Audi evolves its take on the all-season hot hatch, but is it more style than substance?

As a concept, the Audi S3 possesses not one jot less appeal now than it did when the model first blazed the ‘sports premium compact’ trail four generations ago in 1999.

You take an upmarket interior and blend it with four-wheel drive – and, of course, power. All very Audi. But the brilliant bit is that the concoction is then wrapped up in the skin of an ordinarily sized family hatchback (albeit, in the case of the S3, more recently one with five doors rather than three). The S3 therefore represents everything modern Audi does well, only distilled into a conveniently small package. And because the potent S1 supermini is no longer offered, the S3 is once again the most affordable route into Audi’s fashionable S and RS stables.

Once you’ve worked through an initially brief bout of lag and the crank is spinning at 2500rpm, the S3 propels itself with serious urgency

So why does this model often fail to ignite much enthusiasm from enthusiasts? Even the 207bhp original, now considered an attractive modern classic, came in for criticism because Audi dared to use the ‘quattro’ moniker. Its crime was to use an on-demand Haldex four-wheel drive system rather than Audi’s traditional, full-time Torsen-reliant quattro set-up. Since then, the S3 has been criticised for its weight, numb steering and poor value in comparison to its mechanically similar and recently outstanding cousin, the Volkswagen Golf R.

We’ll discover shortly whether any of these traits recur in the new ‘8Y’ S3, but we should also recognise that, in broader terms, the model’s place in the world has changed. In 1999, the S3 offered Lancia Delta Integrale Evo pace but with an opulence and sense of solidity anathematic to the Italian car. However, today’s car has less to prove in terms of ballistic pace. The S3 has been comfortably superseded at the top of the sports premium compact hierarchy by a new breed of 400bhp-plus supercar-fast hatches, not least Audi’s own Audi RS3 and its arch-rival, the Mercedes-AMG A45.

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To succeed in 2020, the S3 therefore needs only to come across as the most rounded, capable and sophisticated of the all-weather hot hatch clique. So does it?

The A3 line-up at a glance

The A3 range is typical for the class, with traditional petrol and diesel engines sitting alongside a new plug-in hybrid, the 40 TFSIe. While the S3 itself is available only in regular and high-spec Vorsprung trims, the rest of the range has multiple equipment levels, starting at Technik and rising through Sport and S Line to Edition 1. Curiously, the outgoing RS3 remains on sale; we expect to see the new version early next year.

What Car? New car buyer marketplace - Audi S3


Audi S3 Sportback 2020 road test review - hero side

With lurid paint options and four exhaust tips, the S3 could never be described as shy, but so aggressively styled is the regular A3, particularly in S Line trim, that it can be difficult to tell the cars apart at a glance.

Those with sharp eyes will notice the slotted leading edge of the S3’s bonnet, which is meant to evoke the spirit of the 1984 Audi Sport Quattro, but Audi’s more-is-better approach to honeycomb grilles and multiple flavours of screwed-on trim are hallmarks of the entire A3 range, not only its top-ranking members. Overall, we find the S3 neither likeably subtle nor recognisably fruity.

Single-frame grille is in-filled with honeycomb black plastic and is the most aggressive iteration of the S3’s frontal to date. Expect the RS3 to up the stakes further

Underneath the steel body (seen here in Sportback form, although an S3 Saloon also exists) lies the traditional mechanical arrangement. The Volkswagen Group’s EA888 turbocharged 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine is reprised with the same 306bhp and 295lb ft output as before.

Directly downstream of the engine sits the S-tronic seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox previously offered, although it can now decouple and allow the car to freewheel when the driver lifts off the throttle. It’s also worth noting that, for the first time, the S3 isn’t available with a manual.

As ever, just how much torque this system delivers to the rear wheels is dictated by the extent to which the electronically controlled multi-plate clutch that sits between those wheels is engaged, although the clutch itself is now lighter and faster-acting and the level of engagement is determined by Audi’s new Modular Dynamic Handling Control system.

