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Audi S3 Sportback: Double feature fantastic

By Deon Schoeman 20 February 2014

Audi has arguably been one of the most aggressive players in the premium automotive What used to be an upstart marque has long since become Munich and Stuttgart’s equal in technology, quality and even sales terms. The arrival of the S3 Sportback continues an expansion of Audi’s performance cars that the brand hopes will add further lustre and dynamic appeal to the Four Rings. By DEON SCHOEMAN.

The first performance-focused Audi I drove was a station wagon. But it wasn’t any old estate.

With some help from cousin Porsche, the car heralded Audi’s entry into the performance car arena with a formula linking quattro all-wheel drive to a muscular turbocharged engine and everyday motoring practicality.

I drove it on a damp and overcast day in 1995, thrashing the car through the forests of a military proving ground not far from Audi’s main seat in Ingolstadt. Fortunately, there were no tanks, grenades or mortars that day, but even on the narrow, muddy tracks, the RS2 Avant was a missile, with almost insane levels of traction, and the kind of ferocious acceleration that can flatten eyeballs and fold back ears.

With 232 kW from the 2,2-litre five-cylinder engine, the RS2 Avant was also a giant killer on the autobahn, delivering thoroughbred sports car performance. Its sub-5sec 0-100km/h sprint time and 262km/h top speed were revolutionary for a car that looked, for all intents and purposes, like a family car.

The RS2 Avant established the RS moniker. It also provided the DNA for all subsequent Audi performance cars, which today includes not only RS-badged Audis, but also an increasingly extensive line-up of S-models.

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It’s the latest members of the Audi S-model clan that have lured me to an Eastern Cape burdened by heat and humidity. Even the sea looks torpid, its lazy swell slowed by the dirty crimson sheen of a persistent red tide.

But there’s nothing listless about the car I’m driving. The S3 Sportback has all the hallmarks of a performance Audi: five-door hatchback practicality, eager turbocharged engine, and quattro all-wheel drive. It’s a formula harking back directly to the RS2 Avant.

This car also benefits from the clean, pared-down elegance of the latest A3 it’s based on. The external add-ons – more aggressive front, sporty rear diffuser, deeper sills, bigger wheels – are seamlessly integrated, suggesting rather than pronouncing the car’s extra muscle.

And extra muscle there is in abundance. The two-litre TFSI turbo engine produces 206 kW in this guise – 74 kW more than the most powerful bread-and-butter A3. The six-speed S-tronic dual-clutch gearbox is the only transmission on offer for the Sportback, which won’t please purists, but offers real performance and efficiency advantages.

The 18-inch wheels are shod with low-profile, high-performance rubber (Continental SportContact 5s in the case of the test car), and the red-painted brake callipers provide visual confirmation that the all-disc braking system has been beefed up to match the S3’s substantial urge.

The interior, too, takes the A3 formula’s clean, uncluttered design approach, and adds some useful zing in the form of form-hugging bucket seats, an instrument pack that includes a digital boost gauge, and a full-house list of luxury and convenience items. You even get a lap timer for use on track days…

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Port Elizabeth may proclaim itself a city, but in many ways, it’s still a country town at heart – and that also goes for the traffic. By Johannesburg or Cape Town standards, the traffic is a breeze (peak hour lasts for 30 minutes, if that), which means the excellent highways provide a smooth and unchallenging introduction to the S3 Sportback’s dynamic talents.

Anyone who has experienced the three-door S3, launched late last year, will recognise the Sportback version’s taut, composed suspension, with the kind of damping that can feel just a little too percussive when the road surface becomes uncompromising.

But on the smooth stuff, it adds to the S3 Sportback’s solid, planted stance, with the quattro all-wheel drive system’s consistent but unobtrusive traction keeping the car tracking true to the driver’s chosen path.

Connoisseurs of the motoring art may suggest that the Sportback’s longer wheelbase, extra length and slightly different weight distribution add an extra smidgen of stability to the package, but frankly, you’d be hard pressed to tell the difference between three-door and five-door versions outside of formalised, timed testing.

The Aldo Scribante racing circuit just north-east of downtown PE provides a good opportunity to subject the S3 Sportback to the kind of thrashing our friendly traffic officers would frown upon. It’s a challenging little track, with a nice mix of tight twists and fast sweeps, and an old-style long straight that tests the nerves when the brake markers start flashing past at an alarming rate just before the track veers right.

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At that moment, with the speedo hovering at around 195 km/h or so, braking hard becomes all-important – and the S3 Sportback obliges with the kind of deceleration that sheds speed as easily as a reptile discards its skin.

Next, the right and left of the Esses do their utmost to throw the Audi off-balance with a violent transfer of weight as the S3 clips first one, and then the second apex, before blasting downhill, gaining momentum with impressive alacrity through the long, teasing right-hand sweep that is Hanger.

