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Car reviews - Audi - A3 - S3 Sportback S-tronic 5-dr hatch

Our Opinion

We like
Slingshot engine, excellent AWD traction, automatic is excellent in most conditions
Room for improvement
Subtle styling doesn’t match extreme performance, the price is a big ask for such a small car, automatic changes up by itself in manual mode

25 May 2009

THE Audi S3 is already a great little car, but it has always been off limits to people who prefer automatics.

It didn’t make sense for Audi to alienate so many potential customers, especially when it had the excellent six-speed dual-clutch S-tronic transmission sitting on the shelf back in Bavaria.

Not everyone is going to want to stump up the extra $2700 for the S-tronic automatic, but it is such a good transmission that we suspect that a brief test drive will convince many customers.

For some people, only a manual will do, but for the rest of us, the S-tronic is the trick bit of gear we want.

The key is this transmission’s ability to change gears quickly. Traditional torque converter automatic transmissions just can’t match it.

Of course, it helps that the S-tronic box is perfectly matched to an agile hatch.

If you are feeling lazy, you can just leave it in Drive and the transmission will take care of the changes.

The only time it doesn’t work brilliantly is in stop/start traffic, in which it can sometimes get wrong-footed before selecting the correct gear.

The S-tronic’s clutch can also take a little time to get used to when moving off the line, especially on uphill gradients. You might find you need to press harder on the accelerator than you might imagine.

When you are feeling sporty, you can select S mode for sharper, faster automatic shifts.

The best option is to flick the shifter across to manual mode and change gears yourself, either with the gear shifter or the paddles on the steering wheel.

Under hard acceleration, gear changes elicit a great popping sound from the exhaust that leaves you in no doubt you are driving a hot hatch. Gear changes have never been so much fun.

The only downside is that the Audi system will always change up when it reaches about 7000rpm.

Unfortunately, unlike many other sports transmission systems, it doesn’t let you find the rev limiter and back off so you can maintain that gear for the next corner.

Some people might not care, but it can be a bit annoying when the transmission shifts up against your will as you are about to brake for the next corner, leaving you in a higher gear than you wanted.

The media launch of the S tronic S3 Sportback was held during rather soggy conditions near Noosa in Queensland.

While the drive route had to be shortened to avoid floodwaters, the remaining journey revealed a lot about the car.

One particular section, along a winding road that threw up a lot of surprises, allowed the S3’s drivetrain to shine on a lot of tight corners and crests.

But the level of difficulty was raised far higher thanks to cascading water in the middle of some bends as well as gravel and mud deposits.

It would be easy to lose control when encountering such traffic hazards, but the S3 felt like it was in its element, with the quattro all-wheel-drive system ensuring maximum traction at all times.

To be honest, AWD seems a bit of a waste when the roads are dry, but boy, is it handy when it rains like this

The S3’s suspension is composed when pushed hard. It also has excellent brakes that withstand some late, and extremely heavy, braking.

It is quite an expensive car, and if you are after pure bang for your buck then a Mitsubishi Lancer EVO is a better, faster and more advanced machine.

However, the S3 is still a quick, agile and responsive car that will be exciting enough for most sporty car customers, while also offering an upmarket interior.

The S3 Sportback interior is no doubt classy, but it doesn’t scream out that it is a fast car.

You could be forgiven for dismissing it as an A3 with a body kit, unlike an EVO or Subaru STI which both have obviously unique bodies compared to regular Lancers and Imprezas.

If you are after a prestige hot hatch with subtle muscle styling, it’s hard to go past the S3, even if it is far from cheap.

Now that it comes with the generally excellent dual clutch automatic, the S3 is even more convincing.

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