Audi S3 | PH Origin Story

Generally speaking, a modern hot hatch – something like the Audi S3, in fact – sticks to a familiar pattern. For some reason, the small, lightweight, high-revving, three-door pocket rocket is no more – except for one strange, notable exception. Typically, you’ll find a transverse four-cylinder turbo engine, some sort of all-wheel-drive system, a nice badge up front, an automatic gearbox, and an interior vibe that matches the cool, contemporary lifestyle that you aspire to. the modern car buyer. . Good seats and a good stereo are a must. From BMW M135i to Mercedes A35 AMG and VW Golf R to Cupra Leon, it’s the hot hatches we’re seeing more and more of. Whereas, notably, the old hot hatch hero brands like Renault, Peugeot, CitroΓ«n and Vauxhall offer nothing at all.

Which makes the first 1999 Audi S3 the genesis of all of today’s premium hot hatches. Yes, there was a Golf VR6 even further back, but for the two generations after the Mk3, VW paired vigorous six-cylinder power with four instead of front-wheel drive – ultimately creating the iconic R32, of course. , which justified this movement. . And while auto-only is the norm now, the S3 was exclusively manual, albeit for the same reason of today’s DSG dominance: it was the quickest and most efficient gearbox available. . The Audi was notable as the first four-cylinder Audi S car, and the A3 was the first transverse-engined model with four rings on its grille, so it was bigger than you might initially think. Especially now, in fact, with its conservative layout – 1999 was also the year of the Clio V6 – now the norm. The end of the 20th century has rarely seemed so prescient for automotive trends.

The late 20th century has rarely looked so good in metal, either. As an Audi Heritage car, this Goodwood Green S3 will have been better maintained than most, but it’s still a 20-year-old Audi A3 with 100,000 miles on record – it shouldn’t really get the attention it does. But the subtle – really, really subtle – tweaks to the flagship, including a 28mm increase in width and a 12mm reduction in the right height, combined with those fantastic 17-inch wheels, complete a nice shape perfectly. It’s nice to see little S3 badging and silver mirrors continue on the new car all these years later too. If a modern classic has to appeal as much as a static object as a driving experience, the S3 absolutely ticks that box. Which was probably not expected at the dawn of the millennium, as it was only an A3, but it was definitely a highlight for Audi design; think of the original S8, RS4 and TT for proof. The S3 may be a more humble offering, but it’s undoubtedly cut from the same cloth, drawing admiring glances for its confident stance without requiring you to look at every slat, spoiler and scoop.

Back then, when Β£30,000 could have also bought a crazy Impreza, or an Elise, or a 328i, some reports weren’t exactly brilliant for the S3. A Top Gear correspondent in September 1999 said it was “a bit cold but its feel aloof”, although he expected a Delta Integrale for the 21st century and compared it to a Lotus Elise. In a twin test with the Golf V6 4Motion which the Audi eventually became part of, Autocar cited “low-speed driving that could also be described as harsh”, a “coggly” six-speed manual gearbox and steering that doesn’t couldn’t match ‘the bar clarity of an Impreza Turbo’.

They’re right on the steering – it’s heavy and numb – but what a treat to be able to use a manual gearbox (with lots of worn notches), have good visibility, easily land a compact car on a road , feeling the lag turn into a turbo rush and so on. It’s safe to say that what qualifies as difficult low-speed driving has also evolved somewhat. None of these traits are unique to the S3, of course; what separates it from so much old stuff is how secure and solid it still feels, especially compared to the styling on the current car. Every granite-cut stereotype most certainly applies to the interior, from the thick leather Recaros to a stoic, solid dashboard. Some of the old Audi stereotypes really aren’t that bad, and this is surely the one to look back on in 20 years rather than the cabin of the current car.

And you know what? It would still be a fun car to use for quite a while yet, the old S3. It’s not some sort of Impreza Turbo or Focus RS hot hatch, brimming with attitude and tune, but there’s fun to be had in a reserved way. It doesn’t need to be setup or configured, to begin with, so you quickly learn to trust the slower steering responses, the way it’s actually damped quite smartly on the standard wheels (the 18s were optional) and to work with the ESP which is lenient but then severe interventions. Or turn off completely. That angst of enjoying the roads more with this set in another way or that grew here never materializes, and that’s really nice. You can appreciate and appreciate what the car is doing around you, without worrying about what it could do better.

