Good: shapely good looks, usable performance, high quality.
Not so good: high price in comparison to S3 hatch, expensive interior options
While we're not exactly complaining about the situation, hot hatches are, relatively speaking, abundant in the new car market right now. Admittedly, not many have 300hp and all-wheel drive, as the Audi S3 does, but even so, the feeling is that it isn't all that unique a proposition. The Audi S3 Saloon, however, is a different case entirely.
On the face of it, there's little reason to revisit the S3 just because Audi now offers it in four-door format, but, without wishing to spoil the surprise, this is the choice of the line-up, one that includes three-door hatchback, five-door Sportback and S3 Cabriolet body styles, lest we forget.
We've already banged on about the looks of the Audi A3 Saloon; in summary, we're fans of the more elegant profile. It's even more attractive in S3 guise of course, taking the hatchback's unique grille, bumpers and side detailing and adding the most modest of boot spoilers into the mix. The test car rode on optional (€1,358) 19-inch alloys too, which really add to the stance.
Audi Ireland also ticked a few boxes for the interior of the S3 Saloon test car, showing off just how special the car can feel if buyers want to dig a little deeper. The quilted leather sports seats for instance are well worth the €1,029 premium. Nonetheless, the standard cabin is hardly a lesson in slumming it, including S3-embossed sports seats, a colour infotainment screen, Bluetooth, dual-zone climate control and more all standard and the sporting bent emphasised by a chunky flat-bottomed steering wheel and S3-specific grey instruments. On a practical note, the S3 Saloon has more rear legroom than the S3 hatchback (if not the five-door S3 Sportback) and a larger boot too.
And does it drive as well? Of course it does. Without conducting back-to-back tests it's impossible to tell the difference. Indeed, this S3 Saloon was fitted with the optional (€542) Audi Magnetic Ride system, which allows the driver to adjust the set-up to his mood or the conditions. A word of warning though: the 'dynamic' mode is incredibly firm and while it undoubtedly enhances body control at speed it's best reserved for particularly good stretches of road. Auto and comfort are the other options. We found comfort the most useful for challenging mountain roads, though it resulted in more body and wheel movement than is ideal. In truth, we found the standard fixed rate damping to be more than adequate on the hatchback. Only those that take their cars on track (or abroad) will appreciate the firmer setting.
It's worth playing with the drive select system though. Within the 'individual' mode the driver can customise the settings to their liking, tweaking the power steering, throttle response, transmission, the magnetic ride and engine sound. The beauty of this system is that the car can be docile and quiet pootling around town (it even has stop-start) or it can stir the senses with gratuitous pops and bangs from the exhaust when changing gear.
Speaking of which, the test car featured the optional (€2,400) S Tronic automatic transmission. It's a dual-clutch design with (rather too plastic for our liking) paddles behind the steering wheel and various modes of operation. For the most part it's highly impressive (though I'd stick with the manual gearbox myself), even if it always changes up at the redline for the driver, regardless of the situation. "Fair dos" I hear you say, but there are times when this is less than desirable - mid-corner for instance, or approaching a braking zone for another corner.
And in the bends the S3 Saloon is as limpet-like as you'd expect. Even on wet and greasy mountain roads its Continental tyres just dig in and it goes around at higher speeds than most will be comfortable with. Push beyond the high thresholds of grip in a careless fashion and the nose begins to wash wide, but if you set the car up right at the entry to the corner it's possible to summon up a more satisfying neutral slide. Not that it ever loses grip for very long.
In dynamic mode, the engine takes centre stage, and while we still lament the loss of five- and six-cylinder power, Audi has done a good job with the four-cylinder 2.0-litre engine under the bonnet. It sounds particularly good as the rev counter needle whips around to 6,000rpm, though sadly the gearbox changes up soon after that.
Once all this fun is over with the car can be switched back into comfort mode and it plays the part of refined family saloon quite well (with an edge to the ride over poor surfaces). There aren't many four-door cars at this price level that can purport to do all that, and the S3 Saloon is certainly one of the best.
BMW M235i Coupé: even better to drive, but only available as a two-door coupé.
Mercedes-Benz CLA 45 AMG: incredible performance, though not as engaging as the Audi to drive.