Audi S3 2020 review – the original posh hot hatch reformed

Probably the best S3 yet, but still not a class-leading entertainer

Evo rating
  • Feels less one-dimensional than its predecessor
  • Breaks little new ground, uninspiring engine

Before the Golf R came along the best way to get potent all-weather performance in a family hatchback came from Audi, in the shape of the S3.

Stocky, handsome and sending turbocharged power to all four wheels, it might have lacked the excitement of some other hot hatchbacks but it always had a certain appeal. Now in its fourth generation, it’s time to try Audi’s latest attempt at an age-old formula.

Engine, transmission and 0-60 time

With 306bhp from 5450-6500rpm and 295lb ft of torque between 2000-5450rpm, the S3 is bang on par for a modern hot hatchback, and the eventual RS3 will no doubt fill the gap to superhatches like the AMG A45. The S3’s performance figures are right in the ballpark too, at 4.8 seconds to 62mph and the usual electronically-limited 155mph. Power is sent to all four wheels through a seven-speed S Tronic dual-clutch gearbox.

Technical highlights

All UK-bound S3s are 15mm lower than regular A3s, receive a four-link rear axle as standard, and feature adaptive dampers that offer different characteristics between their Comfort and Dynamic modes. Thanks to a hydraulic multi-plate clutch ahead of the rear axle, the S3 can also distribute torque between each axle – though it misses out on full torque vectoring, perhaps leaving the door open for an upcoming RS3...

What’s it like to drive?

Perhaps it was shrewd of Audi to let us loose in the new S3 on the same event as the SQ7 and SQ8, because alongside the two behemoths, impressive though they were, the S3 felt every bit as fleet and agile as you’d expect a conventional hot hatch to feel.

It’s a polished piece even in isolation. While there’s definitely technology working away behind the scenes, the S3 feels natural to drive at any speed. The steering is precise but also calm, letting you pick a line through intuition alone, and the wheel weights up progressively as you really work the front tyres.

It feels lighter on its feet than previous S3s too, remaining unflustered through direction changes, but in true Audi style there’s little inclination towards misbehaviour. Ride quality is as difficult as ever to judge on smooth German roads, but on the one or two sections that local councils dipped below their usual levels of excellence, there were certainly no signs of trouble, and the general quality and refinement of the cabin contribute to the car’s feeling of ease on a cruise.

Neat handling is backed up by strong brakes, and like the steering their response and progression is well-judged to the performance of the car. That’s where the engine comes in, and it’s the 2-litre unit that’s perhaps the weak link in the package – emotionally, if not quantitatively.

There is one caveat: Audi’s Drive Select system was inoperable on our test car. Neither the (difficult to find) button nor the on-screen option worked, the latter’s icon greyed out. That the car felt as natural as it did in corners is a testament to a well set-up chassis, but it did rule out the sharpest throttle response, noisiest exhaust settings and snappiest shifts that might have drawn more character from the powertrain. As-is the S3 is still usefully potent and never short of traction, but lacked sparkle at the upper end of its range and could have benefitted from sharper responses underfoot.

We’d be surprised if the S3 suddenly delivered laugh-out-loud entertainment even with phasers set to kill rather than stun, but first impressions are of a car that’s slightly but measurably more rewarding than its predecessor.

Price and rivals

Pricing for the S3 Sportback begins at £37,900, and like last time around there’s an S3 Saloon too, for £38,465. With the Mercedes-AMG A35 currently sitting at £38,360 and the BMW M135i xDrive at £37,470, there’s little between the S3 and its main rivals on price. The BMW isn’t worth too much attention, unfortunately, but the AMG certainly is, with many of the qualities of its A45 sibling and a snazzy cabin to boot. The eventual test between the AMG and Audi could be a close one.

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