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Audi S3: In search of soul

Maverick Life

Maverick Life

Audi S3: In search of soul

On paper, the specifications of Audi’s just-launched S3 might come as a disappointment to premium performance hatchback fans. At 206 kW, the S3’s maximum muscle trails both the Mercedes-Benz A45 AMG (by a huge margin) and the BMW M135i. But there’s more to the S3 than statistics, as DEON SCHOEMAN finds out.

Its 4.30am. For once, even the N1 highway between Jo’burg and Pretoria isn’t jam-packed with traffic. To the east, the first smudges of pink confirm that sunrise is not too far off.

On the colour screen, the navigation system has drawn my planned route as a blue line, running north from Johannesburg to Pretoria, then bearing east, past Witbank and Middelburg, before plunging down the escarpment and into the welcoming, subtropical heart of Mpumalanga.

To see exactly where I’m heading, you need to zoom in on the map until you can follow the line as it curves and sweeps along the R540 from the sleepy fishing hamlet of Dullstroom to the bustling, grungy heart of Lydenburg.

Then, continue to trace the route as it wiggles its way northwards along the R36 towards Ohrigstad. And finally, follow it eastwards as it works its way up the R533 until, just before the crest, you see the small, weathered signpost: Robbers Pass.

Of course, there are many great driving roads and mountain passes in Mpumalanga: the historic Long Tom Pass, the remote but thrilling Steenkampsberg Pass, the always damp and always tricky Kowyns Pass. But Robbers is special – fast and sweeping on one side of its 1,778m summit, tight and twisty on the other.

From a driving perspective, it’s like having the best of both worlds on a single stretch of road no more than 20km long; a ribbon of tar that starts off with some lazy bends, then winds the corners ever tighter, until it becomes a roller-coaster ride on the way down towards the sleepy town of Pilgrims Rest.

The new Audi S3, launched only a few weeks ago at the Johannesburg International Motor Show, seems to have the perfect credentials for a hell-for-leather onslaught on that 20 km stretch of torturous tar: 206 kW and 380Nm, quattro all-wheel drive, fat rubber, and a suspension tuned for grip and composure.

But first, I’ve got to cover the 380km or so to get to Robbers, much of it on mundane, ruler-straight highways. My early start has meant missing most of the traffic, and as I head down the N4 towards Middelburg, I’m grateful for the S3’s creature comforts.

The high-backed, form-hugging bucket seats not only promise support when you start flinging the Audi around bends, but actually provide long-distance comfort, too. The climate control system pegs cabin temperatures at just the right level. And cruise control means you’re less frequently tempted to floor the throttle.

In fact, long-distance travel in the S3 is very much a civilised affair. The hatchback offers the same pared-down elegance and intuitive ergonomics as the rest of the A3 range. Admittedly, the big 18-inch alloys and low-profile performance rubber create more road rumble than expected, but then, this isn’t a soft-sprung limousine, either.

Things get a little more interesting once you veer off the N4 at Belfast, and after negotiating the potholes that seem intent on swallowing the town whole, you get to zoom through some pretty countryside before arriving in Dullstroom.

The trout fishing haven has more eateries and watering holes per square kilometre than most places I know, but at 6am, it’s every bit as quiet as its name implies. The next 57km, from Dullstroom to Lydenburg along the R540, is even more rewarding – as long as you don’t stick a wheel into one of the craters posing a potholes long the way!

Much of this road is fast and open, with smoothly cambered sweeps that are too inviting to pass up. The S3’s responsiveness to even small throttle inputs is a revelation: midrange take-up is instant, and there’s always some extra urge on offer.

Speed also wakes up the chassis. At a steady freeway pace, the Audi has the easy heft and casual composure of a car capable of much more. Yes, there’s enough feedback from wheels and suspension to ensure clear communication between car and driver, but it’s a discussion that isn’t particularly interesting.

Shovel on some coals, however, and the dialogue becomes a lot more urgent. The fat-rimmed steering wheel comes alive in your hands, and you can feel each wheel working to grab enough grip.

Lydenburg is a mess of big trucks, sticky traffic and too many four-way stops. And the stretch of R36 that follows isn’t particularly inspiring, either. But then, finally, the R533 looms: we’ve arrived on Robbers Pass’ doorstep.

At this point, it’s advisable to pull over onto the verge, and to make some key adjustments. Firstly, switch the Drive Select system to ‘Dynamic’ mode. This sharpens the throttle, adds weight to the steering and ensures the snappiest gear shifts possible.

Next, switch the stability control system to sport mode, allowing the chassis a bit more leeway before the electronic nanny steps in to spoil the fun. Then, strap yourself in as tightly, make sure you’re sitting close enough to the steering wheel to dial in plenty of lock – and hit the start button.

The S3 is one of those cars that understates its talents until you start approaching the upper reaches of those capabilities. It’s the reason why the Audi can be accused of lacking soul or emotion during normal, even brisk, driving.

But here, with Robbers Pass beckoning, you begin to understand what the S3 is really about. It starts with the insistent, unrelenting acceleration of the car, despite the fact that we’re gaining altitude all the time.

