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 The S3 has been comfortably superseded at the top of the sports premium compact hierarchy by a new breed of 400bhp-plus supercar-fast hatches, not least Audi’s own Audi RS3 and its arch-rival, the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