Currently reading: Used car buying guide: Audi S3 Mk1
The original Audi S3 may be getting long in the tooth, but this solid if understated hot hatch is now a performance bargain
John Evans
News
5 mins read
5 August 2019

In today’s world of 375bhp superhatches, it’s tempting to look down on cars such as the 207bhp Audi S3 of 1999 and sniff. Except that back then, the performance reference points were legends such as the 207bhp Volkswagen Golf G60 Limited 1.8 16v Syncro of 1990 and the 212bhp Lancia Delta HF Integrale Evo 2 2.0 16v of 1993. 

Judged against those heroes, the S3 doesn’t look so bad after all (we’ll ignore the inconvenient presence of the 204bhp VW Golf 2.8 VR6 4Motion, also launched in 1999). It gets better, since while today an 80,000-mile Integrale Evo 2 costs from around £50,000 and, when they come up for sale, a G60 Limited around the same, a tidy S3 of 2002 with the uprated 222bhp engine can be on your driveway for just £2250. 

It will have done 188,000 miles, though, and to be fair to the G60 and especially the Integrale, it lacks charisma and heritage, not to mention their panache. But for driving enthusiasts on a budget, the S3 is worth more than a sniff. 

In 1999, it shook up the hot hatch world. Here was an all-wheel-drive, three-door hatch capable of 0-62mph in 6.6sec one moment and bumbling to the shops the next – duties its solid construction suggested it would perform for years to come. 

Like most Audis then and since, it’s a discreet thing. True, its wheel arches are slightly wider than an A3’s of the time, its bumpers are deeper and it wears a tasty set of 17in Avus six-spoke alloys, but otherwise it hides its light under a bushel. 

At launch, the S3’s 1.8-litre 20-valve turbocharged engine was pegged to 207bhp to avoid embarrassing the newly arrived TT. However, in 2001, with its hand forced by the launch of a new generation of powerful rivals, Audi increased the power to 222bhp, a move that saw the car’s 0-62mph sprint time fall to 6.4sec. Crucially, the engine, now codenamed BAM, gained stronger con rods. The S3 was facelifted the following year, receiving one-piece headlights, revised tail-lights, a new S3 badge and restyled tailgate trim. 

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From launch, the S3’s standard trim included climate control, self-levelling xenon headlights, electric Recaro sports seats and a half-leather finish. Options included larger 18in alloys and a Bose sound system. The S3’s thoroughly sensible-looking and solidly fixed interior has lasted well, although we’ve seen enough worn leather bolsters to know this area of the cabin can be an issue. 

Today, of course, the only feature that matters is a full service history. The oil and filter should have been changed every 10,000 miles, the Haldex coupling oil every 40,000 and the timing belt, tensioner and water pump, ideally with a metal impeller in place of the plastic one, every 60,000. Don’t be put off by a high mileage or multiple owners (to be expected after 19 years): it’s that service history that matters. And if it comes to it, go for the 222bhp version with its stronger engine.

How to get one in your garage

An owner’s view 

Steve Harris: “I saw the S3 and had to have it. It’s a 2002-registered car and the mileage is high at 170,000 but, in the two years I’ve had it, it’s not put a foot wrong. It feels as solid as it must have done when it left the showroom. I reckon this generation of S3 just pre-dated the next level of electronics because I can fix most things on it and, in any case, there are lots of forums offering good technical advice. The only upgrade I’ve made is fitting a Bilstein B12 suspension kit, which I reckon has tightened the handling.” 

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Buyer beware… 

■ Engine: Check condition of the breather pipes at the inlet manifold and ideally replace them and the vacuum pipes. Watch for uneven idling or lumpy running, signs the diverter valve, mass airflow meter or ignition coils have failed. If the temp gauge is all over the place, suspect the thermostat or temperature sender. If the low coolant level is indicated on start-up but the reservoir is full, the coolant level sensor in the header tank may have failed. 

■ Transmission: Check clutch operation. On high-mileage cars, consider replacing the slave cylinder and clutch, and the flywheel. 

■ Suspension and steering: At this age and mileage, budget to replace all the suspension bushes. Check the front and rear anti-roll bar sheaths, which have been known to break. Corrosion can cause springs to break, so inspect them too. 

■ Brakes: Check operation of the brake sensor behind the brake pedal and the brake servo pipe, both known trouble spots. 

■ Body: Check behind body strips where rust can form. Affected areas include the door bottoms. Easier to spot is rust on the roof rails and gutters. It’s a performance car so check for fresh paint and filler, and that the tyres are worn evenly. 

■ Interior: Check if the digital display has lost its pixels (see below), that the air-con blows cold and that the glovebox hinges aren’t broken. 

Also worth knowing 

The S3’s stereo and digital instruments can have issues. Among the companies that can help is Cluster Repairs UK (clusterrepairsuk.co.uk). It charges from £40 plus delivery and says no mileage data is lost when repairing the instrument cluster. 

How much to spend 

£1000- £1999 Mainly project cars, including an undrivable 02-reg S3 with a broken cambelt for £1000. 

£2000-£2999 Decent high-mileage runners including a 222bhp, 2001-reg with 188k miles, full history and a new cambelt and water pump for £2250. 

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£3000-£3499 Tidier, lower-mileage cars including a 207bhp, 2001-reg example with 109k miles for £3495. 

£3500-£3999 Bright-looking S3s including a one-owner 222bhp, 2002-reg with 106,000 miles for £3950. 

£4000-£5500 The tidiest cars, including a 222bhp 2001-reg with 111,000 miles and a pile of service invoices, up for £4795.

One we found

Audi S3, 2000 W-reg, 119k miles, £3790: Strong money for an early 207bhp S3 but it has full service history with all 18 services (one every 6000 miles) detailed in the advertisement. Looks great in Imola yellow, too. Black leather Recaros have no rips or tears.

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Comments
2

5 August 2019
Looked at these around 7 years ago. Unpleasant steering with no road feel, and not very fast. Heavy for a small old car, too. Interiors show wear excessively. Presumably expensive to maintain.

Apart from the above, a reasonable second hand purchase!

5 August 2019

and it's a complete bag of sh1t.  Why did the road tests not tell me I'd get ear problems from the side draft off an open window, that the door pockets are completely unusable, that the in-car entertainment/navigation is so extraordinarily over-complex that, unless operated when stationary, will lead you to drive like an Audi driver (aha! the explanation!); the mirrors are pokey, the digital fuel gauge a let-down, the suspension is harsh, the brakes initially over-sensitive and have a pedal off-clonk, disconnected steeering feel, and so the list goes on.  I had high hopes for the MQB 8V A3 but, actually, it's a triumph of badge over ability.  But then we mustn't upset our sponsors, must we...

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