This is the Audi S3 and sister car to the Volkswagen Golf R. It’s the same 261bhp, four-wheel drive super-hatch that’s been around since 2006. But unlike the hatchback-only Golf, the S3 is available as a three door hatchback and a hatch-cum-estate Sportback.
Like the VW, the four-wheel drive Audi S3 has always been more of a swift, surefooted express rather than a tearaway hot hatch or rival to the brutally fast Subaru WRX STI or Renaultsport Megane RenaultSport.
A six-speed manual is offered alongside Audi's S Tronic transmission. The latter 'box is essentially the older six-speed version of VW’s DSG gearbox rather than the latest seven-speed unit, but the shifts are smooth and rapid. And with the Audi’s relentless shove (258lb ft at 2500-5000rpm), the seventh forward cog is rarely missed.
Audi claims that the S Tronic-equipped S3 will crack the sprint to 62mph in 5.5 sec (0.2sec quicker than the manual transmission car). And we can well believe Audi; the smooth turbocharged four-pot motor barely has to pause between ratios, making for rapid, unrelenting progress. In terms of economy, you’ll see up to 34mpg in S Tronic guise and 33.2mpg when equipped with the standard six manual ‘box. CO2 emissions for the pricier auto option are 5g/km better than the manual at 193g/km CO2.
Driven with nuances of decorum, however, the Audi S3 is a perfectly civilised cruiser, thanks to a supple chassis and excellent refinement. Akin to the Golf R, we’d compare the Audi’s motorway cruising prowess to that of a VW Passat; high praise indeed.
While the S3’s steering wheel features shift paddles in our test car, they’re all but redundant; prod the lever into ‘S’ and the upshifts and downchanges are so well timed that changing gear yourself can actually hinder rapid progress. But as good as the auto 'box is, the six-speed manual is still lovely to use and slightly more involving.
If you’re after a hot hatch that can cover ground rapidly, cruise effortlessly and embarrass most sports cars at the lights, then the S3 will be a fine companion.
Given its price, too, it’s hard to think of any car in its price range that blends civilised manners and cross-country pace so effectively. It sounds ridiculous, but you would have to look at something like a Jaguar XK to find a superior blend of speed and comfort.