This joins the dots primarily between the steering input, ESC sensors and data from the adaptive dampers (an optional extra), with the aim of increasing the S3’s accuracy and feeling of agility. Unfortunately, our car does without the adaptive dampers and sits 15mm closer to the road than the regular A3 on its passive springs. However, whichever dampers you go for, the S3’s driveline is capable of sending the entirety of the available torque to the rear axle. Brake-based torque vectoring is also used to slow an inside wheel and quell understeer during cornering.

As dictated by the car’s MQB platform, which will also be used by the upcoming Golf R, the front suspension is by MacPherson struts while the rear uses multiple links. Elsewhere, Audi has also deployed a new electric brake booster, which it claims is faster-acting than before.

The brake discs are now also cooled by air guided through the engine compartment, which generates less drag than the old underbody ducts. At the contact patch, the latest S3 is then unchanged from before and wears 225/40 tyres for the standard 18in wheels, growing to 235/35 for the 19in options fitted to this example.


Audi S3 Sportback 2020 road test review - dashboard

Granite-like construction, straightforward design cues and rich materials have always been the hallmarks of an S3 cabin. This is no longer the case, even if the fourth-generation S3 does still capture more of an upmarket wow factor than some. Echoing the exterior, the surfacing seems needlessly complex and overwrought, both in terms of its ‘three-dimensional’ geometry and the countless different materials.

Audi doesn’t seem to know where to put the air vents, either, and the dashboard and door cards don’t ensconce the driver as they once did. The vacant real estate and stubby gearlever atop the transmission tunnel also feel less than premium and the reliance on hard plastics in some surprisingly obvious places is disappointing. It all contributes to a cabin that feels conspicuously built to a cost and less pleasing overall than that of the BMW M135i xDrive.

Three-spoke steering wheel is surprisingly small and also firmly padded. Audi’s flat-bottomed rim isn’t for everybody, but overall it’s an excellent hot hatch helm

However, some elements are excellent. The steering wheel is usefully small, with a satisfyingly firm rim, and the grown-up driving position is commensurate with the S3’s serious performance potential. Some of the touchpoints, such as the door handles, really do confer the kind of luxury owners will want from this £37,000 hatchback, and the ambient lighting is carried across from models in higher echelons of Audi’s line-up. This is also a spacious cabin, at least in the front, and several testers found the nappa leather sports seats – a new Audi design – very comfortable over long distances, even if they could offer a little more support in light of the car’s grip levels.

Standard equipment is also generous, including smartphone mirroring, Audi’s Virtual Cockpit and several intelligent safety features.

Audi S3 infotainment and sat-nav

Audi’s gamble on using touchscreen and voice-activated controls for its infotainment systems, to the exclusion of almost anything else, probably hasn’t paid off as richly as it would have liked. Certainly, in the brand’s larger cars, such as the Audi A6 and Audi A8 saloons, the almost total omission of physical controls has left the user experience feeling less intuitive and the interiors feeling oddly spartan.

Yet the S3 isn’t quite so austere. Although the car lacks the useful rotary control of the BMW M135i or the fine-with-familiarity touchpad of the Mercedes-AMG A35, Audi has at least included buttons for the climate controls, volume and some other useful commands. That said, the 10.3in touchscreen itself isn’t the most easy to navigate, and this one in particular was slow to respond at times.

Smartphone mirroring is included as standard, however, and so Android or Apple users can switch to Android Auto or CarPlay respectively, while keeping navigation in the instrument display.


Audi S3 Sportback 2020 road test review - engine

There seems to be some divergence in opinion about ‘performance’. Some of us crave ever-lower acceleration times and rejoice in the absurdity of it all, while others long ago accepted that anything less than five seconds from 0-62mph was more than quick enough for anything road-legal.

Whichever way you see it, the S3’s 0-60mph time of 4.8sec – with two testers on board and the tank full of fuel – is objectively very quick and comfortably more so than even the most rabid front-driven alternatives’, such as the Honda Civic Type R. The Audi’s quarter-mile time of 13.4sec is also quicker than the efforts of the recently retired generation of four-wheel-drive mega-hatches such as the Ford Focus RS and original Mercedes-AMG A45. The Audi could have been faster, too, had the transmission not been subtly slipping – possibly in an effort to protect – the first of its two clutches during several 4000rpm launch-control starts. Elsewhere, traction and the car’s resistance pitch and squat were conspicuously good. Overall, the S3 comes across as a real operator.

