About eleven metres and a massive intake of breath past where the right front wheel should have been flicking across the third-gear apex’s face, my new Italian buddy’s foot finally retreats out of the ABS. It’s not pretty. They’re all ganging up to kill me over here.
This review was originally published in MOTOR’s December 2006 issue
Sure, when you steam into a tightening radius about 30km/h too hot, and the car’s already light over cresty Bavarian yumps, emergency braking is definitely the go. It’s to the S3’s credit that the instant it got back a bit of front spring it darted, panicked, towards where it should’ve been in the first place.
Brakes, after all, have never been an S-car highlight under sustained pressure. Nor has turn-in bite. In both areas, then, this is Audi’s best S-car yet. Security, on the other hand, has always been a hallmark and so, seemingly, it remains.
The new S3’s pretty quick, too, with a bigger turbo now dangling off the FSI direct-injection 2.0-litre petrol block’s exhaust header and 195kW spinning off the flywheel. Audi reckons it’ll take 5.7 seconds to hit 100km/h and it seems reasonable, especially if you can briefly convince the all-wheel drive to leggo of the bitumen for a sec at the launch. Then you just keep snaffling ever-smaller cogs and letting the torque take over, because it’s working at 350Nm from 2500rpm through to 5000.
It won’t lose any of its manners if you stay on the throttle past 7000, but it’s a pointless exercise because it’s all over well before then, performance-wise.
The S3 is smooth and quiet pretty much from idle, with only a deeper rumble giving away its bar-room brawler potential. There’s not that much torque below 2000 and, to be honest, it sort of comes on like a light switch just before the torque shelf arrives at 2500rpm, surging hard and whistling loudly in the manner of WRXs past.
It’s the whistle that always signals how much more you’ve asked of it, and the bigger turbo seems to bring with it a reduction in fine-throttle response. But more grunt.
It looks and feels and goes the part of a more masculine A3, with 18-inch boots, beautifully stitched leather, a deeper chin and the sexiest steering wheel in the business. And the S3 runs harder, being speed limited to 250km/h... or thereabouts – our German test saw 260 while the speedo was still climbing.
It’s still a six-speed manual, and the shifts are still, in that traditional Audi way, a little like loose rifle bolts – long, but accurate in a foolproof, but mildly unsatisfying way.
The seats, though, are brilliant, with wonderful support and shape inside the hard-cased outer shells and, although there’s no lumbar adjustment, they’re shaped so well they don’t seem to need it. They’re terrifically supportive on anything from autobahn sweepers to slalom tests and everything in between.
If the S3 was to have a failing, it would be in the chassis and its lack of enthusiasm for genuine enthusiasm. While my Italian assassin showed that idiot-proof seemed the appropriate description for the chassis’ attitude, the deeper you mine the S3 for its abilities, the more idiot-proof morphs from being reassuring to just plain frustrating.
You can leave the ESP on and the odds shorten on even Robbo finding an apex in any Audi, including the S3 (Sorry, what invoice? - Robbo). Turn it off and you’ll have just a modicum of a giggle before you feel the ABS hydraulics being kicked in the slats and all manner of independent wheel tugging re-imposing banal sanity again.
For most Audi buyers, this set-up means security. Buying an S3, though, implies you kind of want a bit more performance. Audi just hasn’t yet worked out that performance isn’t just a bigger turbo and 195kW of power in a 2.0-litre FSI engine that whirls its way to 7000rpm.
An S3 buyer may want to play with the chassis performance, too. On a racetrack sometimes. Or a winding piece of road in a mountain somewhere. And on those days, they’ll find their German hot-hatch stopping itself short of giving its all. The S3 actually feels like it could do better without it.
The second-generation Haldex all-wheel drive set-up (which Audi still calls quattro, even though quattro has traditionally been the pure mechanical system) isn’t Evolution Lancer-clever in the way it shifts the drive around the car, but it’s better than it was.
It’s possible – just – to set the S3 up in nice little drifts, but the instant you brush the brake pedal to alter the angle, the ESP rouses from its slumber, spots the sliding, wonders at the insidiousness of all this fun happening without its knowledge and takes instant action to stop it.
That won’t be an issue for lots of people. But it’s philosophically disappointing that Audi goes to the trouble of making an all-wheel drive performance car in whose grip and inherent security it ultimately does not trust.
2006 Audi S3
Engine: 1984cc 4cyl DOHC 16v turbo
0-100km/h: 5.7 seconds (claimed)
Price: $70,000 (est)
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