2010 Audi S3 Sportback, straight-four, turbocharged petrol, 6-speed manual transmission, four-wheel drive
For me, part of the appeal of a hot-hatch is in its youthful, boy-racer appearance. Stripes, spoilers, big alloy wheels and a chug-chug-chug exhaust bellow. Inside there should be some garish trim and deeply bolstered seats, with barely enough room in the back for a couple of shopping bags. And, of course, there should be plenty of poke from a tuned (fuel injected, naturally) four-pot under the bonnet.
Some of the most legendary hot-hatches in history served up this recipe without deviating from it once: the early Golf GTI, Ford’s Escort XR3i and Peugeot’s brilliant 205 GTI all had the requisite looks to back up the performance statistics but things are different now. The power these cars produce in the 21st century would have been dismissed as impossible 25 years ago and, while the performance has gone through the roof, the looks of the things have been toned down to a point where it’s actually pretty boring. Unless it’s a Focus RS, obviously.
Is this simply to catch the police off guard? Let’s just consider Audi’s S3. On the face of it, there’s very little evidence that this is a serious performance car – it looks as innocent as any A3. It looks like a slightly smaller A4 so, in other words, like every other Audi except the R8. Yet under its bonnet is a turbocharged engine from the Golf GTI. That would be enough to give it some credibility but in the S3 it doesn’t produce the standard 146kW. Oh no, because in true hot-hatch tradition, it’s been tuned to burn rubber with 195kW. Just a pity it looks so dull.
Yes, I know there’s the new RS3 with a five-cylinder lump that will eat this for breakfast but I haven’t driven that yet. So for now this is the quick little Audi. And it really is very quick indeed, but more about that later. First let’s take a look at it.
No other mainstream car company builds its products as beautifully as Audi. Say what you like regarding the driving experience, what they look like and the ergonomics inside but the quality of fit and finish on any new Audi is flawless. And this immediately elevates an Audi hatchback to another level, well above the Fords and the Peugeots of this world. Which, it goes without saying, has an impact on the price.
If you’re in the market for a well engineered, manically fast German hatch then the Scirocco R could be tempting, especially as it’s a little bit cheaper but for rewarding thrills the BMW 130i has them both licked with rear wheel drive and just the sweetest straight-six engine. And if you just want out-and-out pace rather than Swiss bank-vault build quality, there’s always a few Focus RSs out there for the taking.
There’s little point in describing the cabin of the S3 to be honest. Because it’s an Audi and, like the exterior, looks and feels like the others, which is no bad thing. Back in 2008 Audi gave the S3 a couple of extra doors and a minor facelift, calling it the Sportback but we’ll ignore that marketing nonsense, although having five doors does make the S3 far more practical. There’s a smattering of S3 logos inside, just in case you forget where you are, and there are aluminium trimmed pedals along with a couple of sporty seats up front. That’s your lot for boy-racer frills I’m afraid, so hopefully there’ll be plenty of driver thrills instead.
On paper it’s very promising. As I mentioned earlier, the engine is the same 2.0-litre FSI unit that VW fitted to the previous generation Golf GTI and I could never understand why Audi hadn’t really pushed out the boat and blessed the S3 with a unit that really would show its rivals a clean pair of heels. Like the lightweight and compact proportioned V8 from the RS4. Imagine that. Of course, what I kept forgetting was that Audi would eventually wheel out the RS3 (they denied it was coming for years) and that at least has a five-cylinder rumble courtesy of its TT RS-sourced motor.
So it looks and sounds uninspiring but how does it go? The 0-100 km/h dash is dealt with swiftly, at a respectable 5.7 seconds (the RS3 knocks off another 1.1 seconds, making it quicker than an M3) and the top speed is electronically governed to 250 km/h so it’s properly rapid. But for all its undeniable speed, the S3 is also a bit of a disappointment. And, as ever these days, that’s down to a very obvious lack of driver involvement.
Audi’s famed quattro four-wheel drive technology does a fine job of providing huge levels of grip, no matter what the weather is doing, and you can get on the gas while exiting sharp bends without being thrown into the nearest tree, but that’s not enough to induce a big grin. And hot-hatches are supposed to be fun with a capital F.
The S3’s biggest problem is its steering. It feels overly light and artificial and it doesn’t give anything like the feedback provided by its closest rivals. The engine feels unburstable; the power delivery is like a sledge hammer blow but the steering just feels lifeless and that’s a pity. Another problem is that the suspension is crashy and unforgiving, especially on less than perfect road surfaces. Specify the optional (of course) magnetic dampers and things do dramatically improve, though, and the brakes are excellent.
And while the engine does feel like it will never run out of puff, that’s only if you keep it on the boil. At low revs it still suffers from turbo lag and, when you’re giving it some, it sounds harsh and you end up cursing Audi for not fitting the S3 with the silky, potent V6 that was gifted to the excellent Golf R32.
So yes, on paper the S3 makes a compelling case for itself as a brilliant hot-hatch but in practice, especially when judged against its rivals, it lets itself down in the areas it should really excel. And, lest we forget, the RS3 will be the final hurrah before the entire range is replaced, no doubt by a new A3 that looks exactly like the current one. But it will be different to drive and hopefully much better, more exciting.
For now, if you’re tempted by an S3 then do yourself a favour and get behind the wheel of a new Golf GTI first, or a Golf R. Or even a Renaultsport Megane RS250. They offer so much more to the driver and, at the end of the day, that’s what these cars are supposed to be all about.