Audi S3 2022 review
The S3 used to be noted for its premium, expensive-feeling take on the hot hatchback formula. Now it’s merely a high-spec A3…
Audi arguably created the posh hot hatchback class when the first S3 was launched back in 1998. Its combination of a high-quality interior, all-wheel-drive security and turbocharged petrol engine were a unique play in a game that’s since exploded in popularity. Since then, Mercedes and BMW have made their entry into the class, reiterating why this is a lucrative part of Audi’s product portfolio, and why it’s not messed with the recipe over all these years.
The latest fourth-generation model shares most of its underpinnings with various VW Group hot hatchbacks, and in its specific case produces 306bhp from 5450 to 6500rpm and 295lb ft of torque between 2000 and 5450rpm from its turbocharged 2-litre engine. Hardly earth-shattering figures, but ones that leave room above for the 394bhp RS3, and to the side for VW’s own 316bhp Golf R. The S3’s performance figures are right in the ballpark too, at 4.8sec to 62mph and the usual electronically limited 155mph. Power is sent to all four wheels through a seven-speed S-tronic dual-clutch gearbox.
S3s sit 15mm lower than regular A3s and receive a four-link rear axle as standard, but only the topline Vorsprung trim features Audi’s 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, but only a maximum of 50 per cent is able to be sent rearwards. One big sticking point is the interior, which is neither as high quality nor stylish as that of the previous-generation A3 (and the one before that). The plastics have taken a noticeable dive in quality, and while the tech is perfectly fine, where once it was a big selling point for buyers, it’s certainly not this time around.
On the road, the S3 is a polished piece of engineering 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 impressive in general, and while the 19-inch wheel option can make things a little choppier, when combined with the adaptive dampers in Comfort mode, it evens back out.
The flip side is a looseness to the S3 when speeds really start to rise. Body control just isn’t good enough, even when the adaptive dampers (where fitted) are in their firmer setting. Start to lean into the body movement over rough roads and the wheels begin to fumble, and while overall lateral grip is good, it’s not outstanding. Unlike the RS3, which uses its bespoke front axle geometry to great effect, remaining stable and accurate while generating exceptional front-end grip, the S3 feels like a standard A3 that’s wilting under the pressure of its extra performance capability.
The engine, while effective, doesn’t really raise the heart rate as it feels quite generic and somewhat hamstrung compared to earlier examples of the same powertrain. For context, the Golf GTI Clubsport S produced the same power from basically the same motor, yet the two couldn’t be more different in terms of their character. Blame for this can probably be laid at the constant need to clean up the exhaust with petrol particulate filters, but some could, and should, also be levelled at the dual-clutch transmission, which with every iteration feels clunkier, slower and more dim-witted than the last.
Yet despite its performance intent, the Audi S3 has never really been about ultimate excitement from behind the wheel, rather its combination of extra bite and Audi-tinged premiumness. In many ways the S3 is a step forward – it is a better drive than before – but in others it’s a sustained step back, and with AMG and BMW breathing down the back of its neck, the S3’s shine isn’t quite as bright as its signature polished mirror caps.
Price and rivals
Pricing for the S3 Sportback begins at £40,155, and like last time around there’s an S3 Saloon, too, for £40,720. This is for the entry model, which as it is comes with smaller 18-inch wheels, silver trim elements, a fake leather interior and basic LED headlights. Both Sportback and Saloon can be upgraded to Vorsprung specification for an extra £7750 – a big number, yes, but then it includes a lot of toys such as 19-inch wheels, adaptive dampers, a sunroof, Matrix LED headlights, Nappa leather trim, a B&O stereo – we could go on.
The Mercedes-AMG A35 currently costs from £43,440, with the option for the price to rise a further £5000 for a similar spread of features to those offered by the S3 in the Premium Plus model. The BMW M135i xDrive kicks off from £39,825, but comes with multiple option packs that separate out most of the extra goodies. Generally, there’s little between the S3 and its main rivals on price, but the BMW isn’t worth too much attention. The AMG certainly is, though, with many of the qualities of its A45 sibling wrapped up in a less challenging package.
The Mk8 Volkswagen Golf R now starts at £42,190, making it more expensive than the Audi. It is a more aggressive package, though, and with its clever differential and higher-spec 316bhp engine, you get more content. It’s not quite the clear leap ahead in the driving stakes like the previous generation was, though.