Month: Aug 2021

Souped up with the S3 Sedan

We spent time trying to figure out if the Audi S3 Sedan is as fast as a compact 4 door family hauler should be.

While Audi’s smaller RS derivatives have been renowned to include the shouty, all powerful 5 pot turbocharged motors, the more affordable boosted 4 cylinders shared with Volkswagen and paired to a quattro powertrain prove to be just as much fun for a more affordable price tag. Not only does the S3 bridge the gap between the mundane-to-drive A3 and the ludicrous RS3, but it’s less hardcore and therefore more usable.

While this may sound daft to read, not many people in the market for a purpose built supercar predator like the new RS3, made up predominantly of youngsters like me, have the finances to back up their preference. The 2021 model year RS3 is expected to cost north of R1,3 million while the S3 only starts at R810 000. 

That’s not to say that the S3 is not a performance capable machine, in fact it’s power of 228kW and torque of 400Nm propel it to 0-100km/h in a time of only 4.8 seconds which can still snap at the heels of the big boys. If you are well versed with Audi products you may think this is a typo since the above specs are exactly the same as the previous model but they are not. Improvements have been made in the mid range when accelerating which give the torque a more linear delivery than before and enable the new derivative to complete the quarter mile fractionally quicker than the outgoing model despite being a bit heavier tipping the scales at 1464kg.

Once you engage dynamic mode and feel the motor deliver its full performance, this becomes completely prominent with torque consistently propelling the car forward all the way up to the redline. It is a fun car to drive enthusiastically, with the quattro system instilling vast amounts of confidence when behind the wheel – sometimes a little bit too much… Not only is cornering at speed in the realm of possibility, but any heartstopping split-second of oversteer is immediately corrected by the clever programming of the Haldex system.

This brings me onto my next point; steering. The dynamics of turning and accelerating give this sedan immense cornering capabilities. While the steering can admittedly feel a bit light and disconnected in Comfort, flipping the drive mode switch to Dynamic immediately remedies this. The lighter front end of the 4 cylinder over the RS models also makes slow cornering and low speed maneuverability much easier to live with. 

For the majority of my duration with the S3, the drive mode was permanently engaged in Dynamic and despite this the suspension remained comfortable, compliments of damper control. The drivetrain was also smooth and the 7-speed S-Tronic gearbox produced prompt shifts without jerking the car along. The only downfall I found was the continually emptying petrol tank which can be expected when the addictive engine burbles on deceleration spur you on. The current exhaust setup is demure in comparison to the outgoing model, particularly with the soft limiter, but once going the induction noise resonates through the cabin and tingles the senses. 

It’s not all good news as Audi have infused sound actuation through the speakers in an attempt to boost the engine noise. The subtle, fake 5 cylinder exhaust note at the top of the rev range makes the model attempt to be something it is not, no matter how good it sounds.

The rear bumper is also scattered with fake vents while only one intercooler vent is functional on the front bumper of the car while the other side is blanked off. It isn’t all bad news for the purists as there are four real exhaust pipes below the diffuser.

Keeping with the exterior, the updated model has sharpened up the previous design extensively with more aggressive headlights and vents dominating the front end. Aside from that and a few tweaks to the rear, their silhouettes are almost identical. Subjectively, the S3 looks streaks better than the awkwardly proportioned BMW M235i Gran Coupe and is probably on par with the squat Mercedes-Benz A35 Sedan. Where the largest update has been implemented is the interior, which feels more modern as opposed to the already outdated previous gen center console.

Premium is the dominating theme in the cabin where comfortable, supportive seats host the driver and pleasant looking and feeling materials dominate everything in front of the eye. For the first time, the infotainment screen has been integrated into the dashboard while Lamborghini inspired aircon vents flank the drivers display.

Much like the previous generation of S3 sedan, the driver and passenger seats have sufficient room all around but the sharp rake of the C pillar has limited the headroom for taller passengers in the second row of seats. To appease their potentially less comfortable journey, the driver can bestow the entertainment responsibility to the passengers in the back seats as Apple CarPlay and Android Auto screen mirroring can be done wirelessly. 

The minimal center console features a minute extrusion which operates in a similar fashion to a traditional gearknob and is a hint to what we can expect in electric powered Audi’s in the near future. Despite looking foreign, it is easy to assimilate to although I found my hand would naturally reach much higher to engage with it from muscle memory. Despite some red stitching and an S logo, the interior still lacks the overall flair of a sporty sedan but not quite on the same level as being stuck in a Post Office in Berlin. 

Since the first S3 model was introduced over 20 years ago, Audi has mastered the sporty premium compact market segment. While the RS model has capabilities to compete with modern day purpose built supercars and with price tags equally as mouthwatering, the S3 might be the better buy when it comes to a well balanced car with good suspension and performance. Its not too hardcore but remains fun enough to put a smile on your face every time you go for a drive. 

Is the Volkswagen T-Cross a better version of the Polo?

We got to spend a few days with Volkswagen’s popular small SUV – using it to run our errands and see how it stacks up to its smaller sibling – the Polo.

