A closer look at the Audi S3 Sedan from NZ Autocar magazine
You think you’ve driven just about every road of interest in the country as a launch jockey and then, unexpectedly, there’s a choice new section of tarmac unfolding before you, a glittering ribbon emerging from the central North Island fog.
Typically you’re bemoaning the fact you aren’t driving something appropriate for the occasion. Not this time.
On a launch drive back from Taupo to Auckland we took in some roads less travelled in the Waikato hinterland and they proved a superb backdrop for the talents of Audi’s new S3 sedan, which you might describe as an RS 4-lite. Not in the new Avant sense, as this is a four-door but it reminds of how charming the second-gen B7 RS 4 used to be back in the day, before it grew up.
Back in 2006 we compared the V8 RS 4 with the existing M3 of the time, and felt the RS 4 was the better machine. That’s the only time it has ever been awarded ”Our Choice” by NZ Autocar over the M3 competition, and since then it has gotten bigger and flabbier. With all of its tricky electronics it is now better behaved than it has a right to be, given its size and weight, but it is still heavier and less willing to change direction than the latest M3.
Well the S3 goes in the almost opposite direction. Sure, it’s still 4WD where BMWs are rear drive, but it’s based on the new and lighter MQB group platform and overall the car weighs 50kg less than its predecessor. At 1460kg this car is at least 250kg lighter than the 2006 RS 4, and while it only has 220kW to the RS 4’s 309 total, the torque tally isn’t so far behind, at 380 vs 440Nm. And it’s developed much, much lower down in the rev range.
The RS 4 then managed 0-100 in 4.62sec, and this is meant to run 4.9sec. But it’s the cost that gets us. A cool $160k for the RS 4 of 2006 versus $86,000 for the S3 sedan. If you’d rather a hatch for reasons of practicality (less space, bigger entrance) then you get a slightly lower level of specification in the S3 Sportback but for a slightly lower price too, of $79,900. They share the same mechanical package.
The engine is familiar as it is shared by the current $70k Golf R. It is a boosted direct injection 2.0L unit creating precisely 300hp in old coinage, and the 380Nm torque peak begins at 1800rpm, flowing all the way to 5500rpm. It’s processed by a six-speed twin-clutch transmission – these have totally taken over in Audi now, by the by, no more CVTs – and in S mode with your foot pinned it will hold gears right through to the 6750rpm redline. Okay, so it’s not quite the warbler that the naturally aspirated RS 4 V8 was, but with turbochargers you get way more action happening down low which means the engine has a meaningful 4000rpm spread in each gear.
It also means you don’t have to take to it with a crop whenever and wherever you drive it, something the naturally aspirated engines were never quite as adept at. And fuel use benefits with lower engine revs.
Like we said, this goes hard because it is not carrying gobs of weight. Part of the reason is that there isn’t a great deal of clobber on board, about enough to get the job done. For instance, you adjust your steering column and seats manually for the most part, only the lumbar bolstering delivered by an air pump. The leather-clad seats are supportive but not heated. That’s an $800 option.
Where former S3s were manual trans only with fixed suspension, the latest uses a DCT, as mentioned, and this subtracts over a second from the sprint time. You can dial up the how quickly you want the transmission to shift, and also get creative with the suspension damping, steering and even the exhaust note using the Audi Select and MMI systems. Or you can just opt for comfort, auto or dynamic by pushbutton if you’re not fussy. The dynamic damping makes the car comfy when need be, and controlled when it must be.
We selected individual for the hell of it, going auto for all but the exhaust (dynamic, why choose otherwise?). Through those gorgeous roadscapes, with nearby vertical rock cliffs punctuating frosted green paddocks, the S3 literally and happily put no foot wrong. Well, almost. We must have run over something sharp and pointy at Mangakino as a puncture threw a bit of a spanner in the works, progress wise. A stint on a spacesaver certainly brought us back to earth.
And once the full complement of ContiSportContact 5s were back onboard, we could savour the grip and pull out of bends for which turbocharged quattro-empowered Audis are famous.
Sporty Audi’s in the past have typically had steering that’s a bit polite and distant, but this is heading back in the right direction, the electronic system well weighted in ”auto” mode, with some on-centre sensitivity and quick direction changes with just a whiff of lock. It’s planted too, even on some of the suspect damp patches of road – the temp was reading -2° when we set out.
And did we mention quick? Even not trying that hard, it feels up for any challenge, goes partly feral on moderate throttle. You’d not expect frugality, especially as it’s not that tall in the gearing (100 equates to 2500rpm in top). Audi rates it at 6.9L/100km overall but given free rein we’d expect nearer to double that. Still, you just don’t need to mash it to get along more than briskly; it’s quick enough extending the engine from 3000 to 4500rpm, even for overtaking where it is far from shy. Great brakes are an appropriate accompaniment.
Inside it seems almost intentionally low key, especially with the central screen asleep inside the dash. The cabin is nicely designed with quality finishings. Atop the 18-inch alloys, nav, reversing aids and camera, dual zone air, and trip computer there’s a $4300 Sports pack comprising LED headlights, special sports seats, 19-inch rims, and magnetic ride damper control.
There’s not much in the way of direct sedan competition for this; it comes mainly from Subaru with its new harder edged WRX STi Premium at $65k, and BMW with its smaller M135i performance hatch for much the same outlay as the S3 sedan. An A45 AMG is a bit quicker, but the premium hot hatch will cost you more at $95k. From below, there’s a kissing cousin hot hatch in the form of the VW Golf R at around the $70k mark.
We also drove the new A3 Cabriolet on the day, of which there promises to be an S version as well, costing $93,900 and here before year end. Meantime, there’s the new 1.8FSi Sport selling for $69,900. There has been no A4 Cabriolet for four years, so this vehicle, almost as big and using the familiar 132kW/250Nm turbocharged direct injection 1.8L four suffices handily, especially as it’s linked to a seven-speed twin clutch transmission. It’s not rapid like the S3 but nor is it wanting in the performance department, a sport transmission mode and paddles helping you to get the most from it when needed. With a theoretical combined fuel figure of 5.8L/100km it shouldn’t prove taxing to run either.
The A3 Cab comes with a powered soft top, operating up to 50kmh – we know, we tried – along with nav, sports suspension, 17-inch alloys, parking sonar and rear reversing camera. Full leather trim can be yours for an additional $2700, and heated vents to keep your necks warm cost $1200.
The A3 is currently the World Car of the Year and both this family and the Q series SUVs are together driving growth at Audi, which is heading for another record year. These two additions will no doubt add to the tally in a small but meaningful way.