The Audi S3 is available unlike most of its rivals in three guises - hatchback, cabriolet and saloon, and with an 2016 update the latest addition to an increasingly busy segment. The waters have been choppy with change beneath the Audi’s £30k price tag, but even at the premium end of the hot-hatch market there are now significant new rivals.
The obvious one is the Volkswagen Golf R – the S3’s sister car, the ridiculously quick Mercedes-AMG A45 and the recent addition of the Ford Focus RS, which has readdressed the playing field somewhat. It is the fast Blue Oval's arrival that has prompted Audi to tweak the S3 along with its facelifted A3 range - with the fast-hatchback/saloon/cabriolet gaining an additional 10bhp, leaving it short of the Focus RS and A45, but ahead of the Golf R on the performance stakes. But Audi has wisely left enough room for the RS3 to take top spot in its range.
The A45 arguably owes its existence to the highly successful template Audi established a decade and a half ago with the original S3, and while the latest model isn’t quite a match for the upstart’s prodigious pace (that’s the next RS3’s unenviable job), it does nudge everything in the right direction.
Overall, the car weighs 70kg less than before, mostly due to the lighter MQB platform now worn underneath, which also affords the Sportbrake its extra wheelbase length and (thanks to a thrown-forward front axle) a more favourable 59 percent front, 41 percent rear weight distribution.
As before, the S3’s four-wheel-drive set-up doesn’t benefit from a Torsen-based centre differential (or funky crown gear) that graces other Quattro models, instead sharing the updated Haldex multi-plate clutch system branded 4Motion elsewhere in the group.
Stick with the standard spec S3 and you’ll get a lowered sports suspension, progressive steering system, 18in alloy wheels, fine Nappa leather interior, heated front seats, and an aggressive bodykit on top of the A3's S-line trim. Upgrade to the Black Edition and you gain black trim additions and alloys, and a Bang and Olufsen sound system.
To look at, possibly more understated than it’s ever been. Whip off the badges and there’s only the quad pipes to differentiate you from any one of the other high-spec A3s circumnavigating the M25.
Sports seats aside, the branding is probably all that distinguishes the cabin, too. But that’s fine – the quality of the finishing, trim materials and all-round attention to detail is immaculate.
In keeping with the ambience, there’s little fuss about starting up the four-pot, either. The pedal action is light, as is the engagement of the slightly snaggy manual gearbox. The only initial surprise is just how much breathing space the turbocharger requires.
While not chronic, the lag is more noticeable than might be expected from an engine reputedly delivering peak twist at just 1800rpm; a mashed throttle in third at 30mph will have your eyes rolling up considerably quicker than the turbine starts spinning.
Fortunately, the car’s accelerative quality thereafter is fierce enough to wipe the memory clean. Presumably the ratios are a mite longer than in the optional seven-speed S-tronic, and that leaves the keen peddler with a fervent 3000rpm to make 55mph turn into 85mph.
Once in its stride, third proves an all-purpose whoosh of a gear, and the S3 is best appreciated in it, pulling scandalously hard from corners. However, ignore the temptation to light up all the LEDs on the boost gauge and the car settles back into a familiar four-ringed repose and settles for the weighty stability of a cross-channel ferry.
Largely this is because it’s still impossible to get to grips with it through the steering wheel. The variable-ratio rack is devoid of feedback whether over-assisted in its Comfort setting or over-weighted in Dynamic, and because it doesn’t push back properly, you lean into it awkwardly, like a man feeling with his hand for the bottom of a muddy pond.
This unwanted detachment dovetails with the S3’s inherited aloofness, characterised best by its superior refinement and a firm but ultimately receptive ride quality.
So hushed, handsome and capable is it that a sensibly moderated bout of pressing on – the quick, neat and courteous kind – is an austere and one-sided experience.
For the most part you stay sealed in a typically unstressed Audi cocoon, impervious to the weather, noise and sweaty exertion, but equally disconnected from the deeper physical business of enjoying yourself.
There are plenty of reasons to, given that all the usual accolades apply. The S3 scores typically highly in handsomeness, usability, refinement, comfort and, with the Sportback especially, practicality.
Its emissions are not criminally high and although 40.4mpg is hopelessly optimistic (we averaged around 26mpg), the car is relatively cheap to run considering its potential performance. And if, for you, the latter means steadfast grip and cosseted thrust beyond all else, then our subjective issues with it are mere blemishes on another polished product.
However, for us, its ultimate inability to inspire a genuine fondness for its dynamic prowess is an obstacle. Once upon a time, this would have been overcome by shopping for a lower-rent hot hatch – something we’d encourage you to still consider now, given what’s currently available below £30k – but that’s not the case now. Mercedes-AMG's A45, Volkswagen Golf R, Ford Focus RS and BMW’s M140i have provided serious alternatives to the Audi way, and while neither is free from flaws, both are better endowed to accommodate thrill seekers’ expectations.