The 2.0-litre, four-cylinder engine is an all-new development, and in South African spec produces 206kW of maximum power, combined with 380Nm of torque. The power output is 15kW down on European versions, blamed on our unique mix of hot and high driving conditions

Not that it seems to have compromised the S3’s enthusiasm. It just keeps on accelerating, its urge only briefly interrupted by the shift paddle-induced gear changes of the S-tronic dual-clutch gearbox. Ahead, the tar ribbon seems to narrow with every turn, while you can feel the chassis take up the lateral cornering forces.

The first few kilometres after the turn-off are only an introduction to the pass itself, their easy, flowing curves lulling you into a sense of complacency … until, suddenly, the next, lazy left-hander tightens, and tightens, and tightens.

It’s too late to acknowledge that your entry speed was far too high. There’s just enough time for a short, hard dab on the brake pedal, and gearing down twice, before you’re deep into the corner, and heading for deep trouble; aiming for an apex that seems impossibly far away.

And then – the S3’s nose tucks in, the threat of running horribly, terminally wide dissipates, and you’re through. Thank you, Mr Quattro! And good morning, Robbers Pass!

That first corner teaches a valuable lesson: the S3 is always going quicker than you think. And it also serves as a reminder that even the best technology, and the most sorted suspension, cannot overcome Newton’s laws of gravity.

Thus, for now, I’m approaching every corner on the pass with a measure of circumspection, keeping the entry speeds lower, and booting it once safely past the apex. It’s also a good way to recce a pass I haven’t driven for at least five years.

Of course, the S3 flatters the driver. The surefootedness provided by the quattro system can’t be underestimated: it allows levels of traction that no front-wheel or rear-wheel drive vehicle can match. Even better though, this iteration doesn’t compromise agility or steering precision.

Once you’ve flashed past the highest point of Robbers, the fun really begins, even though the speeds are lower. It’s all downhill from here, in the best possible way. The corners on this side of the pass are tighter and twistier, with the occasional hairpin thrown in for good measure.

You’ll also find rough patches where broken tar has succumbed to the loose gravel underneath – often slap bang in the middle of the braking zone. It’s a feather in the Audi’s cap that it isn’t upset by such surprises: it brakes, and turns, as if the surface was the smoothest, grippiest tar.

The brakes deserve special mention: beefy discs front and rear, with uprated callipers, instil real confidence with their progressive but incisive bite: the S3 sheds velocity as easily as a stripper’s outfit, with no sign of fade.

When you emerge from the final corner, and into the short, straight just outside Pilgrims Rest, the aroma of hot brakes and burnt rubber confirms just how much fun you’ve been having. Time to turn around then, and do it all again.

With every run of the pass, I get to know the corners, the cambers and the kerbs better. I learn to brake later, dial in the power earlier, and to ride the car by the seat of my pants. The S3 revels in being driven with intent, and it’s ability to mix pace with precision, to heed my every input, is a big confidence builder.

Have I mentioned that the S3 sounds great, too? Turbo engines usually have little aural character, but Audi’s engineers have employed acoustic actuators and an exhaust-mounted flap to provide a suitable soundtrack for the S3’s action.

Yes, it adds to the driving thrill, especially when throttle blips echo through the solemn, dark forests I’m plummeting through.

By mid-afternoon, it’s time to call it a day. A small pub in Pilgrims dishes up delicious home-made vetkoek-and-mince, and while wolfing down the hearty fare, there’s time to recap on the day’s experience.

What stands out is the nimble agility of the S3. At under 1,4 tons, the hatch is among the lightest in its segment, and it shows in the way it scythes through corners so cleanly. The slimmer mass also helps the car under hard braking, and contributes to its balanced attitude when cornering.

The chassis is a big step forward, and even with the sport suspension, the ride is able to soak up road surface flaws, without sacrificing tautness, feedback or control. And then there is the quattro system, which never gets in the way of the S3’s overall finesse, yet boosts traction and control when it matters most.

A word of warning, though: the S3 is not to be dallied with. It relies as much on the driver’s prowess as the driver depends on the Audi’s dynamic capabilities.

Yes, the S3 allows a level of consistent, enthralling momentum that defies the limitations of the route it’s travelling on. And its reserves of traction, control and poise are so high that it’s easy to feel invincible behind the wheel. But overstep those reserves, and the result may be irrecoverable.

Best of all, the S3 finally reveals its soul when piloted with real enthusiasm. It comes alive, revealing itself as a conqueror of corners, a master of speed and a prince of authentic, involving driving pleasure.

Yes, to truly enjoy the Audi S3, you need to embark on a quest to find its soul.  And I know exactly where to find it …DM

VITAL STATISTICS

Audi S3 2.0 TFSI S-tronic

Engine In-line four-cylinder, 1,984cc, turbocharged

Gearbox Six-speed S-tronic

Power 206kW @ 5,500rpm

Torque 380Nm @ 1,400rpm

0-100 km/h 4.9sec

Top speed 250km/h (limited)

Fuel consumption 6.9 litres/100 km (combined cycle)

CO2 emissions 159g/km

Retail price R474,500

Gallery

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