Given the Golf R's formidable reputation as the all-weather, all-season hot hatch of choice, it's a surprise that the Audi S3 isn't mentioned more. The concept - a compact, stylish, turbocharged, all-wheel-drive hot hatch with a nice interior - isn't a new one, the first S3 arrived in 1999, don't forget. Yes, there were six-cylinder alternatives early in the 21st century, but no longer, Audi having stuck rigidly with four cylinders, an engine no bigger than 2.0-litres and a dual-clutch option for a long time now. If the formula once seemed a bit mean versus rivals boasting greater capacity, Audi's experience with a template that's become commonplace now looks to be an advantage. Manufacturers wanting to enter the premium hot hatch fray today need a transverse four-cylinder turbo, four driven wheels and an appropriately appointed interior. Even BMW has been forced into it...
With the Mk8 Golf R still to arrive, a test against its AMG adversary is an opportunity for the latest S3 to establish itself as hot hatch head honcho. There are reasons for optimism, too: the car impressed on launch, its Golf GTI cousin has done similarly in the UK, and, truth be told, the bar in the class isn't tremendously high. There are good cars from all the main players, if nothing truly memorable given what they cost - the BMW M135i is a prime example.
Though almost inseparable on paper, here the A35 and S3 represent the stylistic extremes of the segment. In this particular specification the AMG looks built for attention, good or bad, just so long as somebody is looking at all times. The Audi, by contrast, is borderline forgettable, the ride height curiously perched (even with larger optional wheels) and the features specific to the car rendered almost redundant by S Line and Vorsprung equivalents lower down the range. Naturally, there is a fine line to tread between understated and underwhelming, one that Audi has typically walked with aplomb. But this version of the A3 doesn't nail it.
It's a similar story inside, where a blend of both interiors would probably be the best compromise. The Audi feels sober to the point of unwelcoming, and not even especially well made either. It does nothing particularly wrong with good displays and one of the better touchscreens, though nor does it really make you feel as good as a new £40,000 car probably ought to. The AMG, on the other hand, overwhelms with screens and buttons and colours and options; familiarity does improve the experience, and lots of the basics are good - driving position, chunky gearshift paddles - but something like the M135i shows both up as a better blend of functionality and style.
Initially, the A35 displays a similar aptitude to the other 'junior' AMGs, cars like the C43 and E53, for balancing the requirements of both Stuttgart and Affalterbach. Where perhaps the full-blown AMGs can feel a little overbearing, and standard Mercs - in the case of the A-Class, at least - a tad limp, the A35 nicely straddles the two schools of thought. In automatic mode the dual-clutch gearbox is slick, swift and obliging, the engine sensibly muted and the seat warming just so. But you also get a brake pedal with a really nice feel to it, steering that's pretty natural for a speed-sensitive, variable ratio, electro-mechanical rack and shift paddles that change gear decisively. It's clear that consideration has been given to driving a yellow A35 as much as posing in one.
As is the way with the latest hot hatch breed, the bare performance stats flatter to deceive a little - all-wheel drive traction, snappy upshifts and short ratios account for the sub-five-second dashes to 62mph as much as tarmac churning power. Nevertheless, the A35 always feels brisk and, perhaps more crucially, willing. It revs enthusiastically enough and pulls convincingly at low revs. In its more aggressive settings the M260 turbo finds its voice as well, growling up to its 6,500rpm limiter and throwing in plenty of overrun pops for good measure. It may not be the most authentic sound ever, sure, but it's far from the least entertaining either.
The Mercedes is decent to drive, too. The AMG Ride Control that comes as standard on Premium Plus A35s offering three settings for the dampers and ensuring a good spread between everyday comfort and outright corner-carving ability. Supported by that firm brake pedal, responsive gearbox and keen engine, it isn't hard to travel swiftly and safely in an A35 come what may.
The problem is that the A35 never seeks to elevates itself beyond seeming quite good. Perhaps as understudy to the A45 it needn't be brimming with star quality, but whereas that uncompromising model feels like a proper AMG in its own right, the halfway house version runs the risk of appearing like a facsimile - one with the saturation deliberately turned down by 30 percent. In the A35, the compromises are all over the place.
To expect A45 levels of drama would be unreasonable, of course. But there is an obvious disparity between what the car offers and what a keen driver might credibly expect. While the damping does an assured job of controlling body movement, there's never any escaping the kerbweight or a sense of greater agility or tenacity lurking beneath. An all-wheel drive system that never sends more than 50 per cent of the power rearwards compounds the issue, with precious little sense of being able to impose your own ideas on the dynamic balance. It'll grip and grip and grip, brake very effectively and accelerate almost as fast, eventually bleed into a tiny bit of understeer and then grip again. But the A35 never grabs your attention as a driving device in any way like its eye-catching exterior does as a static object. Something, it should be said, the A45 unequivocally does.
We all know how important options are to the modern performance car, a point that the S3 demonstrates all too well. If not entirely favourably. On the adaptive dampers and smooth German roads it is easy to believe that the S3 was impressive; it's exactly the environment and configuration for it to shine. It should come as little surprise, furthermore, to find the craggy UK B-roads, the larger 19-inch wheels and standard-fit passive dampers suit the Audi a good deal less. Which is a shame, given the potential that apparently exists in the platform.
