A quick and capable hot hatch, but one with a much calmer everyday side than its rivals

If you try to imagine what the Audi S3 Sportback is like, you’ve probably conjured up a pretty accurate picture. 

Audi has become rather adept at this fast hatchback and saloon malarkey over the years, having identified what people seem to want from a fast hatchback or saloon: it needs to be capable, secure, subtle and pretty fuss-free. What they apparently don’t want a lot of is involvement or engagement, just for the car to get them from place to place securely and briskly. 

There’s quite a lot to be said for a car that’s as capable and secure as the S3 is when it comes to regular everyday driving

The S3 received a minor update a few months ago, and this is our first drive of it in the UK. It comes off the back of a subtle revision of the whole A3 range, which was indeed so subtle you might even have missed it.

Updated to the S3 include a 10bhp power increase, so that the car gets a total of 306bhp, with a 15lb ft increase in torque to 295lb ft (with the automatic gearbox). The engine is a 2.0-litre turbocharged petrol, and the same basic unit that makes 300bhp in the Volkswagen Golf R.  When coupled to the automatic transmission, its fuel economy improves too, up to an official average figure of 40.9mpg.

The four-wheel drive system gets some tweaks too, making it more willing to push power to the rear in some cornering conditions, so that the S3 is less prone to understeer than it was previously.

Back to top

Inside, the most relevant change for most drivers is that the interior gets Audi’s Virtual Cockpit, which replaces analogue dials with a 12.3in TFT digital screen.

If you’re accustomed to the way fast Audis have felt during the past few years, the S3 is pretty much exactly as you’d expect it to be. 

To sit in, it’s lovely. Fit, finish and perceived quality are big Audi traits, and the S3 certainly gets them. Its front seats and steering wheel are adjustable to a ludicrous degree, while the materials, switchgear and ergonomics are first rate. 

Our test car was equipped with the S tronic seven-speed DSG dual-clutch gearbox, and with it the pedal positioning and weighting are spot on. 

The steering’s on the light side, which makes the S3 a doddle to drive at lower speeds, and the ride is sufficiently compliant, too. Gone are the days when fast Audis rode like boards, though this S3 had fairly modestly sized 18in wheels, shod with 225/40 tyres.

The variable-rate steering – which is slower around straight-ahead than it is once you’ve got some lock on – means that the S3 is plenty stable at motorway speeds. In that respect, it feels more like the Golf R than it does the Ford Focus RS. The RS is not meant to be an amiable, everyday fast Ford, but a car reserved for special occasions. The S3 is the kind of hot hatchback that you’re very happy to drive once the Ford gets out of its more hyperactive zones.

Don’t necessarily think of that as a downgrade, mind. There’s quite a lot to be said for a car that’s as capable and secure as the S3 is when it comes to regular everyday driving. The Audi doesn’t give you a lot back: the engine is never more exciting than smooth and powerful, and the steering never gives you any feedback other than it's quite capable of steering the wheels without reporting things back to you, but just in case you were wondering, the chassis is unflustered.

Back to top

However, if you do find yourself on circuit or a great corner on a country road, the S3 puts in a decent shift. Body control is relatively tight. In extremes, you’d need a back-to-back test with an old S3 to be sure that you can feel the revisions to the software pushing power to where it does, but it corners keenly, neutrally, keeps its nose online and is always calm.

If you really value the fit and finish of an Audi, then an S3 isn’t a bad way of going about your business at all. Plus, compared to other 300bhp hot hatchbacks, it mostly offers something different. It’s calmer than a Ford Focus RS and a Honda Civic Type R, and there’s something quite appealing about that. 

Trouble is, there’s another hot hatch that does pretty much everything that the Audi S3 also does, but it steers more keenly and enjoyably and feels every inch as planted and stable. That car is the Volkswagen Golf R, which stays busy giving its Volkswagen Group stablemates, as well as cars from elsewhere, headaches.

What Car? New car buyer marketplace - Audi S3