AUDI S3 SEDAN vs SUBARU WRX STI
It’s clear that these sports saloons are diametrically opposed, but how differently do they perform when the driver inside feels the same need for speed?
THIS is how I imagine these two cars arguing as they sit scowling at each other in the afternoon sun somewhere in Singapore… “Good afternoo-” “Le kua simi? Buay song ah?!” “How rude! I merely wished to say hello.” “You go f**k spider lah!” The Audi S3 Sedan and Subaru WRX STI are both allwheel-drive super saloons, of course, but they could not be more different. Finally snapping out of my childish fantasy, I turn my thoughts towards which one I should drive first.
It is always useful in a comparison test to first calibrate one’s mind, which makes the choice obvious. The Audi it is, for there is no better car company than the ultra-clinical Ingolstadt manufacturer at providing a template or benchmark. Fast Audis from S1s to R8s are obviously results of disciplined, focused and determined scientific process. If there is one car that can put the WRX STI’s thuggish reputation in starker light, here it is.
Just as the S3 wears its exterior like a sharply cut suit, the interior satisfies all my expectations of a modern and sophisticated German machine. The standard A3 already sets the standard for premium
compact-car interiors, expertly combining efficiency of design with cutting-edge infotainment. With but a few badges and the fitment of Audi’s excellent Virtual Cockpit instrument display, the S3 carries this attractive ambience incredibly well, even this far up the local price list. After poking around the techno-toys for a while, I set off in search of driving enjoyment. I have to work my way out of a traffic jam first, however, and I discover the S3 does an excellent impression of a normal executive saloon. Set the car to Comfort mode and, while the ride is still firm, the car is never punishing to either my back or my ears.
The Audi’s diminutive dimensions and easily calibrated responses make it a
cinch to thread through rush hour. This should, of course, be no surprise, as even the preupdate RS3 top dog manages the simple business of commuting impressively well.
Finally, the road opens up and I put the Drive Select system to Sport mode. The engine’s genteel voice wakes up and the snappy S tronic dual-clutch transmission dials up the immediacy.
I test the S3’s alertness and prod the accelerator – sharply but in small increments. Mr S3, always the good soldier, snaps to attention. On downshifts, burbles are made at exactly the points I expect them and with precisely the same timbre every time. In fact, it is so consistent that it feels programmed in.
“You’ve pressed the Sport button. This must mean you want burbles and snaps. Here you go, sir, your dish of pizzazz – manicured and vacuum-packed by a sternfaced German engineer to zero tolerances and served on a silver plate.”
Not particularly loudly, however. There is finely manufactured theatre here, but it falls some way short of proper hooliganism. So far, so Audi.
The 2-litre 7-speed drivetrain’s excellence makes it clinical, for being so good all the time means the engine does not adventure up the rev range with gathering rabidity like a hungry dog homing in on a bone. So, I don’t feel it necessary to wring its neck.
Not that there is anything to complain about either the quality or quantity of the thrust provided.
Lag is negligible, power is precise and no torque hole can be found – I can titrate any number onto the speedometer and hold it there at will. Hence, unlike much bigger performance cars that heave forwards on a tidal wave of power, the little S3 simply darts forward and zips around.
Somewhat brazenly, I try to provoke oversteer. I feel like I get close once, then try to replicate it again by doing the same thing and the car just does what it has always done – grip and laser ahead in the direction the steering wheel is pointed. I can complain about a lack of liveliness at the back end, but if I want adjustability, I just use the steering wheel and carve whatever line I want through a corner, as long as it is not sideways. What of understeer? Perhaps it is there at the limit, but I do not go fast enough to find it. Below that point, the S3 simply serves up neutrality, neutrality, neutrality and endless grip. Lovely, if you ask me. Much better to just go as quickly as you dare and trust that the car will sort things out for you. Which it will. Zooming around the MacPherson area, I suddenly realise this must be what it’s like to be a cockroach. Ignore the connotations about appearance and filth, and entertain the idea for a second. You’ve seen how a cockroach does its escape run from your slipper – incredibly quickly and with amazing agility.
