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.

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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.

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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.