It’s surprising that the new S3 has been allowed to leave the factory gates a slower-accelerating car than the model it replaces, if only by 0.3sec to 62mph. A tacit admission from Audi that these things don’t matter so much any more?

But exciting? Not so much. The manner in which the 2.0-litre turbo engine reliably pumps out those figures is better known to road testers than most, the Volkswagen Group (but Audi-designed) EA888 unit having appeared in various forms across the Audi, Seat, Skoda and Volkswagen brands for more than a decade now. The turbocharger wakes up abruptly at 2000rpm, after which the uniform delivery of power and torque feels endlessly broad and hugely effective but lacks much in the way of shape or crescendo. The gearbox is reliably slick but, again, not especially engaging, its paddles in particular lacking tactility.

Elsewhere, the brakes, which benefit from the new electric booster, feel surprisingly natural and have an appreciable resistance to them that you might not expect to find in an Audi. However, they don’t bring the S3 to a halt as quickly as you’d achieve in lighter, solely front-driven alternatives. The engine’s sound actuator is also likely to split opinion.

In Comfort mode, the engine is perhaps too well isolated from the cabin, but in Dynamic the growl is a tad too pronounced and rounded to feel authentic. Plus ça change.

As for fuel economy, our car returned 39.0mpg on touring runs, which is reasonable but nothing special. Blame the fact that the S3 – all five doors, two clutches and four driveshafts of it – now weighs comfortably more than 1500kg.


Audi S3 Sportback 2020 road test review - on the road nose

As you would expect, the S3 Sportback is one mightily effective cross-country performer. But it’s also one that feels confused, perhaps because our car lacked the adaptive dampers that form such an essential part of the chassis’ new trick: the Modular Dynamic Handling Control.

On the passive dampers, the ride is firm. You’ll notice this immediately. The suspension labours sharper ridges at low speeds and can feel unnecessarily alert on the move. The hardware is capable of delivering excellent levels of control once you’re up at the national speed limit on challenging B-roads, but we’d trade some composure and resistance to roll for greater fluidity and comfort.

Right now, the only way to get the adaptive dampers is to go for Vorsprung trim, which adds plenty of other desirable options but costs more than £7000. It shouldn’t be so expensive to get such an essential optional extra

Our car’s large 19in wheels almost certainly don’t help matters, and overall there’s an edge to proceedings that matches poorly with the S3’s calling in life.

What the S3 does better than ever before – and every bit as well as its direct rivals – is change direction. A truly communicative helm you’ll not find in this class of car, but the weighting of the motion and gearing of this Audi rack breeds some confidence, and it is confidence underwritten by a chassis that feels less inclined to push its nose wide than ever before. As with Audi the previous-generation S3, this chassis is also keen to send plenty of drive to the rear, though on the road this manifests as unflappable neutrality when exiting bends, rather than anything approaching oversteer.

And it’s ‘neutrality’ that best describes the S3’s handling. It’s less inclined to reward a trailing brake on the way into corners, remains doggedly on your chosen line through the mid-corner, and then, assuming you’ve selected the optimal gear, fires itself onto the next straight in deadpan fashion. Moreover, if you’re liberal with the throttle and prepared to let the chassis electronics get to work, the S3’s ability is remarkably unaffected by inclement weather.

Being heavier than your typical T2 hot hatch and with a greater emphasis on stability and security than agility and dynamism, the S3 is perhaps not the first car you would choose to subject to the Hill Route at Millbrook Proving Ground.

And that’s a little unfair. This Audi isn’t the most rewarding car we’ve tested this year, but it’s surely among the quickest over this undulating and tortuous course. The chassis responds very well to power, and thanks to the car’s uncompromising body control it generates such high levels of grip and traction that the driver soon feels compelled to get onto the throttle much earlier in the corner than initially expected.

The ESP intervention is also impressively smooth, although disabling it reveals a car only too happy to adopt fairly aggressive slip angles – at least before the limitations of the driveline prevent lasting oversteer.