As it is, the latest S3 delivers neither outstanding comfort nor exceptional control. It is prone to fidget and never really finds its flow, which is all the more trying when its body control wants for additional damping. The ride and handling compromise does balance out on smoother roads but ultimately you suspect the basic suspension wants the smaller wheels - or the bigger rims need the more sophisticated dampers (as was the case with the Mk7 Golf R). Stuck between the two the S3 comes off as unresolved. Which is a fairly significant issue in a premium hot hatch meant to be doing it all.
Elsewhere its competence is hardly in question, albeit paired with a conspicuous lack of intrigue for the driver. Which is hardly a new or especially egregious thing for an Audi to do, although the firm does seem to have gone out of its way to drastically curtail the chances of an enduring relationship springing up. It hardly seems fair to criticise the switch-like gear lever when Mercedes has relegated its selector to a column stalk, but it's no more satisfying to use and Audi hasn't rectified the error by fitting decent paddles. Most of the time you'll settle for automatic mode to avoid using them - which might be for the best because the S3 is studiously uninterested in making a sound that might be construed as exciting. Apparently it is more concerned with engaging its coast function at every given opportunity or nibbling at the steering when the lane assist wants to nanny you straight.
It's not all bad, of course. The brake pedal feel has improved and there's sufficient confidence in the chassis for you carry enormous speed everywhere - whether you're appreciating the sensation of it or not. That is the model's calling card, after all: with the minimum amount of fuss, commitment or effort, it'll go where you need it to quicker than you expected it to. Which is not the problem. The problem is that its predecessor, with virtually the same engine and platform, also did that - except with a more inviting interior and better resolved styling. So what would you get this version for? Ten horsepower and an improved screen?
More than likely the impression would be more favourable if you select the pricier suspension components (or make your peace with the standard wheels) but on this experience it's hard to be overly enthusiastic about the S3. By neither delivering as a driver's car or capitalising on Audi's traditional strengths, it journeys even further into no-man's land than the A35. More often than not it is content with being an A3 that goes jolly fast. Perhaps its maker feels like that will be enough.
It isn't for us. Modest though the A35's embellishments are, it is the superior hot hatch in the S3's company. Outright performance aside - because both models are plenty fast enough in the conventional sense - it is the car which comes closer to looking and sounding and feeling like you hoped it might. The A35 qualifies for its junior AMG billing because that's what you're paying a premium for; the S3 tries to hard to make 300hp seem ordinary.
It's a similar sensation in the M135i. The predominant sound you hear is the noise of targets being hit. That isn't unusual in the car industry of course, but in this case each manufacturer is guilty of trying to replicate the Golf R's success without taking the time to stamp their own identity on the blueprint. Which doesn't seem quite right when you factor in the cost of each model compared to something like a Honda Civic Type R, which is a superior prospect in practically every regard.
Moreover, there is a new Golf R just around the corner. For potentially less money. And with the promise of a more sophisticated rear axle - specifically included to upgrade the driving experience. Given that neither the Audi S3 or the Mercedes-AMG A35 or the BMW M135i improve on the standard set by the Mk7 iteration, it is conceivable that its successor will surpass its latest rivals without having to significantly raise the bar. In fact, if it achieves even modest gains in the job of concealing its kerbweight or making on-demand AWD feel less prescriptive, then Volkswagen will likely have another class-leading, crowd-pleaser on its books. Certainly the opposition isn't putting up much resistance.
AUDI S3 SPORTBACK TFSI | SPECIFICATION
Engine: 1,984cc, turbocharged inline four
Transmission: 7-speed dual-clutch S-tronic auto, all-wheel drive
Power (hp): 310@5,450-6,500rpm
Torque (lb ft): 295@2,000-5,450rpm
0-62mph: 4.8 secs
Top speed: 155mph (limited)
Weight: 1,500kg (unladen)
MPG: 38.1 (WLTP combined)
Price: £37,900 (as standard; price as tested £41,200 comprised of Navarra Blue paint for £575, 19-inch titanium matt alloy wheels for £770, Red brake calipers for £290, Matrix LED exterior lighting pack for £430, Extended ambient lighting pack for £110, four-way lumbar support, front seats for £260, Bang & Olufsen sound system for £865)
MERCEDES A35 4MATIC PREMIUM PLUS | SPECIFICATION
Engine: 1,991cc, four-cyl petrol turbocharged
Transmission: 7-speed twin-clutch, all-wheel drive
Power (hp): 306@5,800-6,100rpm
Torque(lb ft): 295@3,000-4,000rpm
0-62mph: 4.7 secs
Top speed: 155mph
Price: £44,360 (price as standard; price as tested £45,855 comprised of Driving Assistance Package (Active Blind Spot Assist, Active Braking Assist with cross-traffic function, Active Distance Assist, Active Emergency Stop Assist, Active Land Changing Assist, Active Speed Limit Assist, Evasive Steering Assist, Pre-Safe Plus and Route-based speed adjustment) for £1,495)
Image credit | Harry Rudd
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