Overall rating: 4/5
Audi may have given itself a bit of a headache with an entry-level 'S' model that has the number of its bigger brother, but we imagine it's the kind of headache any car maker would crave. Great looks combine with a cracking engine and interior; we just wish it was a little more playful.
In the Metal:
Viewed from a distance you would be forgiven for thinking that Audi had brought an S4 to a predominantly A3 party. But that is no bad thing, as the S4 is a good looking car and the S3, with 7/8 the looks of its big brother, equally so. The usual hints that this is not your common-or-garden variety A3 are present and correct: aluminium door mirror caps, check; suitably pumped up bumpers and side skirts, check; an ominous looking pair of double-barrel exhaust pipes, check. You get the picture. The stance is right too. Without meaning to get into marketing clichés it looks menacing even when standing still, sitting particularly well on its optional 19-inch alloys (18-inch as standard) and with 25mm chopped from its ride height compared to the standard A3 saloon.
The interior is the usual standard-setting Audi fare that rivals can only hope to emulate. As with Audi's other hottest cars the dash is predominantly black, which could be boring, but there are enough 'S' badges scattered around to remind you the reason for the dark interior is to keep from distracting you.
If the S3 saloon's looks are 7/8s those of the S4 so too is the performance. Actually before any pedantic Petes do the sums on that the S3's 2.0-litre turbocharged TFSI engine is good for 300hp and 380Nm of torque, while the S4's 3.0-litre supercharged V6 makes 333hp and 440Nm. My exact conversion to fractions may be off, but it is close enough to suggest that the junior hot saloon is a match for its big brother. Only it isn't - it is actually faster!
Opt for the six-speed S tronic transmission (the one to go for, for reasons we will get into later) and the 0-100km/h sprint is dispatched in 4.9 seconds. The more powerful S4 takes a leisurely 5.1 seconds and both cars have an identical 250km/h top speed by virtue of their speed limiters. So should you opt for the cheaper and faster S3 over the more powerful S4?
Not quite, as straight line dashes only tell half the story. Our test drive route consisted of an Alpine pass that was hairpin after hairpin (the likes of which you are not going to find in Ireland) and it showed up the S3's one problem: its Haldex based four-wheel drive system. On those tightest of tight first gear corners we prayed for the rear-end to come out and play so decent progress could be made but the Haldex system - effectively an 'on-demand' system that sees the S3 operate as a front-wheel drive car until required - would not offer up the required power to the rear wheels. The S4's full time four-wheel drive system is naturally rear biased on the other hand, which means on roads like these, despite being 'slower' it would be the one to go for.
The S3 also suffers from a problem that has blighted every car since the switch to electro-mechanical steering - that of a lack of 'feel'. Switch between Comfort and Dynamic on the standard Drive Select system and the flat-bottomed wheel weights up nicely in hand, but the added weight cannot mask the fact that, while you know which way the front wheels are pointing, you are not 100 per cent sure how much grip there is. This is not a problem unique to the S3 of course, but combined with a tendency to understeer when pushed it means the 300hp saloon is more of a rapid way to cover ground rather than a four-door sports car.
And it is for that reason why we would opt for the six-speed dual-clutch auto. Having driven both manual and auto back-to-back we felt no more engagement doing the shifting yourself (even with a gear knob borrowed from the R8) and in the manual car you are robbed of another aspect of driving pleasure: the shotgun blast that is emitted from the standard active exhausts when flat shifting at higher revs. Pull the right hand paddle in the S tronic car and grown men will faint. The dual-clutch unit is also faster (4.9 seconds vs. 5.3 to 100km/h) and more economical (6.9 litres/100km vs. 7.0).
What you get for your Money:
Pricing for the S3 Saloon will start at €49,750, or €52,150 for the S tronic model, which, considering its prowess, makes it a bit of a steal. Sure the Mercedes-Benz CLA 45 AMG is more powerful, but you could nearly tick every option box on the S3's ordering form and still spend less than you would on the Merc. Not that Audi is scrimping on standard kit for the S3 with leather/Alcantara sports seats, xenon lights, rear parking sensors, 18-inch alloys and climate control all included.
While its nearest rival is its big brother, the S3 Saloon currently has no direct competitors, not until BMW drops the engine from the M135i into a saloon body shape anyway. The Mercedes-Benz CLA 45 AMG is both more powerful and more expensive and more likely a rival for the forthcoming RS 3 that is rumoured to be using a version of the TT RS's 2.5-litre five-cylinder engine tuned to 400hp.
The Audi S3 Saloon may be missing out on some of the dynamic ingredients that could have made it a classic, but it was always going to - Audi has to leave room for the car that will sit above it. Yet, despite these shortcomings the hot junior saloon still has enough weapons in its arsenal to keep most drivers amused. For those looking for an understated way to devour ground at speed we can think of little else better.