The Audi S3 may not be the most powerful hot hatch available, but 300hp is not to be sniffed at. Factor in four-wheel drive traction and you have a devastatingly fast way to cover ground, all in the usual Audi luxury. In the grand scheme of things the Audi S3 is not that expensive either.
Good: crazy fast, but doesn't look it.
Not so good: ride not suited to Irish roads; drinks like a fish when pushed.
There is a toll booth near me that gets ignored 99 per cent of the time. The fee of €2.90 is too much for the five minutes it would save me over my preferred route. Every once in a while a car comes along that has me rooting through the shrapnel in my pocket for a bit of 'toll-booth' grand prix. With 300hp, a huge 380Nm of torque and a 0-100km/h time of 5.1 seconds the Audi S3 is such a car. Drop the windows, select Dynamic from the Drive Select system and hold on; nothing this demure looking should be so fast!
The original S3 was the first of a breed regularly referred to as hyper-hatches. When the comparable Golf GTI was running around with 150hp (barely enough for a lukewarm hatch now), the S3 arrived with 180hp and was quickly bumped up to the 225hp engine from the Audi TT. I remember watching slack jawed as an Imola Yellow S3 decimated the competition in a drag race on Top Gear years ago and it is a similar story as the barrier lifts at the toll and everything gets very small in my rear-view mirror. The rev counter needle sprints relentlessly towards the 6,800rpm redline and each pull of the right-hand wheel mounted paddle results in a shotgun blast from the exhausts that has wildlife scurrying for cover.
All too soon my exit approaches and the S3 begins to take on a different character. With a couple of small villages to make my way through 'Efficiency' mode is selected. This reigns in the power, takes away the snappiness of the gearchanges and quietens the exhaust - it still sounds like a shotgun going off, but now with a silencer fitted. It is this efficiency mode that is probably the most impressive; we expect S-badged Audis to be crazy fast, but not this docile. Save for the chunky body kit, unique aluminium mirrors and exhaust pipes you likely need a gun licence for, you may as well be driving a 1.4 TFSI model. It also has a good party piece in that it will disengage the clutch while coasting, allowing the engine to instantly drop to idle speed to save fuel. It's like stop-start only kicking in fifteen foot earlier. Plus you get the cacophony of noise once the engine kicks back into life, which is always a good thing.
In 'Efficiency' mode, and with this coasting stop-start deployed regularly, the S3 is said to return an entirely reasonable 6.9 litres/100km or 41mpg in old money (7.0 litres/100km or 40.3mpg for the standard manual version); in my hands nowhere near it. In one day (in which I drove quite far and quite err... enthusiastically) I had to make three fuel stops - in one day!
One of the reasons it can be so expensive to run is the level of traction on offer; it just does not feel like it is going to run out of grip and therefore encourages you to plough on. Unlike the rest of the Audi range that offers full-time four-wheel drive the S3 uses a Haldex system meaning its drive is 'on demand'. Under normal conditions power is sent to the front wheels with power only shuffled rearwards once slippage is detected. This does lead to a touch of understeer on initial turn in but once the bank of sensors sorts themselves out this is equalised. You can even get a little oversteer if you ask nicely.
Ordinarily in a car of this nature you would expect a rock hard ride that transmits every cat's eye and ripple in the road straight into the cabin, but Audi has worked hard to unsure the S3's suspension is supple enough for everyday use. When Shane drove the car in Germany he went so far as to describe the damping as sublime, but that was on beautifully manicured Bavarian roads; Irish roads show up an issue. While the suspension will soak up the lumps and bumps if you catch one mid-corner and at speed, the suspension takes so long to resettle that you feel like you are strapped to a rocket rather than in control of one. In a 140hp A3 this is unsettling; in a 300hp S3 that can cover ground at ferocious speeds it is time to ask for clean undies.
But that is just one blot in what is otherwise very well kept copybook. The interior, as one would expect from Audi, is sublime, with soft Nappa leather seats, a reassuringly chunky steering wheel and a liberal smattering of aluminium. And with a starting price of €46,250 it is not badly priced either - as hyper hatches go. The BMW M135i will set you back at least €49,270 and the Mercedes-Benz A 45 AMG is €58,380. Both of those cars do offer more power, but don't forget: the S3 is not the top dog in the Audi kennel - there is still the RS 3 to come.