The local automotive market has mostly recovered from the dismal sales caused by Covid-19 disruptions in 2020. New car sales numbers are more or less where they used to be and the popular automakers namely Toyota, Ford and Volkswagen are back to duelling for the top spot in the passenger vehicle segment. While the top two titles are always occupied by South Africa’s preferred vehicle of choice; the bakkie, the third and fourth spot are taken up by Volkswagens Polo Vivo and Polo models which sell in droves. 

These cars are successful for a variety of reasons but chiefly because they are compact, affordable, have an abundance of spare parts and are from a well loved automotive brand locally. Volkswagen have transferred all of this ideology into the T-Cross and while it is not a brand new vehicle to enter their lineup, it is their best-selling SUV according to the June 2021 sales report with 465 units being sold. Which is about a third of the total number for the Polo. 

The popular compact crossover SUV from the German brand can be had in three different levels of trim starting at R352 300 for the basic Comfortline and ranging all the way up to the R-Line priced from R464 900. Our test car was a base Comfortline with the R-Line package. This expectedly costs a little bit more but comes better equipped with features such as a reverse parking camera, roof rails, park distance sensors and an 8” integrated infotainment screen. 

In some respects, you do get a very familiar looking car to the Polo, on both the inside and the outside. This makes sense since both models share the same platform and engines making the T-Cross a pumped up version of the Polo. While it shares some styling similarities to its bigger SUV siblings in Volkswagen’s lineup, the side profile, window-line and shoulder-line are almost identical to the Polo, albeit slightly stretched out on a vertical axis with a bit more rugged plastic.

Overall, its aesthetics consist of a well-proportioned design and restrained styling meaning it’s unlikely to snap pedestrians necks as you drive by, especially in Limestone Grey Metallic. Its purpose is far more focused on function by being a proponent of a more adventure-capable lifestyle.

At 180mm of ground clearance, 12mm more than the Polo, it can easily navigate onto pavements and tackle uneven off-road surfaces. The plush suspension is one of its most notable features as it can traverse speed bumps and loose gravel roads effortlessly. Since it is still only a front-wheel driven powertrain, we can’t advise taking this on a hardcore off-roading course but it wouldn’t look out of place on a dirt road or gravel track. 

Like the Polo, the T-Cross Comfortline is powered by a 70kW 1.0 TSI motor mated to a 5-speed manual transmission. The pokey 3 cylinder puts out an impressive 175Nm of torque that can often inspire a momentary spin of the front wheels before the traction control gets them back in line. As impressive as this torque figure is coupled to the 1154 kilogram body, the turbo only comes into boost above 2000rpm making stationery pull aways on inclines or fully laden stop-start journeys stall-inducing. In these scenarios, efforts to mitigate this can result in the front wheels screeching and very bemused looking pedestrians or passengers.

Despite this, after the turbo has come alive the torque delivery is smooth and linear all the way up to its redline – very impressive for a 1.0 litre motor! We achieved around 7.5l/100km during our time with the car which isn’t the most frugal but tranquil driving is stated to reward just below 5.0l/100km. 

The 5-speed manual gearbox on our test car was easy to use and comfortable in sedate urban driving scenarios. Where it fell short was on the highway where an additional 6th gear would have been ideal in lowering engine rpm and subsequently improving efficiency and engine noise. That being said, if you are looking for a nippy Volkswagen SUV runabout that is going to be predominantly doing open road/highway journeys then the full T-Cross range can also be specced with a 7 speed DSG which would be the better bet overall. 

The interior provides great forward visibility with a large expanse of glass around the drivers periphery. The front position seems much higher than a Polo yet the fully adjustable steering column and seat provide a platform to get completely comfortable in. The overall head, elbow and legroom in all seats is commendable while the rear door-wells are not awkwardly shaped to get in and out of either, making it more practical than the Polo. It scores well in the comfort and spaciousness department but does unfortunately fall short with interior fit and finish. 

There are a few cheap materials and crude plastic textures, more so than its hatchback sibling. Fortunately, the steering wheel and the main tactile points are soft and comfortable to use. It also comes with an integrated 8” infotainment screen which at times can be a bit sluggish with a reverse camera that isn’t the highest resolution.

If you prefer screen mirroring to the standard display then the T-Cross has you covered with both Android Auto and Apple CarPlay accessible via one of two USB-C slots. Easily accessible Isofix anchorage is found on all passenger seats, including the one up front which should appeal to young parents. 

The T-Cross also trumps the Polo in terms of boot capacity with an impressive 385 litres as opposed to equally impressive, but inferior, 351 litres of the latter. The compact crossover SUV from Volkswagen emerges as the victor in most categories except for pricing where the Polo comes out on top starting from R293 800 for the base spec Trendline.

For comparative sake, other competing models in the segment such as the beautifully finished Peugeot 2008 comes in at R364 000 while more affordable options can be had with the seasoned Ford EcoSport at R303 900 or the new Hyundai Venue at R311 000. Included in the R352 300 base price of the T-Cross is a 3-year/120 000 km warranty and 3-year/45 000 km service plan.

