S3 Sportback Vorsprung Edition
What would it have been like to daily an Audi S3 20 years ago?
As you’ll know, every so often on TopGear.com we feature a ‘progress report’. The formula is simple but intriguing: we pitch the current version of a car against its earliest (or greatest) iteration and see where exactly the DNA has been inherited, where the car might’ve lost its way, and how a model has adapted to the world around it over the decades.
Very often, words like ‘charm’ weave their way into a progress report, because older cars invoke that powerful drug: nostalgia. Just the click of a cupholder release or the thud of a glovebox lid could take you back to a childhood holiday in seconds. A time before social media, AI chatbots, and Keith Lemon.
Well, here’s the record-scratch moment. Because I drove an original Audi S3 for the first time in my life the other week. And I didn’t much care for it.
This isn’t a spoiler for the S3’s progress report: Tom Ford will bring that to you in due course, and he’s more enamoured with Audi UK’s immaculate 2001 S3, complete with the MTM power kit which cheekily ups the horsepower from 225 to 250.
No, I thought ye olde S3 slipped into that uncanny valley where a car feels dated, but not yet quaint. More of a skinny jean than a tie-dye T-shirt, if you catch my drift. We’re not quite ready to coo over it with drippy-eyed melancholy yet.
Actually, it brought home how rigidly Audi has stuck to the S3’s original recipe, right up to the present day. The old S3 wasn’t a car you’d have bought to be entertained. It was the fastest way of getting a modestly-sized, easy-to-park cabin from A to B. In 2023, nothing’s changed. Except turbo lag. The old S3 makes you order power like a starter in a busy restaurant.
I could yarn on about how lovely it was to be surrounded by buttons instead of a touchscreen, but the S3’s is excellent, as infotainment displays go. It hasn’t bricked itself once in over 5,000 miles. The Golf R we ran last year crashed every five metres.
But what really struck me is how, while every other hot hatch has moved with the times, Audi's has stayed steadfastly desirable. A Civic Type R is unrecognisable in mechanical set-up, potency and performance to what you could buy at the turn of the millennium. So is a Golf R. The Focus RS doesn’t exist any more. Who would’ve thought an A-Class would morph from moose-allergic box to 400bhp driftmeister?
All this time, perhaps it’s been Audi that got the modern hot hatch formula closest to what most people want, most of the time. Under-the-radar, largely unengaging, but phenomenally untaxing to live with.