If you’re looking for the best in a Volkswagen Golf, take a look at the Audi S3. It won’t be cheap, because an Audi badge and cabin comes with a premium, but there are plenty of people who are prepared to pay an extra $8000 to get a Golf R with all the Audi herbs and spices.
Audi manages to inject a serving of ’special’ into a car which is still one of the very best in the compact class, even as the Golf 8 is on short-final for a landing in Australia.
The S3 has recently received a value boost with close to $9000 of extra gear, from its 19-inch alloys to sports seats with Nappa leather, a wireless phone-charger pad in the centre console, a Bang & Olufsen sound system and LED headlights.
But the key difference between an S3 and a Golf R is the body.
While Volkswagen gets through its Golf game with a conventional five-door hatchback, the S3 can come as a Sportback, a sedan or a cabriolet.
My styling favourite is the Sportback, which has a distinctive look in a sea of me-too shapes as well as a roomy boot and a roofline that gives a little more head space in the back seat. It’s not as spacious as a wagon, but the bigger boxy tail is a practical design.
The S3 is a brisk little beastie, not as aggressive as the RS3 that sits at the top of the A3 family, but more than quick enough for all conditions. It can really sprint with 213 kiloWatts and all-wheel drive, and is a rewarding and responsive drive in twisty terrain.
Some people find the DSG gearbox a little unrefined, and reluctant to take a manual down-change at times, but I find it generally good, and it has great economy with quiet and composed touring.
The suspension can be firm on a bumpy road, but leave the driving mode set in ‘comfort’ and there is nothing to cause any discomfort. Actually, I only once tripped it up to Sport and that was to have some fun with the farty exhaust note, and uncork all of the performance on a remote country road.
Driving the S3 is enjoyable for almost all the time, although I’m not a fan of Audi’s intrusive driver-assistance systems.
My first job in the car is to wind down the settings, and completely disable the lane-assistance that is far, far too keen to take control of the steering if it thinks you’re doing something wrong.
Usually, I am not. And there is no need to be fighting a car because you touch a white line on the inside of a corner.
The S3 has a great sound package, the lights are good - but not as sharp as some of the newer ‘active’ LED systems - and the brakes are strong.
It’s a car which gradually wins me over, despite the price and knowing that it’s really a Golf R in a party frock, albeit a high couture car that costs AUD$64,200!
Audi buyers are more likely to be cross-shopping a BMW or a Benz and, for that reason, it’s a car you'll enjoy, and should be added to the shopping list for a comparison test drive.
POSTSCRIPT: In my time as a motoring journalist, and corporate executive with the VW Group I have driven a large number of Audi's, and it remains one of my favourite brands.
However, I'm making a big call today, when I completely endorse all of Paul's opinions about the S3. Never mind the topline RS3, I believe the S3 is the best Audi I've driven in years!
Sure, it's expensive, but in terms of the combination of performance, ride, handling and comfort + equipment levels, this car has great breeding coursing through its veins. It is a great package, compact, chuckable, comfortable and sporty.