The subcompact crossover SUV market is a hotly contested piece of real estate with new entrants from different automakers entering the market almost monthly. Volkswagen fortunately have a customer base that is steadfast in their loyalty and thus the T-Cross can be expected to remain their best selling vehicle in the lineup behind the two Polo models. Like the ageing Ford EcoSport, we can expect this shape to remain in circulation for many years to come but for the price, the Peugeot 2008 in this segment would be a strong alternative with its more refined and pleasant interior design.

The XL Italian Job – The Mini Clubman John Cooper Works

We recently got to spend a few days rapidly emptying the fuel tank of the unexpectedly fast and fun Mini Clubman John Cooper Works (JCW), a deceptive car that doesn’t look as fast as it is!

As most of our generation will already be aware, Mini’s modern day popularity can be greatly accredited to a pop culture film titled The Italian Job in the remake of a 1969 feature sharing the same name. Starring our very own Charlize Theron, her drop-dead gorgeous looks were often sidelined to the real stars of the show; the refreshed and retro-designed Mini Cooper. 

Since the film’s debut in 2003, Mini has grown their portfolio with models that have deviated somewhat from the embodiment of the brand name. In addition and contrary to Alec Issogonis original and revolutionary blueprints of a transversely mounted engine powering only the front wheels, Mini have also produced a few models with ALL4, an all-wheel-drive system that sends power to each corner of the car. 

While the recipe for some of Mini’s models has ushered in cars that seem a stretch from the characteristics that made these cars famous half a century ago, there is a market for more spacious and practical, four door models that simply could not be ignored after their takeover by profit-focused BMW. This is where the quirky, retro models like the Clubman and Countryman were intended to fill the gap. The latest generations of these models are no stranger to the world, being produced for over a decade each, they may just seem less popular than the more compact and recognizable 2-door Cooper. 

One can therefore deduce that they are lifestyle vehicles that fill a niche in the market. Sure, they still have the same funky interiors, bubbly personality and overall aesthetic of the rest of the lineup but they still lacked that purity of a Mini. The Clubman John Cooper Works is even more niche with a price tag starting from R783 840, an obese length and width of 4266mm and 1800mm respectively while its planetary mass of 1520kg is almost 3x the weight of the original Mini. 

Despite this though, our favorite Union Jack-inspired vehicle manufacturer has produced a model that feels very well powered to cope with the additional bulk and is incredibly fun to drive. This might not be the car to tackle a narrow Monte Carlo Special Rally stage but it is one that inspires confidence on a day-to-day basis of slow, tight cornering, banked highway onramps and on a loose road surface.

For this, the ALL4 system is commendable for its functionality and additional safety and assurity it offers buyers to live with everyday. But I question whether it is necessary in a car like this, as most buyers would probably never fully utilize its capabilities.

But if you do choose to head out on a spirited drive, once you flip the jet age inspired starter switch and hear the turbocharged inline-four petrol engine, it all comes to life. It is the same motor that spurs the F40 M135i xDrive forward, while the new BMW has received criticism for deviating from its lineage of in-line six motors, there are absolutely no complaints from the driver’s seat in the Mini!

The up-tuned 225kW and 450Nm is delivered via a slightly lethargic 8 speed automatic transmission to all four wheels, even in exhaust-burbling and neighbour-annoying sports mode. Cruising is an easy and comfortable task though, with engine revs below 2200rpm at the maximum national speed limit. That being said, it is also easy to make the honest mistake of going above and beyond this limit as acceleration seems as effortless as a leaf blowing in the direction the wind commands it to. 

While a combined fuel consumption of 7.7l/100km is claimed, we didn’t experience anything below 10, although sports mode dominated our time with the car. We did test its frugality in Green mode once the fuel indicator frighteningly sunk below the ¼ tank mark and efficiency was immediately improved. What remained is a comfortable car that could still pick up speed and overtake at a fraction of full throttle input.

On the inside, the narrow shaped cockpit continues the same circular theme from all other retro designed Mini’s, the part analog/part digital driver display is sufficient but small numbering on the speedometer becomes ambiguous with an illuminated display during night-time driving – a shortcoming the HUD makes up for.

There are some subtle Union Jack design cues placed on the headrests and embossed studs on the seats that give the car more of its own unique Mini identity. 

Where the second generation Clubman begins to show its age in the interior is the center console. Although the gear shifter and some of the surrounds have been updated in accordance with the more recent model years, crucial interaction points like the 8.8” infotainment screen remain unchanged from the original 2015 derivative. The reverse camera is also rather small as it doesn’t cover the full width of the screen when engaged, and the user interface seems obsolete. 

As we mentioned earlier, the Clubman John Cooper Works starts from R783 840 including a 5 year/100 000km maintenance plan but despite how much it impressed me, I remain to be convinced.

For the money to be spent, there are other better equipped and equally capable cars that would feature on my purchase list before the JCW. The likes of the less upmarket Golf R for example may be significantly smaller in dimensions but has a cargo capacity of 343l which is only 17l down on the much bigger Clubman. The Mercedes-Benz A35 is probably the best bet of having a potent hatchback with refined and classy interior finishes. Mini remains a lifestyle brand that is embodied by style conscious consumers and the Clubman is the bigger, more practical version of the 5 door Cooper hatch.