Audi is on a roll right now, and the sporting variants of its model range are playing a major part.
Last year the German luxury marque achieved sales of 1.58 million vehicles, which was up 8 per cent on the year before. And this has sufficiently encouraged the manufacturer to set a new annual sales target of 2 million vehicles by 2020.
Audi is going to do this by investing a remarkable [Euro]84 billion in vehicle development over the next five years, which will result in its range growing from the current 49 models to 60 with the emphasis on SUVs and sporting variants.
In fact it could be said the growth has already started - and leading the way in New Zealand is one of the hottest hatchbacks around.
It's the S3 Sportback, the latest performance version of the A3, a beauty that offers exhilarating performance potential via a new-age turbocharged four- cylinder petrol engine, all sorts of suspension and steering trickery, and quattro all-wheel drive.
It comes on to the New Zealand market with an entry price of $79,900. But Audi New Zealand general manager Dean Sheed doesn't think many customers will opt for only that - instead, they'll option in a selection of Technology or Sports packages that cost $3500 each.
The Technology package adds satellite navigation, parking assistance and a rear- view camera, while the Sport package adds different 18-inch alloy wheels, LED headlights, sportier seats, and magnetic ride damper control.
"We think that most of the early buyers of the S3 will want to customise their cars," says Sheed at a media function in Auckland last week. He forecast the S3 will contribute to a better than 30 per cent lift in A3 sales in 2014 - which, by the end of the year, will also include sedan and cabriolet versions.
But of the entire A3 fleet, by far the fastest model will be the S3. Powered by an overhauled 2.0-litre direct injected and turbocharged petrol engine that develops 221 kilowatts of power and 380 newton metres of torque, it can accelerate to 10okmh in less than five seconds and has an electronically governed top speed to 250kmh.
That level of performance used to be the preserve of much larger Audi models just a few years ago, and it dramatically underlines the advances the Audi- Volkswagen Group is achieving with development of smaller-capacity turbocharged engines for its entire model range.
Driving this new S3 can be an exhilarating experience. All that engine grunt combines with Launch Control to catapult the hatch into motoring illegality in what seems to be an instant, and quattro all-wheel drive helps ensure great handling through the winding bits.
Last week's media event included a decent drive along secondary roads in Waikato and Bay of Plenty to Rotorua, which provided ample opportunity to sample the S3's handling prowess.
It was fun. The lower gears of the Audi's S-Tronic six-speed dual clutch automatic are tightly spaced for sporty performance, while sixth gear is quite tall for better fuel consumption. As a result, the Audi provides a nice combination of performance potential, and a fuel economy that can average out at 6.9 litres/100km which is 1.5 litres/100km less than the previous S3 Sportback.
But if you're into performance rather than economy, then what you do with this car is use the Audi system called Drive Select. This system controls characteristics of the electronic accelerator pedal, the automatic transmission's shift points and the steering ratio, depending on how the driver wants to drive.
At the push of a button you select Comfort, Auto, Dynamic or Efficiency modes - with the Comfort mode offering an almost soft ride, and Dynamic a lot harder with the steering a lot more more direct. And if the S3 has been optioned with the magnetic ride system which regulates the operation of the shock absorbers, then the ride can be very stiff.
This new S3 is built on Audi-Volkswagen Group's new MQB platform, which allows the front axle to be sited more forward than the previous model. The engine is also 5kg lighter than the previous engine and is tilted backwards by 12 degrees, all of which has allowed the axle load distribution to be 59 per cent front and 41 per cent rear, which contributes to the excellent handling.
And helping with the performance potential is the fact that the car's kerb weight of 1404kg is 70kg less than the previous model, with most of the weight reduction achieved via the use of ultra high-strength steel in the passenger cell and aluminium for the front fenders and bonnet.
While the S3 is based on the standard A3 hatch, it cuts a more aggressive figure thanks to flaring wheels arches, special sill strips that accentuate the side view, and a redesigned rear bumper with a rear diffuser and dual exhaust pipes. There's also an S3 roof spoiler which is painted the same colour as the body and which visually extends the roof.
The interior features a nice flat- bottomed sports steering wheel, pedals and footrests are made of brushed aluminium, the instrument gauges are a dark grey, and there's a turbocharger boost pressure display that I must admit I didn't take too much notice of as we drove through the winding Waikato countryside.
Immediate impression is that this new S3 is an exciting car, to the extent I believe Audi New Zealand when it claims if offers best-in-class performance - and that's a big claim, considering what other hot European hatches are out there on the Kiwi market.
It's highish price, plus the fact that most buyers will pay even more for the optional extras, means not that many will sell in New Zealand.
But the car will contribute to an overall Audi sales effort that will see total numbers creep up towards 2000 units this year and continue the sales growth the German marque has achieved here every year since 2009.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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