This particular S3 was once MTM’s UK demonstrator and has entered the darling fleet in its upgraded version. With just the mildest of ECUs, it produces 250 hp and 273 lb-ft, down from 225 and 207 lb-ft. Which certainly still seems like a lot, with the trusty old 1.8 BAM turbo passing a real change past 3,500rpm and not losing much ground to the heavier new S3. The soundtrack is still nothing memorable, of course, although the ever-better DSGs and turbos mask the lag, it’s a real treat to have a proper performance that requires effort and interaction.

Effort, in fact, is probably the key differentiator between these two S3s. Because they actually undertook and achieved very similar things; our expectations have evolved over time. That the current car (and so many of its rivals) live up to the criteria set by the first shows what a smart idea it was. There’s even a lot more power available from a four-cylinder turbo with little more than remapping.

At the time, the S3 would have covered ground faster than the equivalent Quick Focus, taxing (and involving) them less than an RS; the same goes for the current S3 and Focus ST edition, with the added ease of light and precise steering. Turbo torque meant much more easily accessible performance than a Civic Type R or 147 GTA, now made even easier with a dual-clutch. A driving balance that has always erred on the side of caution, unlike French rivals of the time, can now be harnessed with less apprehension thanks to an ESC Sport mode. Maybe the cars haven’t really changed much. Audi still hasn’t rocked a four-cylinder car, to begin with. Or a fully sorted brake pedal feel.

Of course, the real difference is the RS3’s presence in the pecking order. Even now, the sense with the original version is of a car as good as it could be, not least because it still impresses in its own way after all this time. The current car, with below-average passive mandatory damping that basically renders DCC and a four-wheel-drive system not as clever as that available in a Golf, never quite gives that impression. He drives how he looks, I don’t know if he wants to be a hot hatch or just a fast A3 – which is the midway home positioning almost pre-ordained for him by the inline five headlight above. Audi hasn’t helped matters by holding back some of the things that once marked it, whether it’s beautiful Recaros or S3 dials or great wheels. It may not matter, but compared to its ancestor, there is no doubt which one appeals the most. And it’s not the one with the big grille and the four exhausts.

That being said, the latest model is still undeniably an extension of the embryonic S3 logic; the same one who laid out the plan for an entire segment. By modern standards, the design isn’t all that flashy, and – again, thanks in part to the RS3 – the overhaul over the standard model isn’t drastic, and neither is the interior. It’s unerringly quick in any situation, quicker than it looks and is still more expensive than the comparable Golf. The Apple S3 really didn’t fall far from the tree.

And why would it be? Audi has been plowing the same furrow for decades, and the similarity of its rivals is proof enough of its success. The difference now is that his days as a hot outlier are long gone; the current S3 fails to stand out in a parade of identikit, and, because the market enthusiast has surpassed it in power and prestige, it no longer evokes the ambitious quality that marked the original as special. Even now, two decades later, the first S3 retains that understated air of superiority and is a decent reminder that the distant driving experience of an earlier era might have something to offer besides dwell time. What this means for the remote driving experience of its descendant in 2042 remains to be seen…


Engine: 1,984cc, turbocharged inline-four
Transmission: 7-speed S-tronic dual-clutch automatic, all-wheel drive
Power (hp): 310 @ 5,450-6,500 rpm
Torque (lb ft): 295 @ 2000-5450 rpm
0-62mph: 4.8s
Top speed: 155 mph (limited)
Lester: 1,500 kg (empty)
MPG: 38.1 (combined WLTP)
CO2: 170-169g/km
Price: Β£40,065 (as tested: Β£41,725)


Engine: 1,781cc, turbocharged inline-four
Transmission: 6-speed manual, all-wheel drive
Power (hp): 250 to 5,500 rpm (MTM specification)
Torque (lb ft): 273 at 3,300 rpm
0-62mph: 6.0 sec (MTM)
Top speed: 152mph
Lester: 1420kg
MPG: 30
CO2: 223g/km
Price: Β£27,149.78 (1999)

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