What is it?
The new Audi S3, the third-generation of the four-wheel-drive hot hatchback. With 296bhp coming from its 2-litre four-cylinder turbo engine, prices start at £30,500.
The S3 spec sheet shows outputs of 296bhp and 280lb ft in a car weighing 1395kg. That means 0-62mph is dealt with in 5.2sec, or 0.4sec less if you opt for the six-speed S-tronic twin-clutch gearbox (a £1480 option), while top speed is limited to 155mph. Allied to this Porsche 911 Carrera-rivalling pace is the revelation that both gearboxes achieve over 40mpg on the combined cycle.
Add in packaging that can carry five adults (or two adults and enough stuff to emigrate), an interior which feels as premium as cars costing twice its asking price and you arguably have (along with the similarly fast, frugal, premium and practical BMW M135i) the most well-rounded car available today.
What’s it like to drive?
Based on the same MQB platform as the SEAT Leon and mk7 VW Golf, the S3 is dynamically extremely polished. The whole structure of the car feels stiff and agile and turn-in is almost startlingly quick, even with the steering in its comfort setting.
The S3 definitely errs towards quick and secure rather than fun and involving. It slices through longer turns extremely accurately but utterly planted, almost egging you on to try and carry more and more speed. Predictably it’s the nose that will start to nibble wide first, but if you lift off, the back will come into play quite smartly.
On track, the S3 had a nice balance, running wide at the limit, but then tightening its line nicely on an eased throttle. But on a rougher road surface it quickly starts to feel out of its depth, the damping struggling to keep the body under control and a surprising amount of float developing.
The gearshift in the manual isn’t bad either, as although it’s a little notchy it is decently weighted and there’s positivity to the way it moves around the gate. Shifting your own gears gives a level of control that feels almost novel these days in a car with this sort of performance.
The S3’s engine is a cracker: smooth-revving, lag-free and delivering serious performance without apparent effort. You can use its broad power band as you choose – working it hard, which it enjoys, or trusting the gutsy mid-range to pull a taller ratio. The engine might only be an in-line four-cylinder turbo but it is one of the best sounding that I’ve heard; it’s deep and cultured with a lovely hard edge to it. Otherwise, it’s close to just being a generic fast Audi. The gearshift is clean and accurate, but lacks weight. The clutch and brake pedal both feel too light, and the steering is over-assisted, too. Some traditions never change.
Unfortunately there wasn’t enough time to try the S-tronic transmission, but although it’s no doubt efficient and quick, it’s probably a safe bet that we’d choose the manual while there is still the option.
On a more practical level it feels surprisingly small, too – noticeably tighter than the Golf and with a seating position hard to get comfortable in. The S3 is safe, rapid and desirable, and there’s an unarguable appeal to it. But, like its predecessors, it still doesn’t feel like a proper hot hatch.
How does it compare?
Its key rival is the £30,555 BMW M135i, which drives its rear wheels only with a 316bhp 3-litre turbo straight-six and offers the choice of six-speed manual and eight-speed auto gearboxes. And it’s very, very good. Also on the horizon is the pricier and more powerful 355bhp Mercedes A45 AMG, an altogether more serious proposition that we’ve yet to drive.
Volkswagen is on the verge of launching a new Mk7 Golf R, which will feature the same 2.0-litre engine and Haldex four-wheel drive system. Prices are not yet confirmed, but it is expected to cost slightly more than the equivalent S3.
Anything else I need to know?
There’s also a five-door Audi S3 Sportback, priced £620 higher, from £31,120. And while the badges read quattro, the new S3 uses a Haldex four-wheel-drive system that’s familiar from other models in the VW group.