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Driven: Audi S3 sedan a sharp little number

Boot it: Audi's new S3 hot sedan impressed us in Europe, and we'll drive it on local soil in March.

All-paw quattro Audi S3 sports sedan aimed squarely at Benz CLA nemesis

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Audi logo28 Nov 2013

By BYRON MATHIOUDAKIS

AUDI is taking the small performance sedan fight right up to the recently released Mercedes-Benz CLA with the all-new S3 Sedan.

In Australia from March, the 2.0-litre turbo small car with permanent all-wheel drive delivers 206kW of power and 380Nm of torque, to take the Hungarian-built three-box five-seater to 100km/h from standstill in five seconds: about 0.2s under the S3 Sportback hatch due early next month.

On the flipside, and despite being speed limited to 250km/h, the 1525kg S3 sedan’s EU6-rated EA888 engine shared with the Volkswagen Golf GTI returns a combined average figure of just 6.9 litres per 100km and carbon dioxide emissions 159 grams per kilometre.

Other than the fact that a six-speed dual-clutch transmission dubbed S-tronic will be a no-cost option to the standard six-speed manual, further details will be divulged closer to launch.

But since that’s still four months away, we travelled to Monte Carlo courtesy of Audi to find out two things: firstly, if the S3 sedan’s steering continues the ways of some other S-cars by being too remote, and secondly whether the suspension is corporal punishment for your posterior.

The whole southern region of France, however, had other ideas, namely due to Cyclone Cleopatra that ravaged the area with heavy rain and wind.

Audi, too, muddled things up by only offering the S3 Sedan with optional 19-inch wheels/tyres (instead of the standard 18s), as well as the Magnetic Ride Control system – basically a fancy term for adjustable dampers. More on that later.

On wet roads festooned with storm-related flotsam and jetsam, the smallest Ingolstadt sedan to wear the S-badge had us on side the moment we laid eyes on its mini-A4-circa-1995 styling. It is elegant and timeless.

The same rings true inside, for the A3-derived dashboard architecture is an exercise in restrained class – even when absolutely swathed in black leather, lush plastic, matt aluminium and chromey looking bits.

The newcomer is 4469mm long, 1796mm wide and 1392mm tall – a slight drop over the A3 Sportback. At 2631mm, the wheelbase is also a tad shorter than the donor car’s. The boot manages to hold 390 litres of stuff, by the way.

All the go-faster cues are there – flat-bottomed steering wheel, bottom-clenching sports seats, S3-specific ‘sports’ instrumentation – but the sheer simplicity and beauty of the solidly well-oiled controls is what sets the Audi apart from every other manufacturer at this price point.

Take the central air vents – pull in to diffuse the flow, twist around to control the amount. It makes the sound of what we’d imagine safe crackers would be very familiar with.

Space is abundant up front, but the rear seat requires taller people to negotiate a natty little aperture and then a roofline that falls away. Best think of the S3 Sedan as a more-door coupe. Rear vision isn’t brilliant, either.

But, boy, with a couple of flaps to redirect exhaust rasps through to the interior, the EA888’s soundtrack certainly is.

And at 1525kg, the S3 Sedan needs a few revs on the counter before it can sprint away. We drove the S-tronic version, meaning there was the usual moment’ s hesitation from the dual-clutch ‘box.

Once under way, however, the Audi just roars along, keeping incredibly composed and controlled the wet roads leading up to the nearby mountain passes. Basically the S3’s quattro drivetrain makes a mockery of the rain.

Soon the corners turn really twisty, and it’s here that the variable-ratio steering comes under greatest scrutiny.

Basically there are three driving modes – Efficient, Auto, and Dynamic – and each affects the throttle, gearshift points, steering and – with the MRC – dampers.

Set in Dynamic, the helm feels nicely heavy yet quick to react, but the level of sensory feedback is still too low. A flick back into Auto and Comfort merely takes the heft and urge out of the wheel, so the S3 sedan continues with fast Audi convention in feeling a tad disconnected from the action.

It doesn’t really matter back on those mountain roads, for the sheer level of grip and control is commanding, revealing a chassis that seems lighter and more agile than a car of this heft and size ought to be.

The MQB architecture’s concerted weight-loss measures are obvious when you’re hammering up and down such roads, or during the many sudden braking manoeuvres that are necessary.

With a chassis that’s some 25mm lower than the regular A3’s, and a firmer tune compared to the regular MacPherson strut front and multi-link rear end, the S3 sedan can overcome its 59:41 nose-to-tail weight distribution, to dart around and shoot across the countryside with impressive control and ease.

And what about the infamous ride quality? Even on 19s, with MRC, the Audi coped well with the many craggy edges and broken tarmac we experienced, resisting the biggest shocks while dealing fairly well with the smaller ones.

The suspension did feel unsettled at times, though, while the amount of road-noise transmission into the cabin was obvious over some bitumen.

All in all, though, the S3 Sedan didn’t jar and grate like so many of its past and present big-wheeled brethren sometimes do. That’s a win in our books.

Specification levels are said to be “very generous”, and will be backed up by a variety of fresh technologies like adaptive cruise control, lane-change and blind-spot monitoring devices.

Audi is clearly bullish about the S3 Sport’s chances of finding a niche in a growing market niche.

Expected to be pegged with the 155kW CLA 250 Sport, which is priced from $63,400, the reality is that the S3 Sedan’s closest competitor in terms of performance and spec will probably be the stonking $86,900 CLA 45 AMG – with 265kW and AWD.

We’ll know for sure by early 2014, but it is clear that Audi is very serious with this promising S-car derivative.

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