What is it?
The five-door version of the Audi S3, and 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.
Just last week the forthcoming VW Golf R – the S3’s sister car – was revealed ahead of its official debut, and memory of the unfeasibly quick Mercedes A45 AMG is still strong.
The latter 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.
According to its manufacturer, only the displacement of the 2.0-litre TFSI EA888 engine is shared with its predecessor; the rest has been heavily revised in order that an additional 35bhp may be found and five kilogrammes removed.
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 favorable 59 per cent front, 41 per cent 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 and you’ll get a six-speed manual, although the seven-speed dual-clutch S-tronic automatic transmission is likely to be a popular option in the UK, as is Audi’s electromagnetic damper system. Our test car came with neither, but did get cruise control, adaptive headlights, upgraded parking sensors and the Technology pack.
What is it like?
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 (and sometimes appealing) 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. The S3 continues to sell an effortless and unchallenging brand of expediency, only partially alleviated by anti-social levels of throttle and commitment.
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.
Should I buy one?
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’ A45 AMG and BMW’s M135i have provided serious alternatives to the Audi way, and while neither is free from flaws, both are better endowed to accommodate thrill seekers’ expectations.
Audi S3 Sportback
Price £30,640; 0-62mph 5.2sec; Top speed 155mph; Economy 40.4mpg (combined); CO2 162g/km; Kerb weight 1395kg; Engine 4 cyls in line, 1984cc, turbocharged, petrol; Power 296bhp at 5500-6200rpm; Torque 280lb ft at 1800-5500rpm; Gearbox 6-speed manual