We drove both a three-door manual S3 and a specced-up five-door Sportback with dual-clutch S Tronic and all the trimmings. And though they share a badge they feel very different cars. The three-door feels like a mature hot hatch, albeit one with a 300hp punch, while the five-door has the air of a much more grown-up family car. Albeit a very fast one.
The manual car's slim, flat bottomed wheel and characteristically light-actioned and precise shift are all familiar Audi features, likewise the fierce grab from the brakes and brittle springing at low speeds. The engine pulls strongly from low revs, with little sense of lag and a muscular mid-range but it doesn't feel 10 per cent up on power compared with the Megane 265 or Focus ST. And lacks the M135i's 'OMG' punch. It also seems to headbutt its limiter very hard and about 500rpm sooner than you expect, the traditionally undersquare design happier at low revs than close to the redline. Which, unfortunately, is just where the BMW has a glorious finale to its power band, its revvier oversquare nature and six-cylinder balance really coming through. On a test drive that'd seal it, especially if you've got the Audi in the 'Dynamic' engine noise mode that sounds more like a misfire.
Audi's been listening to complaints about hard ride set-ups though, both the standard dampers and adjustable ones on the Sportback striking an acceptable balance between 'sporting' firmness and bump absorption and poise.
Four-wheel drive does give the Audi an all-weather advantage over the tractionally challenged BMW, which will give you a lot of flashing lights on the dash when it's wet. But while fun to hustle along and effectively fast, there's little thrill factor at the Audi's wheel and it doesn't inspire like the M135i can along the same piece of road.
Much praise has been heaped on the new A3 range's more minimalist interior style and it successfully combines traditional Audi conservatism with a more youthful and 'now' sense of modernity. From seating position to some of the plastics it's hard to escape the sense you're in a posh hatchback though, the BMW more convincing in the premium feelgood factors. Little things like the fact the shifter paddles in the Audi are chromed plastic and those in the BMW cool to the touch aluminium underline this, though the bells and whistles spec Sportback we drove was much more convincing in its premium ambitions. At a price.
The 1 Series' looks remain divisive and the fact your colleagues and neighbours won't be able to tell the difference between your M135i and an entry level 114i will rank it hero or zero according to taste.
'Civilian' non car folk will probably be more impressed by the Audi, especially blinged up with a few extras like the red seats of our manual car or the quilted 'Super Sports' ones in the Sportback. But that's not really the PH way - is it?
Meanwhile, in the real world...
No getting away from it, the BMW is a selfish choice based around the driver. Front seat passengers will probably be telling you to slow down, rear seat ones moaning about the lack of leg and head room. And the fact the shopping that should be in the boot is probably in their lap. There are benefits to being based on VW's MQB hatch platform though, with space and practicality definitely on the S3's side. Simply put, it's more likely be the one to get universal household approval.
Do they compare on price?
Yes, spookily so. A three-door manual M135i costs £30,570, the comparable S3 £29,980. Looking up the range a five-door M135i auto starts at £32,595, an S3 Sportback with S Tronic £31,920. Both S3 and M135i have standard leather, sports suspension, respective S and M Performance branding ... and expansive options lists. Which brings us to...
Do they REALLY compare on price?
The fact the bottom line on the five-door Sportback we tested starts with a '4' is probably the first shocker in this comparison, though it's fair to concede that this car was a fully laden press car with all the toys. But the fact the S3, already on the back foot for power and punch in the guts performance, can weigh in with a 10 per cent price premium over a generously specced five-door auto M135i is eye opening.
the A45 AMG, again faster and with a standard dual-clutch gearbox, starts at £37,000. Have a browse of the full options specs and prices below and make your own decisions about what's necessary and what could be trimmed. But it's hard to escape the fact the S3 quickly blows any price advantage with a few options ticked.
The S3 is a great car by any measure. Well, any but this one sadly. In all but practicality and, to some eyes, pose value it's hard to escape the fact the M135i thumps it comprehensively across the board. If you need a more family orientated premium uber hatch the Sportback will be a much more convincing sell than the more self-centred BMW. But for the kind of feelgood factors we're looking for it's not a hard one to call.
AUDI S3 SPORTBACK
Engine: 1,984cc 4-cyl turbo
Transmission: 6-speed manual/6-speed dual-clutch auto (S Tronic), four-wheel drive
Power (hp): 300@5,500rpm
Torque (lb ft): 280@1,800rpm
0-62mph: 5.2sec/4.8sec S Tronic (three-door) 5.3sec/4.9sec S Tronic (five-door)
Top speed: 155mph (limited)
Weight: Sportback: 1,445kg (EU, excluding driver)
MPG: 40.4mpg/40.9mpg S Tronic (NEDC combined)
CO2: 162g/km/159g/km S Tronic
Price: £31,920 (£43,425 as tested inc. £775 for Estoril Blue crystal effect paint, £275 for reversing camera, £1,450 for Driver Assistance Package, £1,795 for Technology Package inc. and Audi Connect, £795 for Super Sports seats, £245 for auto dimming mirror with light and rain sensor package, £795 for LED headlights, £170 for interior lighting package, £950 for panoramic glass sunroof, £250 for roof rails, £425 for 'advanced key', £75 for tyre pressure warning, £200 Audi Pre Sense Basic, £835 for Audi Parking System Plus, £900 Audi Active Lane Assist and £750 Bang & Olufsen sound system)
Engine: 2,979cc six-cylinder, turbocharged
Transmission: 6-speed manual, rear-wheel drive (8-speed auto optional)
Power (hp): 320@5,800rpm
Torque (lb ft): 332@1,300-4,500rpm
0-62mph: 5.1 sec (auto 4.9 sec)
Top speed: 155mph
MPG: 35.3 (37.7 auto) (NEDC combined)
CO2: 188g/km (175g/km auto)
Price: £30,525 (before options) £37,680 (as tested inc. £515 for Adaptive M Sport suspension, aluminium trim, complimentary BMW Business Loudspeaker system, £295 for DAB, £360 for Driver Comfort Package comprising cruise and parking sensors, £90 for 'extended storage', £250 for dimming/folding mirrors, full black panel display, high-gloss black finish, £95 for 'internet', £200 for driver/passenger lumbar support, £1,995 for BMW Professional Multimedia, £515 for metallic paint, £235 for front/rear Park Distance Control, £265 for seat heating, £1,600 for Sport auto transmission, £290 for Sun Protection Package, £450 for Visibility Package inc. adaptive xenon lights)