Currently reading: Used car buying guide: Audi S3
Ahead of its time and understated, the original Audi S3 was a masterclass of a hot hatch

The Audi S3 was ahead of its time. While all-wheel drive and turbocharged four-cylinders are common in modern hot hatches, this pocket-rocket arrived in 1999, when they were comparatively rare. Did someone say ‘future classic’? 

In contrast, there is some old-school hardware mixed with the then new. You have a six-speed manual gearbox, for example, with an intuitive shift action. There’s also some classic turbo lag to contend with, although many will likely enjoy the thrill of the surge. 

Once on boost, you’ll be deploying 207bhp from its 1.8-litre engine – if your Audi S3 is a pre-2001 example. After that year and until production ceased in 2003, the model came with 222bhp. The all-wheel drive system the power is sent through, while called quattro, is actually the Haldex set-up often found in Volkswagen Group cars.

Audi s3 front three quarter static

This means it is primarily front-wheel drive and sends power to the rear only when needed. And it puts that power down well – provided the car is on decent tyres. Even the example pictured above manages its grunt with grace, and it has been remapped by German tuner MTM to 247bhp. 

Said S3 has a 0-60mph time of 6.0sec, although if it were standard, it would complete the sprint in 6.6sec. It’s suitably quick either way. The mid-range is its bread and butter: that’s when the S3 begins covering ground with real enthusiasm as the turbocharger works its magic from beneath the bonnet. You’ll hear it spinning away as the engine’s growl intensifies. 

Enter a corner at speed and you’ll find the steering and chassis to be weighty and engaging if not pinsharp. Explore the limits of traction and the outside rear wheel can be felt helping to push the car out of tight bends as the all-wheel-drive system does its job. 

The suspension isn’t too punishing, either. In fact, it’s quite compliant for a hot hatch with such pace, meaning this can be a cool, calm and collected cruiser when you want it to be. And the S3 is still an Audi, after all, so it comes with an element of luxury. The interior features solid build quality and good materials that are soft to the touch. Its tech (or lack thereof) does date it, but there remains a timelessness about the cabin that stretches to the rest of the car.

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Audi s3 interior 0

Overall, it combines elements of rally car-like hot hatch with GT car – and that’s a good recipe for an all-rounder. Add to that some classic, late-’90s charm, such as its subtle yet hunkered-down looks, and the undoubted appeal shines through. 

When looking for your dream S3, you might assume that late examples are the most valuable, but it’s actually the overall condition that’s the dominating factor in price. You’ll find a fair few used and abused models, so well-kept ones – regardless of age – will fetch the highest premiums.

What we said then

18 August 1999: “Its turn-in is sharp and it can be coaxed into oversteer by lifting off mid-bend. The S3 is not perfect, but it is an enticing proposition. It’s fast, practical, stylish and an exciting drive.”

Audi s3 rear three quarter

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An expert's view

Alex Green, Fontain Motors: “The Mk1 S3 has proven to be a real ‘I told you so’ moment for Audi, with competitors today all building conceptually identical cars. Tellingly, 20 years on the original S3 remains a remarkably modern package. As an ownership proposition it’s key to remember that good upkeep and even light restoration will be essential to ensure not just reliability but also that the car drives as sharply as possible. Worn-out suspension and a lazy engine are no fun, but parts availability is excellent. There’s also an enthusiastic community of owners and specialists, and prices are still fairly sensible – although honest examples are becoming harder to find.”

Buyer beware

Engine: Check the breather pipes at the inlet manifold and ideally replace them and the vacuum pipes. Watch for uneven idling or lumpy running, which can be signs that the diverter valve, mass airflow meter or ignition coils have failed. If the temp gauge is all over the place, suspect the thermostat or temperature sender. If the low coolant level is indicated on start-up but the reservoir is full, the coolant level sensor in the header tank may have failed. 

Audi s3 engine bay

Transmission: Assess the clutch operation. On high-mileage cars, consider replacing the slave cylinder, clutch and flywheel. 

Suspension and steering: At this age, budget to replace all the suspension bushes if there is no evidence of recent new parts. Check the front and rear anti-roll bar sheaths – they’ve been known to break. Corrosion can cause springs to break, so inspect them as well. 

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Brakes: Check operation of the brake sensor behind the brake pedal and the brake servo pipe, both known trouble spots. 

Body: Check behind body strips where rust can form. Affected areas include the door bottoms, while easier to spot is rust on the roof rails and gutters. It’s a performance car, so check for fresh paint and filler and that the tyres match all round and are worn evenly. 

Interior: Check if the digital display has lost its pixels. Make sure that the air conditioning blows cold and that the glovebox hinges aren’t broken.

Also worth knowing

You get more power if your S3 is a 2002 or 2003 model, but do you get anything else if you go for a later example? Well yes, indeed you do, because the facelift of 2002 also included new one-piece headlight/ indicator units, different tail-light clusters and some minor upgrades to the interior trim.

Standard equipment across all model years includes 17in alloy wheels, electrically adjustable Recaro leather seats, climate control, electronic stability control and traction control.

Audi s3 wheels

How much to spend

£3000-£4999: High-mileage cars (often north of 150,000) from private sellers. Previous accident history, rough conditions and/or questionable modifications are likely, so pay attention and choose carefully.

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£5000–£8999: Mileages start to drop below 100,000 and conditions improve.

£9000–£11,999: Examples in decent conditions – the best privately sold cars.

£12,000–£15,000: Independent dealers selling S3s that are in great condition and that have low mileages (usually 50,000 or less).

One we found

Audi s3 used front three quarter

Audi S3 1.8 Quattro, 2003, 50,000 MILES, £12,911: This S3 is a late example, which makes it a 222bhp facelifted car. The mileage is respectable and the car looks to be in showroom condition, and it’s in desirable Imola Yellow. If you’re after the cream of the S3 crop, this one is certainly up there.

Oliver Young

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jason_recliner 5 December 2022
Least engaging 'performance' car I've ever had the mispleasure of driving. Crush them.