IT WAS only when this column was being written that I really understood the car that had been given back last Tuesday. No wonder I had got admiring looks during a week's test drive and there was little surprise that the executives who both handed me the car and took back the keys had a smile and a little joke.
OK, the Audi S3 was fast and brilliantly safe and confident through its Quattro system, which was just as well as I needed to rocket to the airport with my daughter and two grandchildren after their brief visit. The Mercedes-Benz E-Class Coupe had gone back in the morning and I could only pick up the S3 an hour before they were due to check in. While there was no doubting the S3's hot hatch credentials, it still had three seats across the back, could happily potter around town and almost act as family car with a rather refined and comfortable air. Yet switch to dynamic mode through the drive select dial on the dash and the car begins to strut; the throaty sound ratchets up and with the pedal to the floor, you can hit 100kmh in under five seconds through the automatic gearbox linked to the 300bhp, 2.0litre turbo-charged petrol engine.
Top speed is electronically governed to 155mph. Yet Audi claims that you will get well more than 35mpg (or 6.9litres/100km) and the emissions are just 159g/km which ludicrously puts this pocket rocket in Band D at €570 per year road tax, much the same as the average pre-2008 family car. That the Quattro four-wheel drive is always on may be at a cost but it does give an assurance that the car will stay with the road, whatever the pace.
The weekend following the children going back, we gunned the S3 into the Dublin mountains where it was in its element. It was precise in even the tightest of corners, yet for many it might not give the sort of involvement they crave. However, it suited us just fine. In fact, that might be either the S3's USP or its biggest disappointment. By the end of the week, I felt I could easily live with the car, even though I need to up my flexibility training to make more gracious entries and exits. However, for the serious racer, the car might not be different enough to really attract.
There was a nice absence of go-faster stripes and mouldings and the drive settings could be changed to give a decent level of comfort. Much of the success for the S3's performance and related economy comes from its very low weight; however, safety and stiffness haven't been compromised.
With the outstanding saloon and Sportsback launched earlier this year, a convertible to come and now the S3, the A3 range is becoming very exciting despite being built around a not particularly attractive basic hatchback car, which itself struggles against some of its main competitors in the premium sector.
That the S3 is pure premium can be seen by its price – which begins at €45,260 before p&p and rises very fast to €56,359 for my test car by the time navigation, luxury leather, Bosch sound system, Audi connect, heated seats et al had been added. This is not cheap, so maybe the boy racers will keep away and more refined merchants of speed take over.