TEST DRIVE: Audi S3 Sportback — Could It Be a Class-Leader?

The Audi S3 is far from being a newcomer within the hot hatch segment. The ‘hot’ version of the A3 was first introduced in 1999 and back then it came solely as a three-door and had only a manual gearbox on offer. Fast forward 25 years later and the S3 is in it’s fourth generation, now only being sold as a 5-door and with an automatic gearbox. Oh, how times have changed.


What hasn’t changed too much from the original is the engine size and output. From a 207 bhp, 1.8 liter turbocharged engine in 1999 power now comes from a 2.0 liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine with 306 bhp. Paired to a quattro-branded, all-wheel drive system, and a seven speed S Tronic gearbox, the fourth generation S3 can reach 62 mph from a standstill in 4.8 seconds and is limited to a predictable top speed of 155MPH. What is different from 1999 though, is that the all-wheel drive hot hatch segment is fiercely contested, with competition even coming from within VW’s own group, in the form of the Golf R.


Audi is offering two trim levels in the S3; this Sportback model, and the top of the range Vorsprung model. This Sportback starts from £36,315 and the Vorsprung £44,065. The fourth-generation is all about updated visuals. Following on from the design of the new A3 family, the S3 gets muscular lines along the bonnet, with false bonnet slats where the bonnet meets the front bumper. Matrix LED headlights make up for the lack of front fog lights, and display a fancy unlocking sequence when you unlock the car. The redesigned front grille gives the S3 a wider mouth, and is complimented by intakes in front of each wheel. Wheels come as 18 inch as standard, but 19 inch options are available, and were an option that was ticked on my press car.


At the side, the S3 gets lower side skirts than it’s tamer A3 sibling, finished in chrome to match the window trim, and of course the signature chrome mirror coverings that denote the S3 model. The rear gets intakes either side of the rear diffuser, a body colored roof spoiler and the telltale quad tailpipes of an Audi S model. Unlike some of it’s competitors, these pipes are fully functional.

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The press car I was given was finished in a gorgeous Turbo Blue paint, a color I’ve always been a fan of. Riviera Blue has always been an ‘Audi Exclusive’ paint option, even though it came from Porsche, so the fact that the new Turbo Blue is a solid paint option on the S3 was a positive point for me. My opinion on the looks of the latest generation model are that it looks mostly fantastic. What frustrates me, though, are the bonnet slats, the intakes and rear diffuser — all apart from one of those are false, with a front intake leading to an intercooler. They certainly look aggressive and powerful, but they just don’t agree with the petrolhead side of me.


The interior of the A3 was once called the best interior of the 21st century by Top Gear. No pressure on the fourth-generation, then. I’m pleased to report however that the changes that Audi have made to the dashboard are welcome ones. I personally own a previous generation Audi A3, so stepping into the new S3 was like stepping into the future. Gone is the pop up central infotainment screen, which has now been replaced by a fixed 10.1 inch touchscreen. This screen operated like an iPad and I could swipe down to change settings, and dare I say it, but I actually found it pretty easy to use. The buttons to control the radio, climate control and drive modes all still have physical buttons, so you’re not completely out of your comfort zone if you’re a touchscreenaphobe like me.


The digital speedometer and rev-counter remain in place, and in my opinion, is Audi’s historic signature piece for making the interior on A3 models so great. Audi was the first brand that I can remember that had digital dashboards and this was always something I aspired to have in my own car. Now however, other manufacturers have caught onto this, and almost every new car has a fully digital speedometer. Some of which you could even argue do a better job than Audi. Audi will always be the originator of this design in my book, though.


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Moving to the gear selector, owners no longer have a physical gear stick to pull back and select the drive mode. This has been replaced by a smaller gear selector that leaves no doubt that Audi and Porsche come from the same automotive group, as the gear selector closely resembles the same thing found in the 992-generation 911.


Behind the steering wheel of the S3, the sports seats are comfortable and smart, with diamond quilted leather and the S3 logo embroidered into the neckline on the seat. I was a little surprised to find that the seats were manually adjustable. Call me a snob, but for the price of the S3, I’d expect electric seats. After all, we’re looking at the hottest new variant of the S3 on the market. As I mentioned earlier, Audi has waved goodbye to the three-door variants of the S3, mainly because they sell so few here in the UK. What you get with the five-door is a more practical car, with ample leg room for rear passengers, and if you need that little bit more, you can opt for the S3 Saloon model too.


Driving the car is a pleasant experience and Audi gave it five driving modes to choose from; Auto, Comfort, Efficiency, Dynamic, and Individual. If you’ve driven a modern Audi before, you’ll know that Individual mode allows you to adjust the car’s settings to suit your driving style. Auto on the other hand will adjust this for you depending on how fierce you are with your right foot. In Efficiency, I certainly felt a lack of power and the car held it’s revs lower, although I didn’t see a huge increase in my fuel consumption, which hovered at roughly 40MPG. Dynamic mode is predictably where you have the most fun, with a noticeable kick from each gear change and a slight injection of fake sound pumped into the cabin to make you feel like a racing driver. I never at any time felt like the car couldn’t handle what was being asked of it. The steering was responsive and I loved the flat bottomed, perforated steering wheel. I felt that the engine was paired perfectly with the gearbox and the two work in harmony when matched with the all-wheel drive system. The whole car drove efficiently and handled everything I could throw at it.

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I feel like I’ve been negative on some really petty things about this car. From the frustrating false air intakes, to the annoying, manually adjustable seats. Perhaps this isn’t necessary, as they are minor issues, however I’d argue, in such a strongly contested market where you have the Mercedes-AMG A35, the BMW M135i and the VW Golf R, little things such as these can be important to buyers.


The S3 is an excellent recipe for a hot hatch and Audi have stuck to their roots and expertise from the past in creating it. It’s also one of the better looking models in the segment today (if you can overlook the false intakes). The S3 is definitely a head turner and this is something I experienced a lot of, particularly in this color.


I can’t wait to see what Audi does with the next RS3 model, if the S3 alone looks this good. I do believe however, that the part of the market where the S3 once was able to enjoy to itself now has some very stiff competition that now contests it to be the class leader. The S3 has pace and a very polished, full-package feel. Other hot hatches may put a bigger smile on your face, but the S3’s efficient experience is certainly one to consider spending your money on.


[Photo Source: Philip Bradley]