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Thursday 10th April


AUDI S3 REVELATION: PH BLOG

Harris helps put the new WRX STI in context after a fascinating few days in an Audi S3


The older I become, the more confusing I find Audi - especially fast Audis. I was lent an S3 the other week: white, small wheels and nasty darkened rear windows. I didn't sit in it for a few days, partly through general business, partly because I was still haunted by the spectre of the last white A3 shaped object to sit in the same place on the driveway - the dreadful RS3.

First promising sign found between the seats
First promising sign found between the seats
I still can't quite decide what's more wrong about the RS3: the way it stammers down a road, or the blind-faith fanbosyism of those unlucky enough to have their spines crushed by one on a daily basis.

Negative preconceptions were put to one side for a quick blast into town one Sunday morning in the new S3. The car had a manual gearbox and only the lightest smattering of options. The beauty of three-pedal cars is that much can be gleaned from their low speed behaviour - especially that all important relationship between clutch, throttle and shift.

You can just tell if something is inherently right at under 20mph, and within a few minutes it was clear that this new S3 had been developed by people who enjoy changing gear. And who find turbocharged engines that refuse to shed revs promptly after even the smallest throttle inputs plain bloody irritating.

Button test? Complete, business as usual
Button test? Complete, business as usual
The five-minute warm-up process gave a chance to fumble with a few buttons and see if the uber-quality doyen of the cabin quality group test was still at the top of its game (Copyright T. Queef). It would seem so. I especially like the thin line of switches on the dash and the red-faced dials. It feels small from inside - intimate and cosy. The seat has just about enough support, and I could get low and pull the weeny little steering wheel into my chest. I'm not sure about these infotainment screens that glide out from a hidden recess. I'm an old fart who just sees it failing a week after the warranty expires.

I had taken the precaution of both reading nothing about the new S3, and not studying any of the numbers before driving it. I had no idea how much power was claimed by Audi, so was a little shocked when from 2,500rpm in third gear it decided to launch itself down the road like a, well, very fast car indeed. And it kept pulling. And it made a decent noise. And the throttle response was plain brilliant for what must be a very turbocharged four-pot.

White goods, suddenly more interesting
White goods, suddenly more interesting
Then we encountered some bumps - things that fast Audis regularly seem to have bypassed during their development years. The S3 immediately felt long-limbed and supple, dealing with very challenging lumps and cambers in just the way the RS3 hadn't.

In fact within ten minutes of sitting in the new S3 I was thinking that just about every aspect of the way it drove seemed to have been formed as a response to a direct challenge to produce a car that did exactly what an RS3 didn't. Car companies like to talk in terms of driving DNA - linking strands of feel and response from controls and components that can be traced through entire model ranges. Audi's faster products often feel like they were made by different companies, not just different teams of people. I suppose Quattro Gmbh, birth place of the RS3, is technically a different company.

I then found myself smiling at the S3 package. Here I was travelling at speed in a small, discreet Audi; I think the first 'S' model I can remember without the hey-look-at-me chrome mirrors, and I was actually enjoying myself. It was supple, fast, grippy, didn't understeer; didn't have a brake pedal with zero sneeze-factor.

No setting to sort out lifeless steering, sadly
No setting to sort out lifeless steering, sadly
The only real downside I could detect was in the steering. There are two modes, comfort is just too light and dynamic adds some unwanted, artificial friction when it's under load in faster turns. I also thought the dynamic engine sound gave the impression of it being a slightly borked 1995 Impreza Turbo.

The return journey was even better. I arrived home beaming and happy, discovered it has 300hp - and then used the car for every single journey for the next six days. It averaged 25mpg going very fast, 30-plus on a lighter load. No-one seemed to notice the four exhaust tips, or the car itself. I can't think of anything subtler and faster. Had this existed when we filmed the M135i, the outcome would have been much, much closer.

I haven't driven the new Golf R yet - everyone says it's a belter. But for now, if I was about to buy one car to use all year, I think it would be an Audi S3. Never thought I'd say that.

Chris

Author: Chris Harris
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