Here's a little exercise. Grab a pen and paper and write down a list of new cars that cost £27,000.
Out of the list, which of these floats your boat? For a few pennies over, you could have a Lexus IS 250, or maybe a Lotus Exige. Mitsubishi Evo FQ300 perhaps? Quite a choice when you start to look isn’t it?
Enter Audi's new S3. The company believes that one day all sports hatches will be like this. In the past couple of years Audi designers have got the bit between their teeth. The A4, A6 and A8 have a definite and distinctive theme running through them. That’s real progress. If you’re anything like me you probably can't recall a single visual attribute of the previous 'S' range of A3s, other than they were too plain looking, and mostly painted Pukey Purple metallic.
New focus (!)
Today though Audi is focused. The S3 still has strong reliability, speed, and will keep its value way pass your 80th birthday. Yawn. But now it has visual impact too and an eyebrow-raising 261bhp.
On the press drive, journalists were given a butt-numbingly long speech about all of the differences from old to new -- trying not to nod off became impossible. I won't bore you with the detail, but it's impressive stuff once you get to drive it.
Having dropped my chin to the floor, it seems I'll need a few more years at this diet thing before I can fit the body-shape style of the S3 sports seats. At least the top of my knees won't be crushed every time I turn the wheel. Thankfully for us well-built individuals, your hands grip the S4's flat-bottomed steering wheel.
Although all Audi interiors are an extra special place to be, they're becoming a bit like a flat-packed chest of drawers from Ikea. You could be blindfolded, led into any Audi and guess which one you’re in with Derren Brown accuracy.
It’s still very top quality though. The driving position has improved slightly giving you plenty of movement to get the (ever so tight) seat and steering adjustment right without the hateful stretch to reach everything. Once you're ready to go, twist the fob and fire up the 2.0-litre turbocharged engine, now found in every VW group hot-hatch.
As I take my turn driving the new car, an Audi bigwig towers over the front wing and leans through the window sternly mumblimg, "Don't crash it, will you?"
Well, there goes Plan A.
Two things hit you as you catch a glimpse of the S3's outline driving around. Firstly, it’s an exact replica of the old car, but secondly it's still very familiar Audi. Obviously, there is the ludicrously oversized front spoiler, and mega-thin low profile tyres set around a car that shouts Pimp My Ride. But it's a crucial clue, whether you like it or not, you are driving an Audi S3. It's been given a nip and tuck overhaul making it more aggressive and purposeful which will certainly make it stand out amongst the competition.
More important is the S3's roadgoing ability. The car responds to the slightest input with anticipation that borders ESP. That's thanks to a complicated if boring explanation of the S3's sophisticated Haldex four-wheel drive system. Although it doesn't share any resemblance to permanent drive to all four wheels, it shifts power to the rear especially as you're about to skim a nicely trimmed hedge heading into a corner a tad too quickly.
This creates a balance that pays huge dividends, keeping the car poised and neutral at ever increasing speeds. The brakes are also superb, with plenty of feel and a graduation to the bite that optimises the S3's ability to stop not just quickly but smoothly.
When you get to drive it, like me, you'll probably be disappointed with the shortfall in grunt despite having the high bhp figure to admire. It’s still quick enough and maintains a supreme level of stability as a rapid point-to-point car.
But if you want to show off, don't trouble the rev limiter. Its mid range punch is enough to pull the blood to the back of your head but gets silly and uncomposed if you keep nailing the throttle. The turbocharged engine sounds distressed and strained so stick to the more delightful background hum. If you want to mimic chauffeur dawdling, then the gear lever will press through the gate like an A2. It also keeps the momentum going when your shifting like mad and barely slips a cog crunching in despair. The clutch makes light work of your left leg.
However, the accelerator pedal is too sensitive even in light traffic. You'll look like a right Muppet kangarooing up the high street trying to keep your cool.
Driven in the manner intended, the S3 hurls over the crests with a hard yet forgiving ride and doesn't give you the injuries like some crazed sadistic whip mistress. It does have a tendency to bounce lightly on the motorway, but you don't have to cringe anymore and swerve 20 feet to miss a hole in the tarmac, or drive so slowly over a speed hump that you might as well get out and crawl using your chin.
What else could you buy?
Overall, the new S3 is certainly a step forward from the old one. However, go back to the beginning of my review and look down your list of cars for £27K. Now use another sheet of paper containing today’s best hot-hatches and suddenly the S3 looks distant.
Lets look at it once more just before the S3 sits in a list all on its own - 0-62 mph in 5.7 seconds, 155 mph, 261 bhp and the looks of a Rhinoceros. Maybe 31 mpg will wake you from the dead? No. Thought not. There are so many other cars to spend this type of money on.
Yes, the S3 is a very good car but, unfortunately, Audi's pricing strategy won't help it prove this.
© Steve Bell 2006