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Car reviews - Audi - A3 - S3 3-dr hatch

Our Opinion

We like
Flexible, powerful engine, handling and ride
Room for improvement
Steering feels artificial, space-saver spare wheel, a little cramped in the back, a lot of money for a two-door hatch, more features would make the price easier to swallow

20 Jun 2007

THERE are many other bigger and arguably better cars that you could buy for the $65,500 you need for an Audi S3, but very few will provide such a big fizz from such a neat, small packet. Given the impressive performance figures, when looking at cars like the S3, value-for-money takes a back seat.

The S3 belongs to a very select number of European cars designed to tickle the taste buds of those who want a high-performance cars delivered in a small package but are more than willing to pay for it.

These are not WRX buyers - that’s a far too cheap and common car - but the Golf R32, BMW 130i and 147 GTA are other likely short-listed candidates considered by a potential S3 owner. The flavour these buyers require is obviously very much European.

There are compelling reasons to like the S3, despite its cost: it is easy to park, sips fuel at a rate of 9.2 litres per 100km and feels just easy as any good, ordinary hatchback to drive at slow speeds.

Its appearance is quite subtle too: the purists - who are the people you probably don’t mind knowing that you’ve bought the hi-po A3 - will identify it immediately, but to the general motoring masses, it’s just some stray Audi hatchback. They’ll think nothing of it.

They’ll think nothing of it until you take off in a hurry, that is. The S3 is a really quick car: the claimed 5.9-second 0-100km/h and top speed of 250km/h puts it up at the top end of high performance cars.

It’s no supercar, but there isn’t exactly a long list of standard road cars that will beat it - and thanks to the quattro all-wheel drive system, it has a loose surface advantage.

The compact body has a downside on the inside. Don’t expect your friends to stay amiable if you subject them to long stints sitting in the tight confines of the back seat.

The interior also lacks flair, with the standard ‘piano’ finish on the doors, dash and centre console a little dull for a sports car - the no-cost optional aluminium finish would brighten things up nicely.

You can really go crazy with the in-your-face red leather seat inserts for $400 or even go for the horrendously expensive $6700 optional front racing bucket seats.

The controls are all well placed (except for the climate controls lost at the bottom of the centre stack) and instruments are clear to read. The test car had the optional flat-bottom steering wheel, which at first appears purely cosmetic but actually serves as a handy reference point when turning the wheel quickly through tight corners.

The launch drive, a part of which included the tight, twisting and rough surfaces of the Royal National Park south of Sydney, was an ideal location to explore the S3’s chassis dynamics.

The S3 has an authoritative turn in, nice weighting and responds quickly to steering input, but the steering itself feels remote. You can feel though the seat and sense immediately where the S3 is aiming, but the steering wheel is just not relaying you as much as it could. Electric power steering is known for lack of feel, so perhaps that’s something we’ll all have to get used to.

The S3’s chassis balance is excellent and feels less nose heavy than its predecessor, probably one of the better cars the Volkswagen Group built off the Golf IV platform.

With the current Golf V winning plenty of friends for its dynamics, its no wonder that the S3, based on the same chassis is so good. It’s not racetrack firm - and in fact at times seemed a little soft at the front - but it seems to strike that hard-to-find middle ground between feeling responsive and agile around corners while still smoothing out the worst of road shocks.

Tell a friend to jump in and drive your S3 and they’ll think it’s just a 2.0-litre shopping trolley if they trickle along under 2000rpm. Even at low revs it’s such a tractable car to drive, with no indication it is a highly stressed performance engine. No surging, no stalling or that flat-spot feeling associated with turbo lag.

Start putting your foot down and using the revs and the S3 takes you to a whole new realm. It makes a pleasant wail as it rockets you to the 7000rpm cut-out, with the short throw six-speed ’box a pleasure to use.

It’s not all beer and skittles though: the engine has a slightly gritty, raw feel - which some will actually appreciate - and there are some exhaust resonances at about 2000rpm.

There is not much to not like about the S3, although a steel space saver is one of them. That’s fine for Europe, where new tyres could be found at 20km intervals, but in Australia if you get a flat tyre where 18-inch rubber is hard to come by, you’ll have a very slow trip home.

The S3 is such a rewarding drive in a neat package that it seems unlikely Audi will have any problems selling its forecast 100 units a month.

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