Look it’s grey!
Photo: Me (My Phone)

Volkswagen decided to make a sedan version of the Golf R, but to punish the hatch anti-hatch apostates among us they gave it an Audi badge and left the manual behind! It’s pretty okay.

(Disclosure: Audi Chantilly really, really, really, wanted me to buy a car from them and they knew BMW was shit, so they were super aggressive on the price to #CloseTheDeal and let me have this fully loaded Golf R with a whole tank of gas to get acquainted with for at least the next three years). 

The first thing you will notice getting into any brand-new Audi is that it smells like black pepper and freshness inside. Where’s that new car smell we all so covet? We’ve been duped! Bamboozled! Shmeckledorfed! But that’s okay, because if you’re like me you are already overwhelmed by the 16-30 years worth of improvements made between this car and basically every car you’ve been driving since you got your license. But I’m getting ahead of myself, so we’ll come back to that in a bit.

Exterior

Historically, I’ve talked a lot of shit about Audi’s styling. Outside, they have typically been bland, featureless tubs with close to zero visual intrigue. It wasn’t even timeless beauty, because cars from 2002 look like they came from 2002, exuding that kind of depressed and saggy attitude with their blandness.

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A third-gen Audi AZzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz...
Photo: IFCAR (Wikipedia)

Seriously, though. Remove the badge and this car becomes completely anonymous. A VW Jetta from the same period (2006-2008) has more character to it. And the further you go back through the generations, the less distinctive this line gets, all exacerbated by Audi’s infamously homogeneous corporate face extending to every part of the car.

Recently, though, Audi’s been expending some real effort to change that. Their cars look sharp and handsome, if bordering a little bit too close to safely inoffensive, with just enough detail that they avoid anonymity. What I like, and a large part of what makes me like it more than its Volkswagen counterpart, is that it does look like it’s moving quickly while stationary:

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I will admit that the front clip could still be easily mistaken for a Hyundai without the badges:

...but not the rear.

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I do have to laugh at the quad tips in the back. The RS3 only has two, with one more cylinder than this car has, which to me makes this excessive. But it’s also bragging, and that tickles me. So does the ZR rating on these 19-inch ContiSportContact 5Ps, for a car limited to just a hair over the minimum speed that you may use such a rating for:

These damn brakes are bigger than on the ZR-1.
Photo: Me (My Phone)

So outside it’s decent, but it was the inside that made me put it near the top of my list when shopping.

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Interior

Even today, Audi’s interiors are all kinda samey with square-ish vents and large horizontal inlays breaking things up. There are, however, three major exceptions: the R8, the TT, and the humble A3, the latter of which is the dull version of the S3. The R8 is doing its own thing, but the TT and the A3 both decided round was now the in-thing to do:

Photo: Audi (audiusa.com)

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Look at that. Compared the the staid and serious tone of everything else, it’s positively bubbly, and I like me some bubbles!

But seriously, though, this car inside is so alien to me I had to actually consult the salesperson to show me how to do things. I’ve never driven a DCT or used paddles before. I’ve never had built-in nav. I’ve never had an infotainment system, let alone had dual controls to manage two independent screens that can do most of the same thing. And although it makes sense how to operate it once you figure it out, it doesn’t help that there are no less than three redundancies in the controls.

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You see that big knob on the center console? You twist that left and right to scroll through menus one the infotainment screen and press down to select. You push it left and right to get to sub-menus as indicated on the screen. You see those silver protrusions to either side of that knob? Those are buttons that do the same thing as pushing the wheel. You see those buttons on the steering wheel? The right-hand scroll does the same thing as twisting the knob, clicking it does the same thing as pressing the knob. I do feel like they can eliminate the silver buttons on the console and I do think they could put redundancies for those buttons one the steering wheel instead...which it oddly doesn’t already have.

While I still prefer a set of finely crafted mechanical dials, I will say that Audi’s Virtual Cockpit digital cluster is superb. Having the Google Maps view right there in front of you beats having to glance at a phone by miles. Lincoln, Cadillac...take notes!

The seats, at least, have manual depth adjustment, something not even my ZR-1 has. Fuck yeah! The bolstering is almost token, though. My skinny ass is used to being hugged by aggressively bolstered, puffy, leather-clad 1990s-era sports seats.

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Oh yeah, there are back seats. Here they are. It isn’t the most spacious automobile in the back, but I haven’t received any complaints from passengers, yet. They seem to like it better than riding in the hatch area of the Corvette (kidding...sort of). Hooray for being short!

Performance and Handling

The 1990 ZR-1 weighs in at around~3600 pounds with a 52-48 front-back distribution. It has a 4-cam, 32-valve DOHC motor offering 375 horsepower and 370 pound-feet of torque and was capable doing the 0-60 sprint in 4.3 seconds with the right driver (and specific car, since GM’s engine output tolerance was +/- 4%), up to roughly 180 mph, 175 of which it can sustain for 24 hours. Even by 2018 standards, it is a fast fucking car.

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By the most empirical of tests, my ass, the S3 feels faster.

