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.


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.


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.

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