Audi's S3 sedan mixes sporty and sensible

·4-min read

If you've got around $75,000 burning a hole in your pocket, and a prestige European badge on your mind, this might be the car for you.

With their customary cleverness, the big makers from Germany have - perhaps without even meaning to - created a new niche in the motoring market.

The sporty but sensible, compact but not-too-small, sexy-yet-conservative, fast but economical family machine.

That might sound like a fairly restricted market, but it's actually right in the sweet spot for a fast-growing demographic of polar opposites. There is the young, look-at-me buyers for whom brand is everything, and the empty-nesters holding on to their fleeting youth. Call it the Goldilocks class.

It's a relatively tiny piece of motoring landscape where Audi's sporty S3 goes head to head with its German arch-rivals, BMW's M140i and Mercedes- Benz with its A35 AMG. They are three performance-enhanced compact machines which are dragging plenty of buyers into glossy showrooms.

In all three cases, they stop safely short of their respective alter-egos, the Audi RS3, BMW M2 and Benz A45 AMG. Those are the real tarmac burners. But unless you're planning to spend your weekends at Phillip Island, they also represent a bit of a wasted spend - ballistic acceleration you'll rarely get to use.

Take a step closer to the mainstream and you'll find these slightly milder performance-house models which are perfectly positioned to make you feel special about driving one, without the boss wondering whether he's paying you too much.

That's a delicate balance but one these three German thoroughbreds have mastered.

As a bonus, these models represent an entry point to the very desirable "special vehicle" sub-brands that continue to grow in popularity.

For Audi, being one of the so-called challenger prestige brands - any brand that is not BMW or Mercedes - has its drawbacks, as well as its advantages.

The most obvious downside is, well, not being BMW or Mercedes.

On the positive side, as there's more license for Audi to experiment; to challenge the norms, step away from convention.

That path less taken has included its pioneering of the Quattro all-wheel-drive, now equally common on its rival marques, too.

There have been smaller innovations, too, but no less intriguing.

Take, for instance, the novel idea they rolled out a couple of years back on certain models, where the air conditioning controls and the temperature readout were placed in the most logical place possible, right on the middle of the air vent.

In their latest E-Tron electric car, they challenged the notion that rear-view mirrors should be ... well, mirrors.

Instead, the E-Tron has two little cameras mounted on stalks where the wing mirrors might normally go, which project the rear view onto a small screen where the old quarter glass once took pride of place.

The innovations continue in this latest rendition of their smart little S3 sedan - and this time it's the gear shifter.

They've replaced the shifter with a little stainless steel slider - about the size of a cigarette lighter - through which to choose reverse, drive or park.

Ground-breaking? Well, hardly. BMW has used a similar "drive by wire" gearshift for years now - while Mercedes has moved away from the centre console altogether, placing the shifter on a stalk at the side of the steering column.

So this new device isn't going to sell too many cars, or change the habits of too many drivers. But it does go to emphasise how important it is to be on your toes in this most competitive market segment.

This model has inherited most of the goodies that you'll find in the latest A3 sedan and hatchback, plus a few more.

Think sports suspension with damper control, matrix LED headlights, lovely butt-hugging leather sports seats, Bang and Olufsen 3D Premium sound system, not to mention the glossy 10.1-inch screen for the MMI navigation and infotainment.

The S3 has always been a welcome arrival in our driveway with its punchy, turbocharged four-cylinder performance and its crisp, modern styling.

Enough power to add some spice to the everyday drive, but not so much that you'll be constantly receiving speeding tickets in the mail.

In this latest S3 that represents two litres, four cylinders and one turbocharger which culminate in a formidable 228 kilowatts and 400Nm of grunt - and a snappy 4.8-second sprint to the speed limit.

And all that with a relatively sane thirst of 7.3L/100km. A car for all seasons, and reasons, indeed.

AUDI S3 QUATTRO SEDAN

* HOW BIG? Like the A3 sedan upon which it is based, this high-output model can comfortably accommodate four adults with an impressive boot, as well.

* HOW FAST? Quick enough for all but the most speed-loving buyer. 0-100kmh in 4.8 seconds is brisk.

* HOW THIRSTY? A commendable 7.3L/100km. Not quite a Toyota Prius, but frugal for a quick thing.

* HOW MUCH? The S3 can be had for $73,200 plus on-road costs.

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