THE NEW Audi S3: the car that should have it all, a one-stop shop for anyone who wanted universal talent from a car but didn’t want to pay the universe for it. Consider the proposition. The standard Audi A3 already leads the class in so many areas that, were it at school, you’d call it a swot and put drawing pins on its chair. The fact that, model for model, it’s lighter, more frugal and less polluting than the Mercedes A-class and the BMW 1-series is bad enough, but it’s prettier too, and that’s got to hurt.
All the A3 lacks is a little charm, that vital spark of interaction between car and driver needed to turn admiration into unqualified adoration. Audi’s solution is the S3, the most powerful 2-litre car in production — at least until the Mercedes A 45 AMG comes along this summer.
Of course, the S3 is rather more than an A3 with the wick turned up. Its turbocharged 2-litre engine is completely new and features both direct and indirect fuel injection to produce 296bhp, which it transmits to all four corners of the car through either a standard manual or optional double-clutch gearbox with six gears. The suspension is lowered and the steering tuned to react progressively more quickly as the wheel is turned.
Minute attention has been paid to keeping the car light, with new front seats saving a kilo, 1.5kg coming off the wiring loom and even 640g being saved from the housings for the passenger airbag and navigation monitor. In all, this S3 weighs 60kg less than its predecessor.
But it doesn’t shout about its potential. Although there are ways of telling it apart from the A3, the whole remains discreet. You might call it boring but the effect of its lower ride height, smart 18in alloys, four tailpipes and subtle S3 badging is to bring an additional sense of occasion to the car. Inside the car is more badging, leather upholstery as standard and bespoke dials, with a boost meter in place of the water temperature gauge.
At first you don’t realise just how fast this car is. The last S3 was quite a peaky beast, requiring plenty of revs before its turbo would spool up maximum pressure. Even then it would pause just for a moment between receiving your request for more power and delivering it. The new car’s not like that: any revs, any gear — it just goes. And it keeps on going, making changing gear something you do out of choice rather than necessity. I’d wager that on a decent road if you jammed the new S3’s stick in its third and fourth gear plane, the car would keep pace with an old S3 that was using all the gears in its box. The figures tell it all: with the optional £1,480 double-clutch gearbox making shifts almost instant, the S3 will hit 62mph in less than five seconds — almost half a second quicker than the car it replaces. It may not sound much, but in this case it’s the difference between pleasantly fast and vividly quick.
So, somewhere there has to be catch. But it’s not where you’d expect to find it. Perhaps the single most impressive statistic in a very long list of impressive statistics is that for all that extra shove, this S3 uses 20% less fuel than the previous-generation version. So while the old S3 wouldn’t get near 35mpg, this one does more than 40mpg in the combined cycle, with a corresponding reduction in CO2 output and therefore your road tax bill too.
Increasingly this is seeming the car that can do no wrong. And you’ll continue to think that, right up to the moment you discover that deep within those finely finished lines lurks a dark secret. To put it bluntly, and despite all evidence so far presented to the contrary, the S3 just isn’t that much fun to drive.
For a start, the ride is too harsh, even on the smooth Bavarian roads where Audi launched the car. The S3 allows you to change the sound of the exhaust, the response of the steering and even the speed of its throttle response but not the stiffness of its springs. I fear that when cars reach our broken and potholed road network — as highlighted in last week’s Driving — this flaw will be more apparent still.
It’s a problem that would be just about tolerable if the chassis were of a calibre to make you want to drive it fast on a good road to begin with, but this one doesn’t. It may be astonishingly quick in a straight line, but in the corners it is simply frustrating.
True, this S3 is nowhere near as bad as fast Audis of previous generations, which actually had quite poor handling and were dogged by limited body control and vague steering, including understeer. But compared with its closest rival, BMW’s M135i, with its howling six-cylinder engine and fabulously engaging rear-wheel-drive handling, the S3 is, well, dull.
What little feedback there is through the S3’s steering feels synthetic, and while the BMW delights in letting you use its power to adjust your line through a curve, the S3 is inflexible in its thinking. It will obey faithfully your primary instructions but seems blind to nuanced requests. You may feel in charge of the action in the S3, but in the BMW you feel part of it.
The M135i is not the only other beast in the jungle either. In addition to the new Mercedes A 45 AMG — at 355bhp, more powerful than the S3 — there is also the looming spectre of the latest Volkswagen Golf GTI, whose structure the S3 shares. With 217bhp, the Golf may be less powerful than the S3, but it is almost £5,000 cheaper, at £25,845.
Motoring journalists are fond of describing cars as being greater than the sum of their parts, and it’s true that certain vehicles are able to defy the modesty of their underpinnings and deliver a driving experience beyond what you’d suspect from their specification sheet.
The corollary of that is cars that would probably be better reduced to their basic components and recombined in a different way. For all its class-leading attributes, the S3 is among their number, a machine that drives better on paper than it does in real life. That doesn’t make it a bad car, by any stretch of the imagination; just a slightly disappointing one.
Less than the sum of its parts
- 1984cc, 4 cylinders, turbo
- 296bhp @ 5500rpm
- 280lb ft @ 1800rpm
- 6-speed manual
- 0-62mph, 5.4sec
- Top speed:
- 155mph (limited)
- L 4237mm, W 1777mm, H 1421mm
Audi S3 rivals
- BMW M135i, £30,555 (price correct at time of publication)
For Not just the best-value M-car but the best Against Fuel consumption; odd looks
- Mercedes A45 AMG, £35,000 (estimated at time of publication)
For Should make the S3 look slow; build quality Against Prices not yet confirmed but likely to be very expensive