Review and road test of the Audi S3 (1996 - 2003)
BY ANDY ENRIGHT
Long before the 'superhatch' concept ever really gained popularity there was the Audi S3. With over 200bhp being directed to each of its four wheels, chunky styling and a correspondingly chunky price tag, the S3 was somewhat overshadowed by the TT coupe at the time of its launch but soon established a reputation as the finest driver's car Audi had produced since the iconic quattro 20v. Sales have been steady and there are a number of quality used examples available. Tough and capable, the S3 is one of the more reliable used buys amongst the hot hatch elite.
3dr hatch [1.8T petrol (S3 quattro]
It's easy to forget that the Audi A3 had been around for three years by the time the Ingolstadt company finally got round to launching the sporty S3. Until it debuted in May 1999, the quickest A3 on offer was the 150bhp 1.8T version. The S3 used a tuned version of this very same engine that pumped out a healthy 210bhp. A marketing decision dictated that the electronic control unit ramped power down from the 225bhp the top TT model produced to 210bhp so as not to steal the thunder from the glamourpuss coupe. Nevertheless, keen drivers quickly realised that due to its improved visibility and more benign chassis, the S3 was in fact the more satisfying driver's car. Electronic Stability Control was nevertheless added in December 1999, but the major change to the S3 occurred in early 2002 when Audi did the decent thing and gave the S3 the full 225bhp monty. In effect the changes were forced by ever more powerful - and significantly cheaper - SEAT hatchback models and the introduction of a whole host of new rivals such as the Ford Focus RS, the Alfa Romeo 147GTA and the Volkswagen Golf R32. The S3 was deleted from Audi's range in 2003 when an all-new A3 range made an appearance.
What You Get
The doors close with a thunk; everything is damped and chunky. There are no squeaks and rattles. The car feels as if it was milled from a solid billet of some hideously expensively heavy substance. Specified in dark colours, the interior has a certain Bauhaus austerity about it. There are no flashing lights, rows of piano keys, colour LCD displays or multi function stalks. You gaze across the fascia. Sheets of black applique trim gaze back. Putting this few buttons in a top of the range car represents admirable confidence on Audi's part, but the equipment's all there. It's just like old money though; hard to spot.
The issue that I have with the S3 is that the essential pert femininity of the A3 range doesn't translate harmoniously into the aggressively macho caricature that Audi have created. Like something escaped from a stylist's pad, seventeen inch Avus wheels squeeze into bulging wheel arches whilst the sinister blue xenon lamps, gaping black maw of the air intakes and blade edged roof spoiler add to the visual incongruity. Underneath all the go-faster addenda the S3 is still perhaps too pretty for its own good.
What to Look For
It's a testament to the quality of modern Audis that most used guides have nothing to report. 'Too new to report any problems' or 'nothing significant' are the usual commentaries on the S3, and it's the same across the Audi range. Reliability of the SA3 has been excellent so far, so just look for main dealers service stamps, a sheaf of receipts and check for the usual accident or misuse damage.
On the models fitted with low profile tyres, check the expensive alloy wheels for kerbing damage, and insist on locking wheel nuts. Ignition coils have been a recurring bugbear with the 1.8T engines and many owners have complained about spares being in very short supply. Thankfully Audi have rectified this issue but you may want to ask the previous keeper if the coils have been replaced.
(approx based on an 2000 S3) Potential buyers will be cheered to know that premium pricing does not stretch to Audi's parts prices. A replacement headlamp unit is £110 and a starter motor a comparatively inexpensive £150. An alternator costs in the region of £130, and front brake pads should cost £60. An exhaust system is circa £170 and a clutch assembly around £130.
On the Road
With permanent four-wheel drive, the S3 imperiously shrugs aside adverse conditions. With only the most insignificant chirrup of wheelspin, the little Audi will launch itself from slushy T-junctions, power being distributed to each of the wheels by an electronically controlled multi-plate clutch. No drama, no torque steer, just the pervading exhaust roar building as the speed builds. Like most four wheel drive Audis, the S3's nose will run wide out of a corner if severely provoked, but it inspires huge confidence, if not quite enjoying the same unassailable feel of a Subaru Impreza.
The engine is the familiar 1.8 litre twenty-valve engine that appears in Golfs, Toledos, A4s and Octavias across Europe. In normally aspirated form this engine wheezes and vibrates under load like a 2-stroke weed-whacker, but the turbo conversion transforms it. There's little turbo lag and the gutsy lugging power of a much larger engine whilst the yawning gulf between the torque peaks in second and third gear has been decisively bridged. The cable operated six-speed gearbox feels purposeful and the twin exhaust system has been especially tuned to produce a gruff roar that will appeal or appal in equal measures. Sounds assault you from all angles. There's a sibilant intake sound, low frequency tyre rumble, omnipresent exhaust roar and the zinging turbo whistle. Refined it is not. Despite the dramatic sound effects, the 210bhp car never feels enormously quick. Upon consultation of the specification sheet, the reason becomes clear. The S3's mother would charitably describe it as 'big boned'. In fact, there are Volvo 850s for sale that weigh less than the 1375kg at which the bouncing baby Audi tips the scales. The 225bhp model feels a little more vivid but both make deceptively rapid cross-country progress.
Although more recent rivals may well garner more column inches, few can match the balance, the build quality and the all round feel good factor of the Audi S3. If you like fun that feels like its been hewn from solid, here's a worthy contender for your cash.
Audi S3 (1996 - 2003) review by ANDY ENRIGHT