Thirty-two grand seems like a gently terrifying place to start for a hot hatchback - especially one that doesn't actually look particularly fiery - but the new Audi S3 is packing high-density engineering under an unthreatening layer of beige styling, making it one of the best Q-cars in years. Don't laugh.
The basic S3 philosophy remains the same, so you get a 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder driving a front-biased, quattro four-wheel-drive system. This time, though, you get 296bhp (up 35bhp) and 280lb ft, in a car that weighs 60kg less than before. The numbers are impressive: zero to 62mph in 4.8 seconds (0.4 more for the manual), 155mph, a smidge over 40mpg and 159g/km CO2. Win, and indeed, win.
But the bit that makes the S3 stand out in the getting-somewhere-very-quickly-indeed stakes is the car's quattro. Because it turns an expensive hot hatch into a bit of junior supercar-baiter. Before, Audi's take on all-wheel drive tended to make the S3 a little nose-heavy, and stodgy to drive compared with lighter, more immediate front-drive hatches.
In the new car, the front axle is 42mm further forward than before (thank the VW Group's modular transverse platform for that little nugget), and the engine is both a fraction lighter and canted backwards by 12 degrees. Small stuff. But now, you turn the wheel, and the S3 responds immediately, wrapping itself around a corner with an almost eerie neutrality. Up the speed, and the S3 just keeps gripping, to an apogee of gentle understeer. But, by this point, you'll be going very fast indeed.
The engine feels tireless and pulls cleanly in virtually any gear, mainly because it produces its peak torque from 1,800rpm all the way through to 5,500, so you never get caught in off-boost holes or gearing flatspots. There's even launch control, and if three consecutive starts at five seconds dead on a greasy road are anything to go by, it works a treat. The upshot is a car that's a bit of a rocket, and incredibly flattering to drive quickly.
The only issues are pretty subjective. Firstly, it looks quite mild - 18-inch rims, a modest 25mm drop in height, silver mirrors and quad tailpipes don't make it look too different from any S line variant chugging around the UK. Secondly, the steering is a bit numb. And thirdly, it's just a bit po-faced. Yes, a speaker in the bulkhead and valves in the exhaust make the four-pot sound fruity, but you have to hammer the S3 to make it feel fast and exciting.
Something like the BMW 135i (priced within a tenner with the 8spd auto) is more fun at slower speeds. Likely slower across country, too, but more engaging when not at warp-factor, prison-sentence speeds. So the S3 is a brilliant bit of kit - it just depends on what kind of driver you are.
1984cc, 4cyl, 4WD, 296bhp, 280lb ft 40.9mpg, 159g/km CO2 0-62mph in 4.8secs, 155mph 1395kg £31,980
Incredibly competent, deceptively fast and superbly built. But needs to be driven hard to get the best out of it.