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Audi S3 quattro S tronic

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“Another highly
  driveable Audi with
  fire in its belly and
  derring-do in its
  dynamics — the
  latest S3 is full-on

AUDI'S POCKET-ROCKET HATCH, THE S3, IS BIG ON TWO THINGS understatement and performance. As though to deliberately contradict our opening statement, our test S3 arrived decked out in a fabulously extrovert shade of orange Solar Orange that would have looked perfectly at home on a Lamborghini. In truth, finished in most other colours the only visual clues to the fire in this range-topping A3's belly are a deep front bumper with integrated air intakes, rear diffuser, sharp-edged roof spoiler, eye-catching aluminium-look door mirror casings and discreet black S3-branded brake callipers nestling behind unique 18-inch alloys.

When we say 'big' on performance, we mean just that. Running a turbocharged 2.0-litre direct-injection motor, the S3's FSI engine is good for a compelling 261bhp and 258lb ft of torque. Consequently the performance is of the 'shove in the back' kind, with a top speed that's electronically-limited to 155mph and 0-62mph acceleration taking just 5.5 seconds.

Some powerful cars grab your attention initially with their looks or their 'toys' tally. First encounters with an S3 kick-off pure and simple with the performance — no sooner than you're in than you want to fire-up and fire away.

First impressions are that it's a very punchy machine that's as happy to lope along at four-tenths as it is to gallop full-tilt at ten-tenths — 258lb ft of torque between 2,500 and 5,000rpm guarantees power is always there on demand. Prod it at any speed and the 2.0 FSI responds instantly, racing up to the red-line — and it feels unburstable. But the real beauty of the S3 is that all that power and torque can be easily transmitted to the road; either 40:60/front:rear under normal conditions or even as much as 100 per cent to whichever end is able to serve up the best traction.

On the move, the S3 is a persuasively fast three-door hatch — and, powerplant aside, this is equally down to Audi's brilliant six-speed S tronic dual-clutch transmission and, as already mentioned, the latest generation (faster reacting) quattro permanent all-wheel drive that provides incredible grip and stability. Getting off the line at any time is a no-nonsense grip 'n' go affair: point the nose, hit the throttle and you're away with not even the smallest chirp of lost traction to mark your passing.

There is some noise, however — but not from the 225/40 Bridgestone Potenzas. The S3's twin chrome oval exhaust pipes emit an aggressive bark on serious acceleration. But not so loud that the driver can't hear the impressively quick one-two blip of the 'double-declutch' on gear changes — all done for you by the S tronic.

Serious performance —
the kind that presses
you back in your seat.
The six-speed S tronic transmission is a joy to use. Changes up and down are silky smooth and lightning fast. At any time you can manually impose your will and override the S tronic's gear changes with either a nudge on the selector lever or a light fingertip tap on the appropriate paddle-shifter. Helpfully, the engaged gear ratio/mode is always clearly visible in the driver's information window between the speedometer and rev-counter.

Drop down a couple of gears and the transmission stays there until you manually change back up or lift off for long enough for it to be sure you really want to change back up. And backing off in a bend won't trick the S tronic into changing up early, either. Exactly as it should be. And Sport mode? Addictive — once you start using it you'll never want to drive any other way!

All drivers will appreciate the S3's confidence-inspiring grip and its safe and predicable handling. Really push your luck and the S3 will let you know because, like most powerful four-wheel drive Audis, its nose will eventually run wide when charging hard through bends. That noted, easing fractionally off the power will see the S3 correcting itself without any fuss. Mind you, to reach that stage in the first place you'd have to be really piling on the pressure, and there's neither rhyme nor reason to doing so on a public road, particularly when the S3's compact dimensions (allied to the quattro four-wheel drive) make it not only very easy to place on the road but also very easy to keep to your chosen bit of tarmac.

The electro-mechanical power steering is fine; weighting up nicely as urban roads are left behind and road speed increases. Sitting that much closer to the ground than a standard A3, the S3's 'S' Sports suspension is, as you'd expect, sprung stiffer and damped tighter.

The ride — given the 18-inch alloys, lo-pro rubber and reduced ride height — proves to be taut, unexpectedly compliant and dynamically focussed. And that's with the Magnetic Ride adaptive damping system (a not unreasonable 880 option) set to it normal mode. But flick the switch to 'Sport' and you'll immediately feel the difference: a hard but enjoyably manageable genuine 'trackday' ride.

Turn-in is keen and the S3 corners fast and poised with minimal body roll. Even in the wet it stays tidy and predictable. And, wet or dry, traction is unerring. The brakes — naturally discs all round; ventilated at the front — are as potent and progressive as you'd like them to be with this amount of thrust under your right foot. Like any genuinely quick machine, time spent 'clicking' with the S3's character pays dividends. Don't rush — savour the experience.

Everything you touch
or use feels engineered
and built to last
'Boy-racers' who like their hot hatches to shout both physically and mechanically are likely to completely miss the point of the S3. This fiery Audi will undoubtedly appeal to the more experienced driver, one who values performance that's more than skin deep; the kind who enjoys making rapid progress with minimal fuss and minimal show in all weathers — and who takes pride in not being noticed.

