It’s a formula as well known as E=mc2: a compact car offering practicality, refinement, comfort and a healthy dose of ‘premium’ cachet. If you’re not thinking Volkswagen Golf, the very obvious answer is the Audi A3. But despite us seeing a new Golf, and very recently a new Seat Leon (on the same Volkswagen Group platform, of course), we haven’t seen much of the new A3 – until now. Unusually, our first experience of Audi’s latest family hatchback is of the hot hatch variety; the latest S3, driven in prototype form in the Azores.
Now, even in the third-generation A3’s old age (apparently this new car was delayed due to Audi prioritising development of its electric E-tron models), it holds its own on the battlefield of the premium hatchbacks. Versus the BMW 1 Series and Mercedes A-Class, there’s been little between them on driving merit or sales volume. Come Geneva motor show, just weeks away, the fourth-generation A3 will arrive, and Audi is hoping, where they were neck-and-neck before, the model might finally be able to accelerate away from its German rivals.
So successful is the A3 that, by 2022, 11 derivatives are expected, including the A3 saloon, perfect for young execs and the Chinese market, and a liftback variant. The handsome three-door, ditched in 2017, won’t make a comeback, though. What will be returning, however, is the S3 that we’re getting our first taste of here.
Few flourishing compact cars exist without performance versions for the halo effect, and the A3 is no exception. The S3 effectively kicked off a new premium hot hatch class 20 years ago, when more mainstream brands led the market (Peugeot 306 GTi, Citroën Saxo VTR, Renault Clio Williams et al). Many others have followed: not only is there some serious competition within the walls of the Volkswagen Group (the Golf R, for starters) but also from the new all-wheel-drive BMW M135i, the Mercedes-AMG A35 and even from less premium but well-respected foes such as the Hyundai i30 N.
So why do we start with the S3 rather than any other variant of the A3? And why the Azores? Well, a quattro-equipped S3 prototype on an island famous for the Azores Rally just sounds like a good combination, doesn’t it?
On paper at least, the S3 seems suspiciously similar to the outgoing model. It uses the same MQB platform, shared with the Golf R, the same 2.0-litre four-cylinder petrol engine delivering the same 306bhp and 295lb ft of torque. Normally, we’d expect power to increase for such models but Audi, just like every other car maker, has been battling with the complexities of emissions regulations and the knock-on effect that has to engineering gains.
Since this is only a prototype, Audi is keeping schtum on specifications including a 0-62mph time, but it’s safe to say it won’t be more than the outgoing model’s 4.7sec. Behind the wheel, that certainly feels the case: it’s the sort of straight-line performance that feels generous and well-placed for a hot hatch without being absolutely ridiculous – something the RS3 will no doubt cover off when it arrives…