Audi's new hot hatch has supercar pace
Car magazines and automotive television shows all around the world are pitting AMG A-class Benzes against BMW M135s, Volkswagen Golf GTis, Renault RSs and Ford Focus STs to work out which is the quickest, hottest hot hatch.
Safety: Electronic stability and traction control, ABS, front, side, curtain and knee airbags, five- star EuroNCAP.
Pricing: Likely to be around the $80,000 mark. Other Audi A3 models from $48,400.
Pricing: Likely to be around the $80,000 mark. Other Audi A3 models from $48,400.
However, there's one competitor they haven't compared those hot hatches with, and that's Audi's new S3.
It's not due until later in the year, but I had a good drive of the car in Bavaria recently and, even though it will cost the fat end of $30,000 more than some of its competitors, performance figures that could have been lifted straight from a Porsche catalogue are pretty convincing that the new S3 is the performance hatchback yardstick of the moment.
With an official zero to 100kmh time of 4.8 seconds and a top end of 255kmh, this is one quick car in any company, never mind a bunch of hot hatches, some of which have a hard time breaking the seven- second barrier in that test.
What will worry the BMW, Benz and Ford people is the fact that the S3 is destined to be upstaged by yet another Audi in a year or two, when the ultimate version of the car slips into showrooms.
The RS3 will have another half- litre of capacity, an extra cylinder and a power-to-weight ratio that is destined to make the model into a 4sec-flat sprinter.
For the time being, we'll just have to make do with the S3, which even in road-test red looks as if butter wouldn't melt in any of its three front grilles, although it is shod with serious 7.5-inch-wide, 18in alloy wheels and sits on a chassis lowered by 25mm.
It has that subtle restraint that it seems only the Germans can manage these days, although after a cursory glance, serious Audiphiles might look back again and double-take the way the wheel arches are full to bursting and the sinister way its quadruple blunderbuss of exhaust outlets poke out from under the chromed rear valance.
Mechanically, the S3 is an interesting read. It packs a revised version of Audi's EA888 turbocharged 2.0-litre, four-cylinder petrol engine developing 26 kilowatts and 30 newton metres of torque more than the old S3 unit, as well as a revamped quattro all-wheel-drive system, which shares its torque front to rear through a Haldex-style multi- plate clutch.
The new figures are 221kW delivered from 5500 to 6200rpm and 407Nm from 5500 to 6200rpm. With a 60kg loss in weight through the use of special steels and alloys, you can see where the impressive performance figures come from.
The car is built on the greater VW empire's flexible MQB platform and this contributes to the weight losses too.
The MQB has also spawned the VW Golf 7, the Seat Leon and Skoda's series III Octavia, and they, like the S3, enjoy the platform's re-distribution of mass, which makes all four cars much better balanced and less nose heavy when pressing on.
So many horses from an engine of just 2.0 litres can mean a little drama when you have just the two wheels doing the power transfer, as they also have to do all the steering and more than half the braking to boot.
The Audi is less of a problem, with four wheels doing the hard work. Torque steer is absent, so the car always goes where it is pointed when on the power and, while it is possible to light up and smoke all four wheels if you're not that mechanically sympathetic, it's only for a split second and the car never threatens to get away.
While the car's acceleration is crushingly effective and of genuine Porsche proportions, the really addictive part of the car's performance is its low to mid- range urge. It doesn't seem to matter what gear you're in, it will lunge forward from not much more than idling revolutions and the gearbox is contrived to let the engine do its work if it can and only kick down if it needs to.
This way you're never in possession of a foot-full of revs you don't want.
Instead, the double-clutch two- pedal six-speed unit stays out of the equation, unless you really do need to show off a bit. Don't, it's not clever. It's almost as quick just surfing along on the engine's addictive great wedge of torque, which gets you up to the speed limit very briskly from any low speed trawl with no fuss at all.
The revised engine unit is remarkably fuss-free and liquid- smooth right up to the 6800rpm fuel cutout and, while it is oriented more towards tractability than frantic top-end revs, the other benefits are excellent fuel economy and emissions.
If you like to make a bit more noise, a valve in the exhaust system redirects gases to sharpen up the exhaust note, but even the best-sounding fours are not that inspiring and the resulting blare you get at normal times is much the same as any other.
When you do mash the throttle or flick the gears down two or three ratios, it stirs the senses, as the exhaust gasses are redirected to make a little more racket.
But it's a four, whatever. It's probably why the five-cylinder RS engine is used in hotter Audis, that delightfully musical motor sounds the part and will eventually find its way under the bonnet of the S3 to become the RS3, but that's some time away.
Running on 225/40 R18 tyres, the S3 is unlikely to run out of grip on public roads and with a sensible driver. It just hangs on and on implausibly while side- forces build up and it will be a better or madder driver than me who tries to fully exploit this car's limits without access to a race track.
For all that, the car's ride quality is surprisingly pliant, even on the wickedly divoted backroads of Bavaria. You don't get knocked off course mid-bend and, even with its lowered ride, there appears to be little chance that the car will snag anything.
The car's body control is resolute, even when flick-flacking through constant changes of direction - it's a lot like that around Munich - and when a curve tightens unexpectedly, the S3 just tucks in and gets on with the job, eschewing understeer, unless you're really stupid, and slicing through apexes like the useful track car the model will certainly prove to be.
The S3's driving environment is redolent of the A3 model it is derived from, being simple and uncluttered up front, with a retractable touchscreen that only shows up when you need it for satellite navigation, the reverse parking screen and radio-sound system duties.
Once it's retracted, the dash is bare of everything, except for centrally mounted air- conditioning controls and items like music tuning, Bluetooth and cruise, which are mounted on the steering wheel.
The Audi's driving position is superb, offering huge levels of adjustment and good all-round vision, thanks to that other MQB benefit, having a screenbase mounted further forward and with a more severe rake.
While the flat-bottomed steering wheel looks and feels good, being built from the same superb materials we expect from a top-end Audi, its communication level when using the car's unimpeachable chassis is frankly a tad disappointing. True, the car will go exactly where it's pointed, but I'd really like it to feed me more information from the road surface, it's something you don't think about unless it's not there.
The electro-mechanical steering is light for city work and has a variable-ratio rack, but I'd like some more interaction.
The S3 gains the same increase in rear space that the ordinary A3 models enjoy with the new MQB platform. It's welcome and probably another area where the S3 outpunches its competitors, with gorgeous, high-quality materials, classy textures and offering as much of a sense of occasion about travelling in it as you would expect in much bigger and more expensive Audis.
Overall, the S3 is a rocket, but with an uncanny level of refinement to go with it. Against its direct competitors, it's easily the quickest and, while the steering might be a little numb, the chassis provides disarming agility and tonnes of grip.
At about $80,000, it sounds like a lot for a five-door hatch (we won't be getting the three-door car), but you could pay $40,000 more for a Porsche that can't keep up with it and has less than half the number of seats.
It isn't as engaging to drive as I had hoped, but what it lacks in backroad communication, the new S3 attempts to make up for in overall quality. In this respect, it is better than any rival out there.