock the car when the key's in your pocket) and a large panoramic glass sunroof. Dual-zone electronic climate control and the storage package are fitted as standard.
The Audi S3 is never going to be a notably cheap car to run. You don't buy a 300bhp all-wheel drive petrol-powered sports car that wears a ritzy badge if counting the pennies is your prime motivation, but the S3 shouldn't be a ruinously expensive ownership experience either. The outgoing model was always a low depreciator, used buyers attracted to the smart image and surprisingly modest fuel thirst. The latest S3 does a whole lot better in terms of fuel economy. Combined fuel economy stands at 40.9mpg for the S tronic model and 40.4mpg should you choose a manual. This corresponds to CO2 emissions of 159g/km and 162g/km respectively. Given that the previous generation S3 Sportback could average just over 33mpg and emitted between 195 and 199g/km of carbon dioxide, that is quite some improvement, especially when considering the 35PS power boost.
The Audi S3's formula of a compact hatch that's beautifully finished, effortlessly rapid and backed up by the all-weather security of four-wheel drive is one that really works in this country. It's a lovely piece of product conception and there's really nothing quite like it from any rival manufacturer. Pace, four-wheel drive and that sort of quality? It's just not happening anywhere else other than at your Audi dealer and that's what makes the S3 quite such a desirable item. This latest version might feature a heck of a lot of new engineering and we take our hats off to its big strides in efficiency, but in reality not a whole lot has changed. The car is quicker and more economical, and the finishing is even tighter, but the buyer proposition remains much the same. When you've hit on a winning formula, you mess with it at your peril.