The second-gear hairpin, and then the dip, slip and rise of the fourth-gear Chevy Sweep introduce you to the braking zone of the final right-hander, which uncoils almost unwillingly, so that it feels like an eternity before the straight swings into view, and you can floor the loud pedal, hurtling past the pits for another lap.

It’s not the kind of driving you’ll be doing on the daily commute, but the track does highlight some of the S3’s key attributes. For instance, the standard Drive Select system allows aspects like throttle response, steering heft and damping to be adjusted.

Even on-track, the extra give of the suspension in the comfort setting is a boon, allowing it to soak up some of the bumps with unruffled ease. But the sharper throttle and heftier steering provided by the dynamic mode are a perfect match for the athletic character of the S3, and might as well be the default setting.

If anything, the S3 Sportback underplays its track-test talents. It takes a few laps to recalibrate one’s senses, to leave the braking later than your mind suggests is prudent, and to step onto the power earlier when exiting corners because the quattro grip will pull you into the clear.

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Switch off the stability control, and the rear of the S3 will become livelier on trailing throttle, arguably to the car’s benefit in sheer manoeuvrability terms. But frustratingly, left-foot braking isn’t tolerated by the Audi’s engine management system. Still, this is a keen performance weapon, and one that’s happy to be honed by skilled drivers.

In real-world terms, there has to be more to a car like the S3 Sportback than track appeal. With its five-door layout and decent boot, the hatchback’s attributes include space and versatility, suggesting a level of everyday usability linked to that strong-beating performance heart.

A 230 km route from Aldo Scribante to Hankey (yes, that’s really the name of the town), then on to Humansdorp and finally along the back roads to Van Stadens Pass, before the home run to the airport, ends up being a sterner test than the track’s enjoyable but predictable challenges.

The locals will tell you that the roller-coaster road to Hankey from the N2 is not for sissies. It starts off smooth and fast, but becomes increasingly twisty and treacherous as you climb the hills towards the little town.

The corners are tight and often blind, the rises abrupt, forcing the suspension to fully extend as you crest, and the numerous bumps and dips seem to be just where they are likely to unsettle the car most.

The S3 Sportback eats even the steepest hills for breakfast, thanks to a turbo engine that feels strong across the rev range. In Dynamic mode, the S-tronic gear swaps are rapid enough to snatch a lower gear and floor it – all in the blink of an eye.

But it’s the hatchback’s overall stability and mechanical grip that really sets it apart. Steering response is rapid and pointy, but laden with heft and feedback, while the chassis’ tautness might not benefit comfort, but certainly allows direct, unequivocal feedback.

Because the S3 Sportback is so quick, you tend to underestimate the speeds you’re carrying into corners, so it’s easy to plunge into a turn, only to find that it’s much, much tighter than expected.

What should then have become a ragged, hanging-on-the-edge cornering experience is despatched with such confidence that you immediately think you could have gone in harder…

Have I mentioned how, in Dynamic mode, the engine get’s a throatiness that adds real aural delight to the package? And that the upchanges are accompanied by a glorious rasp? It’s the perfect, spine-tingling soundtrack to a fine motoring experience.

Is there anything not to like about this car? That depends on your priorities. In performance terms it ticks all the boxes. And it’s not intimidating in the least – well, not until you start pressing on.

But because it makes going really fast really easy, even a hard cross-country dash won’t feel as exciting as in lesser machinery. That’s the price we pay for excellence. And since we’re on the topic of money, owning an Audi S3 Sportback isn’t cheap: at R500 500, it’s around R20k more expensive than the mechanically similar VW Golf R.

Point to point, over varying terrain, there aren’t too many cars that will stay with Audi S3 Sportback. That it has two rear doors and decent legroom means the experience can be shared with at least three others. And the boot is generous, too.

Add the cachet of the brand, the best interior in its class, and it’s five-door versatility, and the Audi S3 Sportback is easily my favourite, money-no-object premium performance hatchback.

The S3 Sportback’s SA launch coincided with the arrival of the SQ5 TDi, a 230 kW monster that is also Audi’s first S-treated SUV. Coming soon are the S3 Sedan and the S3 Cabriolet, while the S1 makes its debut in Geneva next week.

Ultimately, there will be an S-derivative of every vehicle Audi makes, while the RS moniker will remain the preserve of a special few. But then, if the S-cars are as good as the S3 Sportback, will there really still be a need for any RS models? DM

VITAL STATISTICS

Audi S3 2.0 TFSI Sportback

  • Engine In-line four-cylinder, 1,984cc, turbocharged
  • Gearbox Six-speed S-tronic
  • Power Torque 206kW /380 Nm
  • 0-100 km/h 5.0sec
  • Top speed 250km/h (limited)
  • Fuel consumption 6.9 litres/100 km (combined cycle)
  • CO2 emissions 159g/km
  • Retail price R500,500
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