REVIEW DATE: 19 Oct 2007
Audi's latest S3 ups the ante in the hot hatch stakes a good few degrees. Andy Enright reports
The press launch event for the last Audi S3 couldn't have been scripted any better. Flying into Munich airport, a squall blew up and the whole region was coated in six inches of fresh snow. Other cars slid to a standstill but the four-wheel drive traction of the S3 allowed the show to go on - and how. In these conditions it was possible to really explore how the all-wheel drive quattro system managed its traction and all at virtually walking pace. This time round, we have an S3 that, while still sharing the same DNA, is bigger, brawnier and brighter in virtually every regard.
Launched at almost the same time as the original TT, the first generation S3 always was the real driver's choice. Yes, the early cars may have been 15bhp down on the flagship TT coupe - Audi's attempt, subsequently ditched, to try and preserve some sort of hierarchy amongst their sporting models - but on a cross country trip, the S3 was usually quicker by dint of the fact that its visibility and aerodynamics were so much better. Even today, the early S3 is a criminally underrated driver's car that just needs a brake upgrade to put it amongst the very top tier of contemporary fast hatches.
What was 210 and later 225bhp has, in this generation of the S3, been morphed into a massive 263bhp. The relatively simple 1.8-litre turbo that powered the old car has been replaced by a turbocharged version of the 2.0-litre FSI engine, this lightweight 152kg unit being one of the world's most advanced powerplants. Related to the engine that powers the Volkswagen Golf GTI, a serious amount of fettling has gone into giving this powerplant its own identity. The turbocharger has a bigger turbine and compressor rotor which helps generate 1.2 bar of boost pressure - a serious amount of charge. A revised intercooler, meanwhile, helps feed dense air into the combustion chamber. Redesigned pistons and conrods and a stiffer alloy cylinder head are required to run reliably with this level of boost while the camshaft timing has also been finessed to manage the higher power output.
The results are suitably explosive. Fire the S3 off the line and it will reach sixty 5.5 seconds later and keep piling on speed until it reaches 155mph. The quattro permanent four-wheel drive system means that torque steer is kept to a minimum and all-weather capability is dramatically improved. Power is transmitted by a six-speed short-throw manual gearbox through the electronically-controlled Haldex multi-plate clutch, positioned aft for superior weight distribution. In normal driving conditions, most torque is directed to the front wheels but as soon as the system detects slippage, it directs torque to the axle best equipped to handle it.
"The S3 seems expensive on paper. Drive the car and it may well alter your value perception"
The A3 chassis is a good place to start developing a sports hatch. With front and rear subframes, triangulated lower wishbones at the front and a multilink rear suspension system, the fundamentals were already in place for a decent handler. The S3 takes things a stage further with beefier shocks and springs and a 25mm lower ride height that, coupled with 18-inch alloy rims as standard, gives the S3 a properly menacing stance. Aluminium componentry in the front suspension reduces unsprung weight still further and the electro-mechanical power steering has been tuned to offer more feedback. The brakes have been upgraded with performance pads, larger discs and black painted callipers that bear the S3 badge.
Drop inside and you'll spot the sort of flat-bottomed steering wheel that looks as if it's come straight out of a Lamborghini Gallardo. Folding bucket seats and a premium infotainment system that features universal interfaces for mobile phones and iPods are fitted as standard, the stereo part of the system being supplied by Bose. Also included in the list of standard trim is automatic air conditioning, a driver information system with a rather naughty lap timer function and an anti-theft alarm. Front fog lights and xenon headlights with a daytime running function are also included in the list price of £26,830.
That figure may seem a hefty sum for what is, effectively, a hot hatch but Audi have done well to endow the S3 with the sort of features that make it seem well worth the price. The German company knows how to endow its wares with a genuinely upmarket aura and the S3 is no exception. It certainly appears a good few thousand pounds more expensive than, say, a BMW 130i M Sport, which costs around £400 less, isn't quite so powerful and which lacks the Audi's all-wheel drive capability.
The exterior of the S3 also has real presence. Over the past few years, Audi have given their cars a lot more attitude, evolving from the very low key, almost apologetic designs of the late nineties into some of the most distinctive cars on sale today. The S3 is no exception. The huge front grille and underbumper intake combined with those piercing xenon lights create a formidable rear view mirror factor. The front skirt features spoilers and integrated air intakes, while the side sills give the flanks of the car a more voluptuous appearance and also serve to visually lower the S3. Twin ovoid tailpipes and a body-coloured roof spoiler garnish the rear end, while the trademark S-car aluminium-look door mirrors are also present.
Other trimmings include black or silver interior headlining and custom instruments with S dials and needles. The pedals, gear knob and air vents are finished in aluminium, while the fascia inlays are trimmed in sleek Piano finish black. Alternatively, there's aluminium and also a fine grained birch wood grey which we'd probably steer clear of. S3 emblems adorn almost every surface. See how many you can get in thirty seconds. The seats are trimmed in a combination of hide and cloth with the option of Alcantara/leather or full leather, although if you opt for this upgrade, your S3 will be nudging up towards £30,000.
That's quite a hefty sum, but the S3 is quite a car, albeit one that's densely packed with added value. Call it small but expensively formed.
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