Y’s motoring expert Alvin Thomas finds a small but perfectly formed performance car that throws down the gauntlet to its mighty German rivals.
Quick! Do you know the difference between an “A” and an “S”? Well, you and I will say that they are just two letters of the alphabet with a space of 17 characters between them. If you’re quick-witted, you also probably did a bit of phonetics to express your linguistic prowess.
But if you’re an engineer at Audi, “A” and “S” are more than just letters; they’re animals and they are planets – if not galaxies – apart.
Think I’m pulling a fast one on you? I am not… at least not this time around, and certainly not when I’ve got the keys to Audi’s new S3 – the faster and harder brother to the tamer A3.
Now, I have to admit that I haven’t been the kindest to Audis of late (even though the Audi RS7 is the car of my dreams). I always thought that Audis were a tad too Deutschland – a touch too mechanical – when compared with their rivals from Stuttgart and Munich.
But for the first time, I accept that I was wrong in pre-judging a car.
The Audi S3, with its signature headlights, hexagonal grille and chiselled bumper may look akin to the A3 but that’s where the similarities end. Yes, in a bid to surprise the competition, the S3 does maintain a subtle finish overall but if you look closely you can catch some key differences.
For instance, the side mirrors are housed in brushed aluminium, there are 51cm sports alloy wheels wrapped in Pirelli P Zeroes, a lip spoiler on the trunk, a rear diffuser, a set of quad-exhausts in the rear, and a bunch of “S” badges to wrap up the S3’s otherwise menacing-looking stance.
Much of this follows to the interior: everything is very well laid-out and clean, just as you would expect in an Audi. My tester, which was fully specced-out, also received a set of beautifully crafted diamond-quilted seats, a slick and easy-to-operate infotainment screen, Audi’s stunning virtual cockpit and a flat-bottom steering wheel like you get in the Audi R8 supercar. You also get a brilliant-sounding Bang & Olufsen stereo system.
Space inside is relatively limited, as you would expect from a car in this segment. But all four seats are extremely supportive with the front seats receiving excellent levels of side bolstering. In all, the S3 is just a very nice place to be – elegant and, again, subtle.
But as they say: looks can be deceptive. If you were to pull up next to this car and think you can take it on in a drag-race (although we would never advise you to race on the roads) at a set of lights then be prepared to let your ego take a blow. The S3 may only be powered by a 2-litre four-cylinder pot-banger, but a high-pressure turbocharger takes care of business by spooling up to aid the engine to produce a whooping 290hp and 380Nm of torque.
The numbers are incredibly astonishing, and are proven in performance. The Audi S3, with the six-speed S-Tronic dual-clutch transmission is quick to get off the line. Audi claims that the S3 will hit the 100kph mark from a standstill in 4.9 seconds but again, surprisingly, I was able to do the same in a mere 4.3 seconds on a cool evening. That’s almost half a second faster than Audi’s claim.
Of course, to achieve that, I had to mimic “launch control” by switching off traction-control, then depressing the brake pedal and hitting the gas at the same time to build up the revs before finally letting go. Upon doing this, the car thrusts forward with almost no wheel spin or drama, thanks to Audi’s legendary Quattro system.
The gearshifts are mind-bogglingly quick; even downshifts. However, the car will upshift for you automatically if you’re slow to change up manually. However, that only happens when you hit the rev-limiter. There also seems to be no hint of turbo-lag. Power is accessible at tip-in, and progresses all the way to the rev limiter without any drop in power like some of its cousins from the USA.
In the handling department, the S3 takes corners like a hot-hatch, sticking to the corner without any form of theatre. The steering is very well weighted and is easily the sharpest I have tried in a long time. There isn’t much feedback from the steering but it is still razor-sharp, and the car, even with its 1,500kg curb weight manages to take corners like a go-kart.
The car does have a tendancy to understeer (as is the case with most four-wheel drive cars), but the front-biased Quattro system masks it up to a point that it doesn’t really exist anymore. And at no point did I have to tap the brakes to bring the car back to its original line.
The tyres are also phenomenally grippy, and not once did I manage to get myself into trouble when I hit the twisty heights of Al Amerat.
I must also point out that the brakes on the S3 are excellent and very progressive.
By the end of my test drive, I was completely sold on the S3’s composure as a sports sedan. Very rarely do manufacturers get the recipe right, but with the S3, Audi has proved, yet again, that it knows how to provide its customers with the right package.
And they’ve done it simply by putting back the fun in driving.