With there now being an A3 saloon in Audi’s niche-busting range, it’d be rude not to have an S3 version, so that’s exactly what the German manufacturer has given us. Using the same chassis and running gear as the rapid S3 hot hatch, the resulting saloon is an intriguing prospect.
You see, we adore sports saloons. That combination of a grown-up saloon body with big dollops of power is an addictive mix, so the addition of a ‘junior’ brisk sedan to the Audi range can only be a good thing, right?
Under the bonnet, you get the same 296bhp 2.0-litre TFSI four-cylinder petrol engine found in the S3 hatch. With the saloon carrying an extra 45kg, 0-62mph is dispatched in a marginally slower 5.3 seconds, but as that’s only 0.1sec down, you’re unlikely to notice. Spec the six-speed S Tronic dual-clutch auto and that drops to 4.9 seconds. Top speed is electronically limited 155mph.
And it feels quick, very quick. Plant your foot on the throttle from a standstill and the four-wheel drive system catapults you off the line with only a slight chirp from the tyres. When the turbo comes on song, the speedometer needle shoots around the dial at a pleasingly swift rate.
It’s a properly punchy engine, aided by the 280lb/ft wallop of torque, the full brunt of which is available at just 1800rpm. This is particularly useful when you’re not driving hard and just want to make decent progress without dropping a cog or two. It sounds suitably meaty too, particularly for a four-pot. This is partly thanks to an exhaust flap and an ‘electromechanical actuator’ in the bulkhead which is very effective, if a little artificial.
It’s good in the corners, too. Grip levels are stunning, and on the road you have to be pushing very hard to induce understeer. The S3 uses a variable-ratio rack which means the steering gets quicker the more you turn the wheel. It works well, but more feel wouldn’t go amiss. The manual gearchange, meanwhile, is satisfyingly weighty with a relatively short throw. The S Tronic DCT auto ‘box is entertaining with the pops and bangs it provides on the upchanges, but it can’t match the involving feel of the manual.
Inside, it’s business as usual for Audi; a high quality, well laid-out (if a little somber) interior. The leather seats are comfortable and supportive, with a firm but never jarring suspension set-up making the S3 a pleasant drive when you’re not pressing on.
The S3 saloon is an example of today’s trend of niche-filling done right because there’s not really anything to directly rival this car. An M135i offers a sharper driving experience with BMW’s stupendous 3.0-litre turbo N55 six-pot, but is only available as a hatch, or as a coupe in the form of the sublime M235i. The Mercedes CLA45, meanwhile, is considerably more powerful than the S3, but also considerably more expensive.
In fact, at £33,240, the S3 saloon causes a bit of an awkward issue in the Audi range. When we asked you to judge the looks of this car, many of you dismissed it and asked why you’d bother with the S3 when you could buy the very similar-looking S4. It’s simple: at £39,440, the S4 is over £6000 more, barely quicker, and only slightly larger. One significant difference is that the S3 has a Haldex four-wheel drive differential, which puts power to the front wheels the majority of the time and to the rears when necessary. The S4, however, has a ‘proper’ Torsen full-time 4WD diff. But with the fifth-generation Haldex system being so smooth in the transition of power from wheel to wheel, the S3 never feels like a front-wheel drive car.
Overall, the S3 saloon is an incredibly well-rounded package. People will – perhaps justifiably – joke about how similar the A3 saloon looks to the A4, but I’d argue that with its stubbier dimensions it looks tidier, particularly with the added S gubbins. The power figure is right on the money and like the BMW M235i it has more than enough poke to thrill, without being intimidating or unusable on the road. Add an entertaining, grippy drive and reasonable value into the mix, and Audi is onto a winner.