With the new S3 Saloon, has Audi accidentally stumbled into making the best small sports saloon? We’re big fans of the punchy, tractable S3 Sportback hot hatch, and now we’ve a small, wieldy, handsome little three-box contender that’s actually quicker than its S4 big brother. Sounds promising.
Can the Audi S3 Saloon really out-accelerate an S4?
It’ll annihilate it. A seven-speed S-tronic (Audi-speak for dual-clutch) S4 hits 62mph in 5.0sec – a tardy 0.3sec after the S3 saloon scoots past the same benchmark. While the S3’s 296bhp four-cylinder gives away 33bhp to the S3’s supercharged V6, and a whopping 44lb ft of torque, it has the wider power band.
Plus – get this – it’s 255kg lighter than the admittedly elderly S4 saloon. It’s no wonder the stumpy, pugnacious little S3 can outrun a Porsche Cayman S. It’s an astoundingly fast car – especially given how innocuous it looks, save for the silver door mirrors and quad tailpipe jewellery. A 25mm ride height drop and 18in standard-fit alloys set the S3 Saloon apart from A3-kind, but park it next to anything with an S-line pack and Hercule Poirot would struggle to pick it from a line-up.
Sure, but fast Audis have never struggled for pace. Is it any fun?
Yes, but not in the same slewing about, adjusting the chassis underneath you way that a rear-drive BMW M135i is fun, or, for that matter, the front-drive Renaultsport Megane 265. Thanks to all-wheel drive Quattro traction and a whipcrack fast gearbox, the Audi’s charm is more subtle, and takes longer to unlock. Pleasure in driving it fast comes from using its massive traction and efficient power delivery to carve neat lines along B-roads, and monster dawdling traffic – then replicate exactly the same pace when the inclement British weather does its worst.
Of course, noise (or a luxurious lack thereof) plays a part in giving any car a sense of occasion, and the S3 gets both counts right. Its cabin remains quiet at a steady cruise, but pin the 2.0-litre four (transplanted from the fine new Golf R hot hatch) wide open and it growls like something a little more exotic than an in-line four-banger. It’s no breathy turbo panter from outside either: the four tailpipes rasp and parp naughtily.
The steering, although nicely weighted, lacks feel, and in Dynamic mode (Audi’s Drive Select interface also offers, Comfort, Auto, Sport and tailored Individual modes), the ride is upset by the sort of scarred road surfaces the Audi would never have to put up with in its home market. Yet as a miniature sports saloon – a hot hatch wearing its Sunday best, if you will, – the S3 saloon is serious fun.
And what about when I’m not draining the fuel tank faster than a stricken oil tanker?
Then you’re in a well-specced A3 Saloon. So, you’ve got a beautifully minimalist, flawlessly constructed cabin. The S3 Saloon tows along a 390-litre boot, and although it’s not as flexible a load bay as the Sportback hatch, the Saloon is actually the most commodious S3 derivative. Don’t expect exec express levels of rear legroom though – it’s pinched in the second row, and there’s a lack of cabin storage too. Well, Audi couldn’t completely embarrass the poor S4.
Bet it costs a bundle, though?
Compare the S3 Saloon to similarly pokey rivals and the £33,240 basic price tag (before you add £1500 of S-tronic gearbox) doesn’t look as hefty as it might first appear. It’s £2600 more than the cheapest S3, while its VW Golf R cousin costs £30,555 in five-door form, and BMW’s 316bhp M135i five-door undercuts the S3 too: it’s £31,365 as standard. But, those are both hatchbacks, when all said and done.
Only Mercedes offers a smart booted alternative with four-doors: the 355bhp CLA 45 AMG, which is also all-wheel drive. It’s faster off the mark, and you get a dual-clutch gearbox as standard, but it costs a whopping £42,465.
Typically fast, grippy, and offering top-notch quality, the S3 Saloon is one of the good-guy fast Audis: handsome and usable, yet not short of character. In the UK, it’s sure to be a rare sight – small saloons are more popular in the US and Chinese markets, while Europe prefers the appeal of the hatchback.
Still, if you like the idea of an old-school-sized fast saloon with searing hot hatch pace, the S3 is one of the best value, well-built performance saloons on sale.