So, the official specs on the S3 are that it can hit 60 in 4.6 seconds, and I believe it. Pedal to the floor and rip through the gears (I have yet to drive this thing even once in automatic mode) and you are going jail-time speeds before you know it. It’s godamn quick, and you’ll wonder what the hell you’d ever boost up to an RS3 for. But the cruel thing is that it doesn’t feel like it. Doing 65 mph feels like a goddamn crawl, it’s just so well composed and smooth. You get there and it’s like,”Golly gee, I’m here. Now what to do for the rest of this drive?”

Part of this is due to the composure of magnetic ride smoothing everything out (the ZR-1 should have a similar system, but some jackass yanked it out in a previous life). The rest of it is the fault of the transmission. Because Volkswagen are spiteful overlords, they did not supply a manual option with the Golf R when they turned it into an Audi sedan and called it the S3. Instead, your only option is the 7-speed Audi S-Tronic. I don’t have any solid experience with alternatives to compare this gearbox to, but this dual-clutch automatic definitely treats the driver almost like a nuisance rather than the master. It will down-shift immediately on-command, but it treats up-shifts like suggestions and will automatically-up-shift entirely too soon as you approach red-line, even in Dynamic Mode. At low-speeds, it frustratingly hesitates on the up-shifts. You can sort of get around this by up-shifting with your foot in the gas, at which point it shifts pretty quickly, but otherwise it will wait a moment, sometimes two, before changing gears. It also doesn’t let you engine brake, instead revving the engine up to only slowly bring your speed down, and it doesn’t have any option to hold a gear. Blegh.

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Still, you can at least get that initial rush of tearing through four close-ratio gears with the right paddle, but then you are as fast as you can push the legal limit and you double-upshift, possibly triple, and it’s all over entirely too fast. Boo-hiss.

Still, there is a reason I chose this car instead of the BMW, and there is one word for it:

F E E D B A C K.

This car is on VW’s MQB chassis, and it is simply marvelous. The ZR-1 has hydraulic steering, a stiff clutch with a long throw, and a hard ride. It gives you all of the feedback through every surface your body is making contact with: the seat, the wheel, the pedals, and the stick. While shopping, I drove a 2018 Golf GTI in manual, also on the MQB chassis. While the clutch was softer than I’m used to, it was alive. So was the steering, and the suspension, and that translated over into the S3. Everything about the chassis was alive. Audi, and VAG, have managed to make a thoroughly modern car with electro-mechanical steering and magnetic ride feel a lot like my hard-riding supercar-slayer from the peak period of analogue motoring. I love it. This is in stark contrast to the M240i I test-drove, which was completely isolated and numb. Dead. Sterile. No feeling anywhere in that car. That experience, along with a fuddy duddy dealership that didn’t have its act together, basically sealed me on the Audi even without the manual. Yes, it was that good.

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VW has done so well with the MQB chassis that I had a hard time even deciding on the S3 over the GTI, let alone the Golf R. It was basically my vanity and cravings for fast and flashy that made up my mind. If I didn’t need a car ASAP, I would have ordered this thing in yellow for an extra dose of shoutiness:

LOOK AT MEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE
Photo: Audi (audiusa.com)

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It also brakes from 60-0 in an eye-blink. These brakes are super bitey, but again VW manage to give the pedal enough feedback to let you modulate it intuitively. The first car I drove on my quest was a Dodge Challenger T/A 392 and the pedal on that thing was a binary switch: all brake or no brake! The ZR-1, in comparison, has really squishy brakes. I think it may have ballooning brake lines due to age, so that’s probably not a fair comparison, but the Audi does have 13.2-inch rotors up front...to the 13-inches on the ZR-1. And it weighs about 150 pounds less! Crazy.

Theatre

It has Bang & Olufsen audio and sounds very good, but it also has a decent exhaust note with the Resonator Delete option that makes legitimate pops and crackles as evidenced by the carbon build-up on the tips:

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There is apparently some artificial noise being piped in through the speakers, but honestly? It’s not much and even then I don’t care if it makes the drive more entertaining, and it does.

Conclusion

I will confess, I bought this car more because I needed a new car than because it was something I lusted after and had an irresistible drive to possess in my life. My choice in buying this car was governed by three things:

1. No hatchbacks or wagons (I WAS BORN IN THE FIRE. SHAPED BY IT. MOLDED BY IT.)

2. Has to be fun to drive

3. Cannot eclipse the ZR-1

Even though my ZR-1 is on a pedestal and I genuinely love no car more than that one, I did not want to buy a car that would render it redundant by virtue of matching or beating its performance while at the same time being more practical. It’s a nice problem to have, but it did automatically remove the RS3, the S5, the Mustang, and the M2 from the running. The BMW M240i was a lump. After driving the GTI, there was no point in even bothering to see what the Civic Si was all about because they wanted more for that than VW was asking and the GTI was damn good. In the end, the choice was among three variants of the same car: the GTI, Golf R, and Golf R Sedan, all of which met criteria 2 and 3. Only the last one met Criteria 1, and I just couldn’t let it go for the sake of getting a better value. If you are like me, and do not like hatches and wagons but do like small and zippy cars, the S3 is basically the only game in town. Other than the gearbox, its game is thankfully stellar and it will make for an excellent daily driver for the foreseeable future...

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...until I can get the ZR-1 fixed. :p