The S3 feels like that to drive – effortless in acceleration, solid in disposition, and very small. The S3’s primary strength becomes immediately apparent – its perfect size. Combine that with impeccable manners and you have a vehicle that is extremely neat. Neat is what you want on the congested roads of our little city. Leaving the cockroach metaphor behind, the spirit of Singapore runs through the S3 – smart, small, impeccably stencilled and glisteningly high-tech. This makes the job of the WRX STI very tough. I struggle to see how the Subaru can best the S3 in any objective measure, and to be honest, I’ll come straight out and say that it does not.
First of all, I am not sure which inspired which – arcade game graphics or Subaru’s dashboard design. Atop the centre console is an extremely busy display displaying such playful things as boost pressure that I most
definitely will not look at while concentrating on the job of driving quickly. Leather has been applied and everything feels tightly screwed together, but the infotainment system sits in the middle of the dash glowing blue and looking uncomfortably close to something aftermarket.
I pull out of the parking lot and realise the suspension is rock-hard. My wife then begins to grumble that the car is way too loud, all of the time.
THE STI IS NOT ALL THAT QUICK, BUT IT IS UTTERLY BRIMFUL OF CHARACTER AND WHOLLY ABSORBING.
There is no automatictransmission option for the STI, which comes exclusively with a manual gearbox. Which would be great fun, but the clutch point is abrupt and the throw slightly vague. I need to work the lever hard and often, for the ratios are short and the engine needs a solid boot up the rear to get off the couch and stop lazily demanding five more minutes to nap. In 6th gear at 70km/h, full throttle does absolutely nothing at all.
There are technical reasons for this behaviour, of course. The Subaru’s engine is mounted in a boxer configuration, so the cylinder heads are far away and the turbocharger takes a long time to charge up. So, below 3000rpm I have a slovenly teenager. But give it a while to wind up beyond that (by which time the S3 is out of sight), and the STI lurches forward hissing, spitting, loudly whining and finally shrieking in the way the S3 would never deign to.
Join traffic, already in a slightly bad mood, and people are mean to me. Nobody likes a chao ah beng with dragon tattoos bursting into their shop shouting. This is made worse by the STI being far less sympathetic of efforts to scythe into small gaps than the scalpel-like S3, always threatening to nuke the whole area instead.
Still, I get admiring looks from a bunch of ah lians lingering by the roadside smoking. Great.
Then slowly but surely, something odd begins to happen. The fascia I first thought was straight up ugly becomes charming in its 90s boyracer way. The incessant noise becomes music, the unyielding chassis becomes endearing and the need to work the powertrain hard becomes engrossingly great fun. I work much harder in the STI to go less speedily than the S3 down Old
Upper Thomson Road.
Traction is similarly immense, but the STI drives bigger than the S3 – partly because it is physically bigger; partly because the engine is more reticent; partly because the steering has a vague, elastic quality to it.
At the end though, I pull over, chest thumping and pupils dilated, raring to turn around and scare the wild boars all over again. The S3 takes the ease of going fast to whole new levels. The STI is the complete opposite. It is an anachronism, an agricultural throwback to the days when if you wanted gratification, you had to work for it. Which is hilarious because in 2017, old school is very hard to come by.
Getting it just right is important, for getting it wrong results in crunching, rocking humiliation.
The STI is utterly brimful of character. At the end of the day, the snarling Subaru is not all that quick, but it is wholly absorbing and so I forgive it wholeheartedly.
Objectively speaking, the S3 is at once faster, more precise, more tractable, more progressively damped and, once the fun and games are over, most definitely more refined.
Yet, while the Audi is excellent at curing the tedium of my everyday commute, the STI is a big scruffyhaired dog I feel compelled to grab by the scruff of the neck to have a gambol in the park with. Just for fun. I absolutely love it.
THE SPIRIT OF SINGAPORE RUNS THROUGH THE S3 – SMART, SMALL, IMPECCABLY STENCILLED AND GLISTENINGLY HIGH-TECH.
S3 cockpit is a cultured and advanced German business centre, whereas STI cockpit (above) is a noisy and retro Japanese amusement arcade.
S3’s 290bhp/ 380Nm 2-litre turbo motor talks more softly than STI’s 300bhp/ 407Nm 2.5-litre turbo motor, but provides speedier performance which is also easier to access.
Four tailpipes, four-wheeldrive, four doors and four powerfully turbocharged cylinders – the S3 and WRX STI are similar in some ways.
Both cars have terrific all-wheeldrive traction, but the STI is more interesting to drive than the S3 and also more demanding on the driver.