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Happy birthday to the A3. Audi’s little hatch is ten years old this year, yet in all that time it’s never really rolled up its sleeves and picked a fight with the best fast hatches. Perhaps it’s because VAG has the Golf to do that job, allowing the A3 to appeal to a more mature audience, with even the most potent S-line models standing aloof from the occasionally sordid and often garish hot-hatch herd.
From these pictures, you’d guess that the new S3 is true to type. In the lobby of the Audi Forum at Munich airport there sat an electric orange S3, but this bold statement wasn’t backed up by the choice of test cars outside: black, white or grey. We got stuck with grey, which could have been described as ‘Shark Grey’ but was, of course, ‘Dolphin’. It doesn’t show off the S3’s bolder front end or rear diffuser to best effect and, worse still, our car didn’t even have the RS4-style alloys that will come as standard and which give the shape a real lift.
Now, this is a shame, because technically the S3 is considerably more exciting than it looks here. Its engine is a development of the excellent 197bhp 2-litre FSI turbo engine which debuted in the A3 and subsequently found a home in the Golf GTI. Significantly reworked for the new S3, it now offers no less than 262bhp backed up by 258lb ft of torque. This is fed through a short-throw, close-ratio, six-speed gearbox and distributed by the latest version of the Haldex four-wheel-drive system. Electromechanical actuation of the rear-mounted clutch-pack that divides up the drive front/rear (40/60 under normal conditions) can even predict when wheels will start slipping (under full throttle from a standing start, for example) and send up to 100 per cent of drive to wherever it’s most use.
Additionally, the suspension has stiffer mounts and springs and tighter damping, and sits the S3 some 25mm (1in) lower to the ground than the standard A3. It also features more aluminium components to reduce unsprung weight, while the electromechanical power steering has been recalibrated for its sportiest role.
The cockpit is neat but unadventurous, though you can add visual interest by shelling out for the optional RS4-style high-back, deep-bolstered seats (£1685) and flat-bottom steering wheel (£270).
Twist the key and the four-cylinder turbo engine assumes a discreet idle, and at a motorway cruise it proves subdued too, but there’s plenty of noise on offer in between. Like the 197bhp version, this engine revs with an enthusiastic bark, though here there’s more thrash to go with the bigger kick.
There’s a polished feel to the way the S3 moves and reacts, though, a sense that it has been developed and refined to feel solid yet smooth- acting. Steering feel isn’t especially detailed, and at town speeds its weighting is a little light, but the system quickly adjusts to give more weight as the pace picks up. And when the engine comes on boost, the pace rises pretty darned fast, the shove in the back being considerably more insistent than with the 197bhp version. Key elements in getting the extra horsepower out are a new, bigger turbo and an all-metal intercooler that is 10 per cent more efficient than the plastic-ended equivalent. That would be enough for most tuners, but Audi has also fitted strengthened conrods, gudgeon pins and bearings, along with new pistons and a different cylinder head material for greater heat resistance.
The claimed power and torque feel all there, yet there’s little drama to their deployment. Wet or dry, straight-line traction is total, the S3 simply slingshotting forward, even with a dropped-clutch start. Cornering proves even more remarkable. The ride is taut but not overtly sporting, yet show the S3 a smooth, fast, twisting road like the one we found and it turns in keenly and corners hard and fast with hardly any roll. By the third run for photographer Morgan, I was steering the S3 more smoothly and taking the turns in a higher gear with perhaps 10mph more corner speed. And still the car felt neutral and poised. A wetted, closed test course showed that it will slither around a bit with ESP off, but it’s still pretty predictable and tidy.
The S3 doesn’t really put a foot wrong on any surface, then. It’s also fast and, at a cruise, very refined. There’s an appreciable depth of quality too that goes some way to justifying the £26,995 price tag. There isn’t much involvement, though, through steering feedback or chassis adjustability. The Golf GTI is sometimes criticised for being a bit dull chassis-wise, yet it engages more than the S3.
The other problem I have is a tag of £27K for a four-cylinder car when the same buys the BMW 130i with its glorious 261bhp straight-six and less gets you the sonorous, four-wheel-drive Golf R32. They’re both entertaining when you’re ambling; the S3 only feels special when pushed to its limits.