With a price tag of $59,900 (plus on-road and dealer costs), the car is a chunk cheaper than the BMW M135i ($64,900) and Mercedes-Benz A45 AMG ($74,900), but also considerably dearer than products like the Renault Megane RS265 ($42,640) and Volkswagen Golf GTI ($41,490).
It’s the middle ground in terms of power, too. The S3 Sportback’s 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder petrol engine produces 206kW of power and 380Nm of torque, so it’s not short on performance, but nor is it as manic as its premium compatriots, both of which produce more power (235kW/450Nm for the BMW and 265kW/450Nm for the Merc).
Audi S3 Sportback
Audi S3 Sportback.
That’s not to say that it lacks much in terms of go-fast fun. Its engine is a willing thing, with only the slightest low-rev lag before the turbo provides a burst of energy that pushes you back in your seat. It sounds aggressive, too, with a rorty soundtrack when you push it hard.
There's a choice between a six-speed manual and a six-speed S-Tronic dual-clutch automatic, and Audi says 90-95 per cent of buyers will choose the latter - perhaps even more, because Audi isn't charging a premium for the self-shifter. An auto usually sees about $3000 added to the price.
For the purists, the manual is a peachy transmission. The shift action is slinky with short gear throws and the clutch action isn't too heavy nor too light. It does take its toll on the car’s performance, according to Audi, with a claimed 0-100km/h sprint time of 5.4 seconds, while the auto version completes the sprint in just 5.0s flat. It also uses 0.1L/100km more than the auto (which sips 6.9L/100km).
The S-Tronic is a clever, snappy shifting unit, and in the cars we tested it didn't seem to show nearly as much of that frustrating low speed hesitation that gearboxes of this type often exhibit.
The auto also offers those addictive little exhaust farts between gear changes, which have been beefed up to sound even more extroverted than in other models.
There’s a standard Drive Mode selector that alters the steering, throttle and gearshifts, which has Dynamic, Efficiency, Comfort, Auto and Individual settings. The Drive Mode unit also alters the car’s suspension if fitted with the adaptive suspension, and Dynamic mode also boosts the amount of engine noise, which is no bad thing.
In the cars fitted without the adaptive suspension we found the compromise between a rigid, sporting character and well composed ride quite convincing, though it could get bouncy over larger bumps.
With the optional suspension there was less of a happy medium. Comfort mode wasn’t necessarily cosseting, and Dynamic mode was almost crude in its stiffness.
Happily, the steering proved trusty in all cars and all modes, with decent weighting and feel to it, though not quite the same level of involvement as cars like the Benz A45 AMG. In Dynamic mode it was at its most involving, with a chunky heft on offer.
The S3 Sportback felt assuredly grippy through corners even in the heavy rain we experienced on our test drive in Tasmania’s wild west. Only the slipperiest of surfaces provoked the traction control to save the day, while the Quattro all-wheel-drive system means there’s plenty of traction when you push out of sharper bends.
Inside, the standard S3 is much like any of the regular A3 models, with a thoughtful, practical, comfortable interior that feels sophisticated rather than racy or special. Some optional finishes, such as red leather trimmed sections and red stitching on the doors and steering wheel, add a touch of speed to the cabin.
In terms of space, the S3 is comfortable enough for four adults, and the boot (at 340 litres) is large enough for a couple of large suitcases, but smaller than many mainstream rivals. Storage is excellent through the cabin, and standard rear seat ventilation is a plus for long trips.
At $59,900 it’s not a cheap small five-door hatchback, but the standard equipment list is hardly bare, with sat-nav, reversing camera, front and rear parking sensors, automated parking assistance, leather trim, front electric seat adjustment and heating, dual-zone climate control, smart key entry and push button start, an auto-dimming rear-view mirror, xenon headlights and 18-inch alloys.
Options include the S performance package ($4990), which adds LED headlights, a Bang & Olufsen sound system, quilted leather sports seats (which lose the electric adjustment), adjustable suspension, black interior trim, red brake callipers and different 18-inch alloys. An assistance package with adaptive cruise control, automated high beam, blind spot assistance and lane keeping assistance costs $1800.
Buyers may be lured by the four rings, but more pragmatic types could be left considering whether the S3 is worth the extra spend over a VW Golf GTI, particularly if they intend to use the car as a regular runabout. Even then, potential purchasers may want to consider holding off for the VW Golf R, which will essentially be a more affordable version of the S3. It arrives in the first half of 2014.
However, while it may be something of a misfit in terms of its possible rivals, the S3 is a competent, enjoyable and exciting car to drive in its own right.
Engine: 2.0-litre turbo 4-cyl
Power: 206kW at 5100-6500rpm
Torque: 380Nm at 1800-5100rpm
Transmission: 6-sp manual or 6-sp dual-clutch auto
Fuel economy: 6.9L/100km
Price: From $59,900 plus on-road costs.