Comfort and isolation

In terms of road manners, the sweet spot for this new S3 is almost certain to be found with the combination of the standard 18in wheels and the fitment of the adaptive dampers.

Since the last generation, Audi says its overly firm magnetorheological technology has been ditched in favour of developing the traditional hydraulic set-up, for an even more rounded ride and plenty of breadth between the modes. It’s unfortunate, then, that our test car was fitted with neither the standard wheels nor the new adaptive dampers, instead rolling on the optional 19in wheels, with, as we’ve already explored, the body kept in check by passive dampers.

In this configuration, the S3 can hardly be described as having the lightest touch. The secondary ride is especially reactive, the effects of ruts and ridges in the road surface often feeling magnified beyond what is reasonable even for a car of such serious performance. Without the ability to dramatically soften or firm up the damping force, for these passive items Audi has been obliged to choose one specific scenario for the suspension to work at its best, and that scenario seems to be 60mph on an enviously smooth German Landesstraße. Certainly, on British roads, there’s enough here to suggest that BMW’s M135i and the Mercedes-AMG A35 have little to fear in terms of day-to-day benignity.

At least the S3 is quiet on the move. Without the synthesised growl emitted in Dynamic mode, the engine remains nigh inaudible when cruising and the combined effects of road and wind noise are stifled to an enviable degree. As you would expect, the S3 didn’t trigger our testing microphones quite as lightly as the larger and more expensive V6 diesel Audi S4 recently did, though there really is impressively little difference between the two cars in this respect.

The bottom line is that while the new S3 Sportback probably has the potential to be the most refined luxo-hatch on sale, we haven’t seen the best it has to offer on this occasion.


Audi S3 Sportback 2020 road test review - hero front

If £37,000 sounds expensive given that the S3 won’t, in the fullness of time, rank as even the top-billing model in the A3 range, know that this is very much the going rate in 2020 for a premium-brand four wheel-drive hatch with around 300bhp.

The BMW M135i xDrive and Mercedes-AMG A35 4Matic+ flank the Audi by around £500, and it’s worth noting that all three share similarly strong residuals. To sample the next rung up in the mega-hatch hierarchy – currently occupied by the 415bhp Mercedes-AMG A45 S, which will be joined next year by the RS3 – you would need to spend more than £50,000 and resist the temptation of bona fide sports cars such as the BMW M2 Competition.

S3 edges premium rivals in the short term, though the Mercedes-AMG A35 holds its value more effectively if you keep it for three years

Of course, in terms of specification, it’s unlikely many S3s will remain at £36,975. LED headlights and Audi’s Virtual Cockpit are among several useful features that come as standard, but unless you want your car in white or blue, you’ll need to spend more on paint, and many owners will then upgrade the standard 18in wheels.

Having electrically adjustable front seats, a reversing camera and the upgraded Bang & Olufsen sound system will then push the price to more than £40,000.

What Car? New car buyer marketplace - Audi S3


Audi S3 Sportback 2020 road test review - static

For any new Audi S3, the judging criteria is well-defined. Too raw and involving and you invite accusations of being unfit for purpose, of lacking the day-in, day-out approachability owners will pay for. Equally, if the car is too relaxing and aloof, we’d not hesitate to call that out as an undesirable trait. The S moniker must stand for something. An S3 should therefore offer a good level of engagement but never forget its manners or true calling: a firm sense of security underwheel, whatever the weather.

This latest iteration certainly hits its target it terms of composure. It grips the road superbly well, understeers less markedly than before, and inculcates an enjoyable sense of confidence in the driver. The S3 is easy and quietly enjoyable to guide along almost any road, whether or not you choose to unfurl its wicked turn of pace.

Audi delivers an effective if somewhat unlovable hot hatch

Our concerns are twofold. Ride quality is simply not good enough on the standard passive dampers and the interior lacks the cosseting, high-quality feel of bygone Audi hot hatches. For rivals, these would be notable flaws, but for an S3 they feel especially conspicuous. In truth, it feels like the forgotten hot hatch of the Volkswagen Group.

What Car? New car buyer marketplace - Audi S3