What is it?
Our first chance to try the saloon version of Audi’s rapid S3 hatch on UK roads. Which comes with 296bhp, quattro four-wheel drive and an impressive array of driver aids, provided you have deep pockets.
It’s powered by the VW Group’s latest EA888 2.0 TFSI long stroke engine, a completely redesigned direct-injection, balancer shaft power unit featuring raised injection pressures, variable valve timing, intelligent cooling and an integral exhaust manifold. It only weighs 5kg less than the previous engine, but has a potential power output of 414bhp (as flaunted in the Audi TT Quattro Sport Geneva concept), so it must be tough. And it puts out 35bhp more than the S3’s previous motor.
It can be hooked either to a six-speed manual, or a six-speed DSG S tronic paddle-shift automatic transmission that shortens the 0-62mph sprint time by 0.4sec to 4.9sec, and lifts the combined fuel consumption by 0.5mpg to 40.9mpg. Audi expects this transmission, with its slightly lower 159g/km emissions, to be the more popular.
Besides having a lighter engine the S3 saloon is less hefty than the previous generation S3 hatchback, an alloy front sub-frame, and a bonnet and front wings in aluminium allowing a base weight of 1430kg. Much of the suspension is alloy too, and features actively adjustable magneto-rheological dampers as standard.
Intriguingly, this car is not exactly an S3 hatch with a boot, the saloon riding on a 35mm longer wheelbase and a fractionally broader track, making it wider than competitors like the BMW M235i, too.
Exterior identifiers include a 25mm lower ride height, a front diffuser, additional air intakes, sill extensions, 19in alloys, four exhaust outlets and boot-lip spoiler, but it’s the interior that has more potential to deliver you a visual blast. Order the ‘Parade’ leather pack and the seats’ outer edges will be trimmed in a startlingly bright red leather that’s equally surprising for its softness.
What’s it like?
Quick and easy, especially if you’ve boarded the S tronic and deployed its throttle with conviction.
It’s swift to move and stays that way as it blat-blasts through all six gears, sounding like a distant touring car racer even when the exhaust is quietened to its most subtle setting. The drama is in the gearshifts, which are a do-it-all-over-again pleasure to hear, and the unrelenting rate at which where you are heading becomes where you have been.
That said, there’s something curiously undramatic about the engine’s delivery, its Table Mountain torque curve providing a crescendo-free gathering of power that’s faintly disappointing. But it’s certainly effective. Delve deeper, and hold it second, say, to observe the engine’s pull from 1100rpm, and you’ll discover a turbo that needs a pause to spool up. But the broad ratio spread and narrow spacing of the six-speeder masks this deficiency well. In the six-speed manual, you’re more likely to trip over some lag.
All-wheel drive adds a reassuring layer of directional security and freedom from torque-steer, although this quattro set-up uses a Haldex clutch rather than a more sophisticated Torsen differential to parcel torque to the axles. So you don’t get the 60 per cent torque bias to the rear axle that longitudinally engined quattros provide.
Not that the car feels unbalanced, nosing into tight bends with authoritative aplomb, and feeling terrifically stable through fast sweepers. It’s a fluent mover, and the more so with the DSG transmission. For the most part that applies to its ride too, which in comfort or auto musters adequate, if firm, pliancy over most surfaces. Sport induces more vertical jigging, though.
But the S3’s dynamic weakness, as so often with Audis, is its steering, which feels remote from the proceedings regardless of the level of assistance you select. And the absence of this tactile interaction means that for the keen driver, this is a car less rewarding than you’d hope, especially as the Haldex system makes a mid-corner attitude hard to alter with a throttle prod.
Should I buy one?
Despite these flaws, the S3 is quite an alluring proposition. It looks handsome inside and out, its urge is as satisfying as it is effective and the accompanying soundtrack appropriately goading. And like all Audis, the S3 is a very finely finished tool.
Unfortunately for Ingolstadt, its BMW colleagues down the road have just produced a gem of a driver’s car called the M235i, and while it falls two doors short of the Audi’s four, it provides a distinctly superior dynamic experience with its driftable chassis and usefully more connected steering. It’s a direct competitor, and a better one.
Audi S3 Saloon 2.0 TFSI S tronic
Price £34,720; 0-62mph 4.9sec; Top speed 155mph; Economy 40.9mpg; Co2 159g/km; Kerbweight 1430kg (excl driver); Engine 4 cyls in line, 1984cc, turbocharged; Power 296bhp at 5500-6200rpm; Torque 280lb ft at 1800-5500rpm; Gearbox 6-spd DSG
What is it?