By Andy Enright
Okay, so you've long grown out of an Impreza WRX or Lancer Evo but hanker for something that's just as sure-footed and rapid in all weather conditions but which you can park at the office without your colleagues thinking you stand around in forests at the weekend with a bobble hat and a thermos flask. Something a bit less nerdy. Step forward the altogether more sophisticated second generation Audi S3. Although there are a few go-faster design cues if you know what you're looking for, the S3 isn't shouty but still knows how to bring the excitement. Here's what to look for when shopping for a used example.
3/5 dr family hatch (2.0 petrol [S3, S3 Sportback])
Those of you with longer memories will recall the first generation Audi S3. It was a little corker. Introduced in May 1999, the S3 got a 210bhp 1.8-litre turbo engine which, due to a marketing decision, was throttled down from the 225bhp version that powered the range-topping TT. It wasn't until early 2002 that Audi did the decent thing and gave the S3 the full 225bhp monty but it was merely a last hurrah before the car was canned in 2003. It took another three years before Audi had another S3 on its books, the car we look at here in detail, the 2.0-litre 265bhp second generation model. It was originally launched as a three door-only manual model in 2006, but in late 2008, the car's appeal was enhanced with a couple of key attributes: the additional availability of a 5-door Sportback shape and the alternative of a high-tech semi-automatic gearbox, in this case Audi's clever S tronic twin-clutch system. Although the S3's thunder was stolen as the A3 line's quickest car by the 2011 introduction of the frantic RS3, it lasted until the announcement of the all-new A3 model in 2012.
What You Get
Standard equipment includes the sort of flat-bottomed steering wheel that looks as if it's come straight out of a Lamborghini Gallardo. You also get folding leather bucket seats and a premium Bose infotainment system that features universal interfaces for mobile phones and iPods. Also included in the list of standard trim is automatic air conditioning, a driver information system with a rather naughty lap timer, an anti-theft alarm, six airbags, adaptable dampers, front fog lights and xenon headlights with a daytime running function.
What You Pay
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What to Look For
Somewhat surprisingly, most S3s don't seem to live a very hard life. You do get the odd car that has clearly fallen into the wrong hands and is wearing a daft colour scheme and questionable aftermarket accessories but in the main, they're often bought by well-heeled owners who often don't really know what they're buying. The sort of owner who likes the look of an Audi A3 and asks the dealer what the best one is. Well you're looking at it right here. The 2.0-litre turbocharged engine might seem in a high state of tune but 265bhp really isn't too much for an engine of this type and it's got a strong record of reliability. The metallic interior fittings are also a lot more durable than cheaper plastic finishes in rival cars. Look out for damage to the alloy wheels which are spectacularly prone to kerbing and also inspect the car for signs of bent under-bonnet flitch plates or overspray that would indicate accident damage. Drive goes to all four wheels, so tyre wear rates tend to be modest in the S3, but do have a look at the tread wear to check for alignment issues. The final bit of advice might seem a bit of a no-brainer but it's caught a couple of unwary buyers out. It's to make sure that you are buying an actual S3 and not one of the widespread replicas dollied up with S3 bits. Read the registration document carefully.
(approx based on an 2009 S3 2.0) S3 parts aren't as expensive as you might expect. Budget £170 for starter motor, while an alternator costs in the region of £185. Front brake pads are £75 a set and rears are £55. Replacement xenon headlight pods are £660 each. Some anti stone chip film may be a good investment there.
On the Road
This might have been the fastest car in the A3 premium compact hatchback line-up but it doesn't have the highest capacity engine. As with the first generation S3, Audi chose to use an uprated version of the VW Golf's impressive 2.0 T FSI four cylinder powerplant rather than the 3.2-litre V6 unit that sits at the top of the standard A3 line-up. Not that either Golf GTI or Audi A3 V6 customers would be well advised to take this car on in a straight fight. It has considerably more power for a start - 265bhp - and an even faster-reacting quattro four-wheel drive system to maximise stability and traction whilst distributing 350Nm of torque between the front and rear wheels. If you're worried about this being a glorified Golf GTI, it isn't only the quattro system that should persuade you differently. The S3 engine has a bigger turbine, a revised intercooler, altered camshaft timing, redesigned pistons and conrods, plus a stiffer cylinder head. The results are suitably explosive. Fire the S3 off the line and it will reach sixty 5.5 seconds later, pass 100mph in 13.6s and keep piling on speed until it reaches an artificially-limited maximum of 155mph. Power is transmitted by a six-speed short-throw gearbox in manual models through an electronically-controlled Haldex multi-plate clutch. In normal driving conditions, most torque is directed to the front wheels but as soon as the system detects slippage, it directs torque to the axle best equipped to handle it. The result is an all-road, all-weather supercar for the real world. By that I mean it's usable by almost anyone, everyday. Yes, it's stiff: yes, ride height has been lowered by 25mm. But unlike an Evo or an Impreza STi, it doesn't constantly, wearingly remind you of the fact when you've had a long day, you just want to get home and the whole of the road network seems to be infested with infernal speed humps. Yet on a wet British B road, it'll give the rally replicas more than a run for their money. In fact, it's hard right now to think of many cars at any price that would better it A to B in those kind of conditions. If we had to criticise anything, it would be the slightly vague electro-mechanical power steering. Nothing wrong with the brakes though, upgraded with performance pads, larger discs and black painted callipers that bear the S3 badge.
The Audi S3 is a car with very few faults. It's fast, composed, beautifully built, presentable, reliable and practical. What more could you want? Some may prefer a vehicle that's a little less inert at the very extremes of its handling envelope, while others might find the S3's inherent coolness a little off-putting. Otherwise, there's not much not to like. There's still big demand out there for used examples, so genuine bargains are hard to come by but don't let that dissuade you. If you like the idea of owning a performance car without all the usual performance car stigmas, this could be the one.