Classic Test: 2003 Audi S3
Of all the cars, past and present, in the Audi stable, few have exuded as much charisma and desirability as the bold and brazen S3.
That’s saying something, given the existence of such immortal performance-oriented Audis as the Porsche-assisted RS2 Avant, the legendary, first-generation RS4, and the current S4, S6 and RS6 hotshots. Indeed, virtually every Audi flaunting the ‘S’ designation has been special.
Admittedly, the S3 may look disappointingly ordinary in the company of some of these legends. But it’s that very understatement, and the disguised aggression it implies, that is quintessential to the hatchback’s appeal.
In standard trim, the A3 line-up has augmented Audi’s status as a premium brand, despite its close relationship with the rather less exclusive Golf 4. And while the Audi’s shape could be accused of toeing a rather conservative aesthetic line, it’s always held a more elevated position than any other example of the hatchback genre.
The advent of the Audi S3 heralded a level of performance quite at odds with this performance hatch’s rather suave and unassuming manner. For the initiated, however, the differences are both succinct and arresting.
Most telling in terms of form and function are the 17-inch cast alloy wheels unique to the S3, and shod with ultra-low profile, fat-footprint 225/45 WR17 Bridgestone rubber.
But the clear-lensed Xenon headlights, the aggressive grin of the integrated bumper’s large air intake, the subtle rear roof spoiler and the revised rear valance, complete with grey scuff panel and polished dual exhaust, are all hallmarks of the S3 look. The same goes for the accentuated grey rubbing strips along the flanks
And should there be any doubt about the Audi’s identity, the S3 subtle nomenclature is fixed to both front grille and rear tailgate, resplendent against the black and orange of Audi’s motorsport colours.
Inside, it’s all business. If anything, the sober all-black approach underscores the exaggerated bolsters of the standard Recaro bucket seats, while the dark charcoal dashboard and polished piano lacquer black trim pieces look almost overbearingly smart — or oppressive, depending on your state of mind.
Fortunately, the picture isn’t all dark. Intuitive ergonomics, solid switchgear and an excellent driving position all ensure that the driver (and the front passenger) are more than comfortably accommodated. Those seats are true form huggers, and boast electric backrest rake and height adjustment, too. Reach is manually selected.
The picture is somewhat more crammed for rear occupants: there’s not much in the way of legroom if you’re stuck in the back. That the rear three-quarter windows only open slightly adds to the potential sense of claustrophobia. The boot, incidentally, is adequate, if not particularly generous.
The S3 also provides lots of life’s little luxuries. There’s full-blown climate control, a CD receiver with internal six-disc changer, electric front windows and comprehensive instrumentation that includes a trip computer. For the asking price, a multifunction steering wheel would have been nice, while satellite navigation has just become available.
But if anything, the S3 is a driving machine, and it’s the hatchback’s performance that really takes centre stage. This latest (and probably last) version provides a potent 165kW of power, underscored by 280Nm in the torque department.
That’s an awful amount of oomph from a 1,8-litre twin-cam engine, albeit in turbocharged and twin-intercooled form. And so one shouldn’t be too surprised that it suffers some low-down lag and doesn’t quite match the tractability levels of its somewhat less muscular, 154kW predecessor.
Indeed, this S3′s character is more uncompromising, more challenging than that of the previous version, requiring greater driver commitment than before if the car’s full potential is to be realised.
Fortunately, the six-speed gearbox is a jewel, offering quick and positive shifts. And there’s also the reassurance of the quattro all-wheel drive, here based on the Haldex plate-type system and delivering suitable proportions of power to the front and rear axles as required.
Driving in anger, the S3 is both a beauty and a beast. Outright grip, composure and stability is outstanding, aided not only by the all-wheel drive, but also by the stiff suspension and the fat-footprint rubber. The downside is a ride that is severely compromised on poorer secondary roads.
Enthusiasts will feel that it’s a small price to pay for the kind of lateral G-forces that can be induced during cornering — and they’re right. The S3 is not a car for sissies or couch potatoes. It’s a speed machine that requires practice and commitment to deliver its best.
Turn-in is blunted somewhat by the all-wheel drive, which compromises the S3′s conduct in tight hairpins and will often induce speed-scrubbing understeer or spectacular but less than efficient four-wheel drifts. Left-foot braking is also prohibited by the Audi’s electronics, even with the ESP stability control system switched off.
However, the S3′s most serious flaw is its braking system. Despite ventilated discs front and rear, the brakes start fading under duress, leading to soft pedal feel and longer stopping times and distances. It seems that the problem lies with dissipating sufficient heat, and perhaps a different pad material should be specified.
That apart, the Audi is simply great. Point to point, it is blindingly quick, thanks to all that turbocharged shove linked to the steely handling of the chassis. Few cars will be able to hang on to the tail of the Audi through a challenging mountain pass, while the instant urge of the turbo makes for incisive, obliterating overtaking.
The dynamic process is accompanied by some of the most intriguing sonics in the business. The 165 kW S3 has an exhaust note that’s pitched higher and more insistent than that of its predecessor, and is accompanied by the crescendo whoosh of the turbocharger.
In current form, the Audi S3 is probably the ultimate example of the breed — a super-hatch with a particular array of dynamic qualities that together ensure a spectacular motoring experience.
In real terms, the S3 is not the fastest accelerator, nor the best handling car in the performance car pack. But as far as sheer, hands-on motoring exhilaration is concerned, it is a true thoroughbred — and a classic in the making.