In the gilded and cosseted world of luxury motoring, bigger was invariably seen as better. Until 1997.
That was the year Audi introduced its sporty S3 hatch, a car it claims was the first budget-priced premium sports car. A hot hatch for the grown-ups.
While there was no initial clamour for the ground-breaking S3, over the ensuring years sales accelerated inexorably and rival luxury makes followed with similar performance cars in clever concentrate.
Consumers who have traditionally sought to satisfy their urges for luxury, performance and comfort in big, brutal German cars increasingly are opting for more compact premium hatches and sedans.
The reasons are compelling. Other than rear-seat room and boot space, there are few compromises in moving to a modern small car. On Australia's speed-limited and heavily regulated roads, turbo-boosted four-cylinder engines are a valid alternative to V8s - especially in smaller, lighter machines.
Parking spaces seem miraculously bigger. Active and passive safety are now every bit as impressive as larger cars. And in the case of the S3 and its contemporaries, features (and, it must be added, options) are abundant.
Audi product planner Matthew Dale emphasises that “customers of premium brands expect a premium specification”, regardless of the size of the car.
Audi S3 sedan
The case in point is the latest-generation S3 sedan, which joins its sibling, the five-door S3 Sportback (or hatch), in the burgeoning $60,000 to $80,000 price range.
Which to choose? The potency and ferocious roadholding is the same, but the sedan is longer than the hatch and has the benefits of more back seat room and a deeper, more secure boot. Though both S3 variants are mechanically identical with turbocharged 2.0-litre engines (206kW of power and 380Nm of torque) and all-wheel drive, neither shares a body panel.
It's a matter of how many doors you really want. Shoppers inhibited by the idea of being seen in a hatch, even one costing $60,000, can opt for the touch of added elegance available on the nicely proportioned sedan. It's a pocket rocket with a subtle sports kit, 18-inch alloy wheels, Xenon headlights with integrated LED daytime running lamps, and four tailpipes capable of delightful aurals.
It's a mini muscle sports sedan dressed to go out on the town. Inside the S3 sedan – starting at $62,200 before dealer costs are added - is the usual high-quality Audi presentation of primarily black trim in the standard specification with burled aluminium touches on controls and vents, and a leather, flat-bottomed wheel. A rotary dial on the console controls the various screen functions.
There is an array of desirables available – seven airbags, excellent electrically-adjustable heated sports seats trimmed in Nappa leather, cruise control, dual-zone climate control air conditioning, keyless entry with push-button start, reversing camera and front and rear sensors with an automatic parking assist function, satellite navigation and simple and convenient Bluetooth phone and audio streaming.
On the racetrack or the open road, the S3 delivers its slick performance with easy composure, the tailpipes acknowledging every lightning-fast upshift from the six-speed S tronic dual-clutch gearbox with a satisfied pop. The all-paw grip is reassuring when road conditions vary.
It doesn't feel shatteringly fast but the tale of the stopwatch tells a truer story - 0-100km/h takes just 5.0 seconds, the brilliant engine offering a remarkably broad spread of peak torque from 1800 to 5100rpm.
The brakes are wonderful, the ride firm but not uncomfortable, and the S3 changes direction without hesitation or body roll thanks to unique firmer and lowered sports suspension.
The versatility of the S3 means it will also trundle around the city without fuss, the gearbox happy to do the thinking in automated Drive mode. Incredibly for a petrol engine of its performance potential, the S3 Sedan is good for a claimed combined fuel figure of 6.9 litres per 100km. The transmission also comes with Drive Select, a user-chooser arrangement with Efficiency, Auto, Comfort and Dynamic modes, the latter for serious high-rev work.
BMW M135i hatch
The BMW M135i hatch falls into the same broad premium compact genre as the Audi S3, though in engineering and character the pair are further apart than, well, Ingolstadt and Munich.
Benefiting from the experience and expertise of BMW's lauded M Division, the M135i gets some of the good stuff evident in flyers such as the M3, M4, M5 and M6. It goes hard, with brilliant dynamics that seduce drivers who demand playfulness from their personal transport. Its character, refinement and pleasant ride help overlook a bland cabin.
Its 3.0-litre turbo six delivers 235kW/450Nm to the rear wheels through a splendid eight-speed auto, and makes lovely noises to match its performance.
The BMW is marginally swifter to 100km/h than the Audi but it can't match the same level of presentation, nor features or fuel efficiency (7.5L/100km).
Now repriced to $64,900, the M135i is much improved value than it was at its local introduction, to better meet the tougher competition.
Mercedes-Benz A45 AMG
Pricier again is the Mercedes-Benz A45 AMG, a sizzling all-wheel-drive hatch from the German car maker's respected hot-up division.
AMG's first shot at a four cylinder has been joyfully received despite the burden of a $74,900 price tag, a stiffish ride, and limited headroom in the back.
AMG's contemporary cabin gets overt sporty cues such as carbon-fibre-look dash trim, silver and red splashes, hip-hugging Recaro sports seats, and an Alcantara-trimmed tiller with magnesium paddle shifters.
The 2.0-litre engine brings 40kW more power than the M135i to the table and the same torque. Using standard launch control and all-wheel drive through a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission, the A45 AMG claims a 4.6-second blast to 100km/h in spite of its hefty 1555kg kerb weight.
It announces its presence with a standard sporty exhaust which, sadly, makes less inspiring sounds than its rivals.
Brilliant in the twisty stuff, with great out-of-corner traction and stunning lateral grip, the little Mercedes has personality to burn, even giving the driver the chance to counter some mild oversteer on exit.
But the tuned-for-Europe suspension is too sharp for a car purporting to be chasing picky luxury-car clientele. Impressively, fuel consumption is on par with the lighter Audi S3 (6.9L/100km).
Of the cars highlighted here, the Audi S3 is the most relaxing all-rounder and has a clear advantage in value. The appeal of the others lies in performance purity (the M135i) and a tougher, gruntier edginess (A45 AMG).
With ANDREW MACLEAN