What is it?
We might not all be familiar with Audi’s nomenclature. Since they started adding Es and Qs to their model names it’s become hard to keep up, let alone when the words Sportback or Ultra gets thrown in there too. The S3 Saloon, though, is pretty simple to get your head around. It’s Audi’s hot, but not hottest, Golf sized offering. The fact it’s a Saloon means it has 5 doors and boot.
This isn’t a completely new model, more of a facelift with a few small mechanical improvements. Read, more power. The A3 has always been a tidy, sharp looking car and this subtly tweaked one is equally dashing.
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The current generation A3, based on the MQB platform, was the first time Audi had turned the A3 into a saloon. Before, it had just been a hatch and a cabriolet. The saloon body looks great, combined with the latest styling alterations and the sportier 'S' features; the latest S3 is an extremely handsome car.
Engine, Gearbox, 0-60
The S3 has Audi’s 2.0litre TFSI engine. It’s a four-cylinder turbo engine, and it uses variable cam timing to increase efficiency at low revs and improve power at the top end. It produces 306bhp and torque is 280lb ft. However if you opt for the alternative, double clutch, ‘S Tronic’ gearbox you can have another 15lb ft more torque.
The S Tronic gearbox in the new S3 is a completely different unit than before. It now has seven forward gears, rather than six. But more importantly, the double clutches – although they operates in much the same way as before – are now a lubricated ‘wet’ clutches. This has helped, along with some other beefed up parts, make the gearbox withstand the higher torque output.
All of this, plus four wheel drive means that the S3 hits 62mph from a standstill in 4.6sec. It has a top speed of, yes you guessed it, 155mph.
The S3 is equipped with Audi’s Virtual Cockpit; a 12.3 inch TFT screen placed where you’d expect to see the rev counter and speed dial. The screen displays an animated set of dials but can also show a number of different options, from what’s on the radio to vehicle data. What’s best is having a map presented right in front of you; zoomed in to just the right scale, it can give you an idea about what sort of corner is coming up and whether there will be a straight soon. It’s like having a co-driver read notes to you, allowing you to drive unknown like you know them intimately.
The S3 Saloon is also equipped, as standard, with Audi’s magnetic ride suspension – it's an option on the rest of S3 range. The oil in each damper has small magnetic particles circulating within it. When a voltage is applied through the oil, the particles orient themselves perpendicular to the flow and cause the oil to move through the valves in the damper at a slower rate.
The stiffness of the dampers changes depending on which driving mode the car is in, but they also adapt the driver’s style and road conditions.
What’s it like to drive?
Unimpeachable, that’s how I’d describe the S3. It’s fast, yet completely trustworthy as there’s so much grip and traction. It feels like it’s been engineered to be so dependable that not matter how communicative the car might be, it’d never have to feedback where the limits of grip were as you’d never reach them. However, the S3 doesn’t completely defy physics, once you’ve pushed it beyond its grip threshold you realise there isn’t anything useful being fed to you through the steering, sadly.
But there is still tons of grip, and that means you can use all of the 306bhp to reach quite alarming speeds. The new wet, double clutch gearbox still delivers sharp, quick shifts. Exuding the R8’s telepathic-like transmission, the S3’s gearbox is one of the best paddle shift ‘boxes available in any car.
The S3, unlike Audi’s of old, rides with a lot of class. The well-padded seats take up a lot of the bumps, but very few knocks or thuds enter the cabin. With the Dynamic mode selected the ride becomes a little more nervous, but with that comes tighter body control and, more noticeably, less roll.
Turn-in always feels strong, and the S3 will change direction almost instantly. The small amounts of roll mean the Audi reacts immediatley to any steering inputs. With such strong turn-in grip, the S3 encourages even faster corner entry and deals with anything but the most aggressive movements without any drama.
After you’ve shot into a fast corner, and you’ve started to apply some throttle as you’re exiting, the Audi's nose begins to push wide. The new S3 supposedly sends more torque to the rear axle than before. However, in long fast corners especially, it certainly doesn’t feel that way; you’re only ever trying to minimise understeer rather than manage any oversteer.
The S3 isn’t completely inert, though. On tighter corners with the traction in its loosest setting (it can’t be fully turned off), the S3 can feel quite playful; more so than its bigger brother the RS3. If you’re aggressive with both the brakes and steering on corner entry, you’ll initially you feel a touch of understeer. However, stay committed and the rear will start to slide wide. It can be immediately gathered in with some throttle, and the lack of body roll really helps keep everything in control.
The S3 isn't the most dramatic of cars; it goes very quickly in an almost faultless, hassle-free manner. The hints of frivolity it does show are, sadly, fleeting. Ultimately its lack of adjustability most of the time, and predisposition to understeer, deny the driver much fun.
How does it compare?
BMW’s M135i is the S's most natural riva. They’re both around £33,000; the BMW is £32,550 while the Audi is likely to be closer £34,000. However, the BMW is about to be replaced by the M140i, which will be more powerful with 335bhp and torquier with 369lb ft. If it’s anything like its predecessor, the M140i will have great balance, an exploitable rear-wheel drive chassis and be more fun than the S3.
If the S3 has you hooked with its striking looks, then you can console yourself with the fact that it will accelerate 0.2seconds quicker than a manual M140i.