You'll be pleased to know that your 28K buys you more than just a set of S3 badges and some extremely satisfying driving dynamics. It also gets you into a cabin that, while it's as understated as the external bodywork, confirms Audi's reputation for turning out some of the very best cabins in the business.

S3 logos put in a subtle appearance on the gear selector, steering wheel and rev-counter. Additional sporty touches include the aluminium-look treatment of the foot pedals and the heavily bolstered Sports front seats upholstered in Pearl leather and Alcantara — they proved comfortable and extremely supportive (mid-back and shoulders in particular) and made long journeys a pleasure.

For the record, both front seats adjust manually and incorporate height adjustment along with highly effective 6-stage heating. A neat touch is the button on the side of the front head restraints for fiddle-free height adjustment. As you'd expect, the interior boasts impeccable build quality and feels as solid as the Bank of England once was.

Particularly smart are the air vents' chromed outer rims that rotate 90 degrees to open/ close and which are embellished with a great-to-touch 'turned' finish. The dual-zone electronic climate control is also to be commended for its 'killer chiller' ability. The compact, flat-bottomed, beautifully-stitched leather-wrapped Sports steering wheel is multi-function with paddle-shifts mounted on the back of the horizontal spokes (left for 'down' and right for 'up'). And the wheel feels great to hold.

Throughout the cabin you'll find first class quality trim materials, enhanced by smart piano finish black inlays. And you can take for granted items such as electrically-adjustable and heated door mirrors, auto-dip rear-view mirror, one-shot auto up/down front windows (the rear glass is fixed) and attractive 'stand-out' white on grey instruments with white needles — as good to use as they are to look at — including an S3 branded rev-counter red-lined at 6,800rpm.

We also very much liked the crisp white digital mph readout that you can select to show on the driver's information screen. The detailing to the switchgear and controls is first rate and everything you touch or use feels engineered and built to last — and that also goes for the S tronic selector lever.

More flashy hot hatches
there undoubtedly are,
but the S3 offers so much
more than the loudest
voice in a shouting
Our test car came fitted with Audi's excellent SatNav-cum-Infotainment system that includes voice control and a colour screen with amazingly high quality 3D graphics. The 6-disc CD autochanger fits neatly in a dedicated section of the glovebox, where you'll also find an easy key-operated cut-off for the front passenger airbag. Press a button and the display screen folds down to expose the slot for the navigation DVD, along with docking for two memory cards.

For a three-door, there's a lot of space: up front there's masses of it for head, legs and feet, as well as for elbows and shoulders. Look up and you'll find a stylish grey 3D-effect headlining. Look behind you and you'll find unexpectedly accommodating room for two adults. And it really is pleasant travelling in the back thanks to lots of room, especially leg room (and that's for a near-six-footer sitting behind another-near six-footer!) and well-shaped outer armrests. The view out is good, too.

And Yes, three will fit in the back of this '3' and while, obviously, two's the better number, the 'piggy in the middle' position is certainly tenable. Tilt and slide front seats make getting in and out of the rear cabin straightforward.

Better still, rear passengers will be pleased to find that the back of their heads are a long way from the rear screen. And there's more good news — the very clever rear sun/privacy mesh blind that's incorporated into the rear parcel shelf and which flips up when needed. In fact, it's so well integrated that it was several days before we discovered it (we try not read the handbook unless we have to on the basis that everything should be obvious). Brilliant.

With 281 litres of boot space in the three-door, the S3 is among the best in its class. Lower the 60:40 split folding rear seatbacks and you'll have a more than handy 1,011 litres of space to play with. Our S3 took three adults plus enough luggage (6 cases) for a week's holiday to the airport and back with ease.

Storage room is also unexpectedly liberal with large, long door pockets, a lidded cubby under the driver's seat (housing a first-aid kit), lift-up central front armrest with built-in 'phone storage and a useful bin beneath with a sliding-lid and a double cup-holder. Other essentials include an AUX-IN and power socket behind the swan-neck handbrake.

Safety is more than adequately covered: the permanent four-wheel drive aside, there's a full complement of airbags (front and front side with B-pillar curtain airbags) and a full set of electronic active safety equipment including ABS and ESP traction and stability control. Xenon plus headlights with headlight washers and 'strip' LED daytime-running lights are also standard equipment.

More flashy hot hatches there undoubtedly are, but the S3 offers so much more than the loudest voice in a shouting match. Drive an S3 and you not only get serious performance — the kind that presses you back in your seat hard — but a whole lot more besides: limpet-like grip in all weathers, impeccable build quality and, of course, the classy feel-good cabin. In a soundbite: Very persuasive. And very hard to give back. —

Audi S3 quattro S tronic | 28,065
Maximum speed: 155mph | 0-62mph: 5.5 seconds | Overall test MPG: 25.3mpg
Power: 261bhp | Torque: 258lb ft | CO2 193g/km | Insurance group 18