The era of the hot hatch is very much upon us these days. A great number of manufacturers are offering very impressive bits of standard kit for around the $50–$60K mark to get your heart racing, palms sweaty, and pupils dilated on your daily commute to work in the mornings, as people hustle to spend their hard-earned cash on something smaller but quicker than the typical family sedan. Enter the Audi S3.
It's about as 'middle of the pack' as you can get. No, it's not as quick or focussed (pardon the pun) as its Ford RS playmate, nor as loud or extroverted as an AMG45. And it's certainly not as visually intoxicating (or nausea-inducing depending on how subjective you are on styling) as the Honda Type R.
But it is a good, honest, quick and reliable little machine that impresses the bank manager with a significantly cheaper price tag than its five-cylinder sibling, the RS3, and most of the other folk it is compared to. In addition, it still delivers neck-snapping acceleration – albeit with less brutality than its RS3 stablemate – but with a lot more class and finesse than the awful plastics and church-pew hardness of the chairs on the interior of the Focus.
The biggest weapon in its arsenal is its ability to operate as an excellent all-rounder. Its friendly road manners in Comfort mode make it polite enough to take your in-laws to breakfast, and have everybody at the restaurant looking on with interest rather than disdain when you park.
However, leg room in the back is really at a premium, particularly if there is a 6ft-tall driver or passenger in the front. Let it be known – if you want any more than two fully grown adults in the back, forget it. The rear middle seat was obviously designed for pygmies, very small children or use only in the direst of emergencies.
With that out of the way, on to the good stuff. After you've dropped off the in-laws, you can then select the Dynamic driving mode and head off to the track for the day and give the six- and eight-cylinder Holden and Ford boys a run for their money. Make no mistake, on the track, while stock as a rock, this car will keep equally stock XR6s, SS Commodores, most non-'M' BMWs and Evos comfortably in the rear-view mirror, or at least extremely honest.
At Willowbank Raceway with nobody on the track, it will happily dance away to about 230km/h down the back straight before threatening to dislodge your organs from inside your ribcage as you slow for the next 80km/h corner.
While they stop well, the brakes and handling seem to be an Achilles heel in all models in the pre-facelift S and RS3-series range for Audi for different reasons. The RS3 brakes are renowned for their embarrassing and irritating low-speed squealing (especially in echoing underground carparks when you don't want people to notice).
I found the S3's stock front brakes were not up to the task for any more than three moderate track days before the front brake pads were gone, and the front rotors were also warped and worn down to their minimum wear indicator by the time ours was due for its first pad change at just 35,000km. That suggests a $1200 aftermarket brake rotor and pad upgrade is a wise investment for those that prefer to use their machine for anything other than just the daily commute.
The handling on the S3 is compliant and communicative, and regardless of whether fitted with optional magnetic ride or not, the suspension boasts an excellent ability to absorb all but the biggest mid-corner bumps with relative firmness, but always with typical Audi pleasantness and aplomb.
The great news is that even at the very limit of adhesion, the car won't snap into a terrifying, oversteering monster, or bite you with a snappy handling reaction that might leave you shaking and breathless with fear or exhilaration like you may find with other brands (sorry Focus, not everybody likes that…). However, on tighter corners at the limit its unfortunately understeer-biased MQB platform lets it down.
When pressing on, you will be informed with parent-like assertiveness that continued increases to acceleration and steering inputs will see you being punished on a quick lap by an equally determined and proportionate production of malignant, ugly, tyre-scrubbing understeer. Alternatively, the driver may choose to turn submissive and lift the accelerator, producing an almost bipolar change to a crisp and spontaneous handling attitude and turn-in.
Sadly, despite getting a Haldex rear diff powering the back wheels on demand, the S3 struggles to permit you to keep max power on while turning tight corners, or allowing full use of rear-wheel acceleration to power you out of the corner without understeer ruining the party. Something that is really a necessity for those who have selected an all-wheel-drive platform for performance reasons.
For those really wanting to get maximum performance at full noise, a rear swaybar upgrade is yet another costly aftermarket accessory recommendation. However, in saying that, very few folk will ever push their car this hard on the road, and for most the handling is a perfect compromise.
The technology in the car is great but not brilliant, with a decent 10-speaker sound system (and built-in subwoofer) that cranks fairly hard (but audiophiles may still not be impressed with it), DVD player, SD Card slot and built-in hard drive as standard. However, its lack of MirrorLink, Apple CarPlay or other expected multimedia interfaces, along with its antiquated sat-nav interface, really mean that it's now well and truly showing its age. Thank goodness Audi recognised this and rectified it for the forthcoming face-lift models.
So, what are the great things about it? On the road it's as pleasant or as feral as you want it to be. Want to save fuel? Eco mode will see you get 750km from Stanthorpe to Bathurst on one tank of fuel. Want to be Walter Röhrl on the school run? It will reward your more spirited driving with a win in just about every traffic light grand prix (after all, nobody expects a bloody boring Audi driver to be fast!), and with a foot to the floor it will put a stupid grin on your face like a smitten, lovesick 15-year-old.
At $60K drive-away pricing for a demo model, it is really hard to find better value for money than that in the segment at the moment.
Servicing costs are expensive – particularly the major ones. Audi quoted me an eye-watering $2000 for the 60,000km one – conveniently just after the complimentary servicing period had just run out. And the options list is vast, equally expensive and difficult to retrofit later on down the track if you change your mind.
If money is your vice, go for the Golf R for the same fun factor yet at a cheaper price without all the frills. But be aware – the S3 steals the street cred.