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First drive: Audi S3 Sportback. Image by Audi UK.

First drive: Audi S3 Sportback
The first hot version of the fourth-generation Audi A3 arrives and, predictably, the new S3 Sportback is an assured machine.

 



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Audi S3 Sportback

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Take the latest Audi A3 Sportback and install a potent 2.0-litre turbocharged engine in its nose, and what you have is the fastest model in Audi's posh-C-segment line-up yet - at least, until Ingolstadt gets around to replacing the RS 3, that is. This is the S3 Sportback and it could be all the hot hatchback you'd ever need... provided you don't want a lot of thrills at the wheel, of course. Oh, and that you don't mind ride comfort that borders on the gritty, either.

Test Car Specifications

Model tested: Audi S3 Sportback
Pricing: A3 Sportback range from 23,865; S3 Sportback from 37,900 (or 486.39pcm on PCP, with a 10 per cent deposit and optional final payment of 18,084.70 across 48 months at 6.1% APR), car as tested 40,625
Engine: 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder petrol
Transmission: quattro all-wheel drive, seven-speed S tronic dual-clutch automatic
Body style: five-door hot hatch
CO2 emissions: 183g/km (VED Band 171-190: 870 first 12 months, then 475 years two-six of ownership, then 150 annually thereafter)
Combined economy: 35.3mpg
Top speed: 155mph (limited)
0-62mph: 4.8 seconds
Power: 310hp at 5,450-6,500rpm
Torque: 400Nm at 2,000-5,450rpm
Boot space: 325-1,145 litres

What's this?

It's the fourth attempt at the Audi S3, based on the 'Typ 8Y' A3 - itself a striking thing, what with all its creases, angles, frowning light clusters and socking great Singleframe grille. So making an S-version look that much more alluring than its regular stablemates is perhaps not so easy, although the S3 has always been the subtle fast Audi hatch, leaving the madcap wide-arches thing to the five-cylinder RS 3. This time around, the German company has decided to go stealthy with the S3 again and, aesthetically speaking, it's an approach that really works - even if you decide to undo some of Audi's covert efforts and finish the car in a smashing colour like the fresh Python Yellow metallic (+575) of our test vehicle. Nevertheless, discreet silver detailing on the front, rear and sides of the car team up well with an enhanced lower body kit, large alloys (18s as standard, with 19s representing a 770 option fitted here and which are standard on the higher-priced Vorsprung model), quad tailpipes and the silver door mirrors to let anyone who's a bit into cars know immediately that this is something more than a mere 35 TFSI S line. Inside, the cabin is largely the same as the brilliant interior of any Mk4 A3, only with a flat-bottomed steering wheel, some shapely front sports seats, and a few 'S' logos sprinkled here and there. Buyers of a near-40,000 hot hatch might demand a little more interior differentiation from regular A3 fodder in their range-topper, it has to be said, although we would counter by saying the S3's cabin feels superb in terms of appearance, fit and finish, and ergonomics too.

Prices start at 37,900 (or roughly 486pcm on a representative PCP deal) for the S3 Sportback, with the fully loaded Vorsprung's figure yet to be confirmed. Go easy on the options and you might be able to get a nicely specified S3 five-door out of the showroom sub-40k, meaning you'll avoid the 325 rich tax on top of basic year two-six VED requirements, but a notably affordable all-wheel-drive hot hatch, this is not. Naturally, it's priced broadly the same as its two main rivals, namely the Mercedes-AMG A 35 4Matic and the BMW M135i xDrive, but therein lies the rub: the S3 is no longer alone. It once occupied a niche as the only semi-affordable AWD hot hatch going, because when the original launched more than 20 years ago, with its 210hp 1.8-litre turbocharged engine, there was precious little else like it on the market.

Nowadays, not only are there direct four-cylinder turbocharged, four-wheel-drive Mercedes and BMW analogues for customers to go at, but there are front- and AWD rivals coming in at all angles and gunning for the Audi - not least the impending Volkswagen Golf R based on the latest Mk8 bodywork, a machine which will share practically everything with the S3 save for the window dressings. At least the Ford Focus RS has been removed from the scene in the 2020s to make the path to success a little clearer for the German, but that is to ignore brilliant, high-power FWD hatchbacks like the 280hp Focus ST and mesmerising Honda Civic Type R, both of which make the S3's life more difficult. And it also doesn't take into account that Cupra is sure to get hold of the smart SEAT Leon Mk4 at some point, install the same EA888 up front and send drive to all four corners, and possibly serve us up something even better than the blinding Leon Cupra R Abt of 2019. Oh, and if you want a circa-30,000-plus hatchback with AWD and a driving experience to set your nerve endings on fire, then the astounding Toyota GR Yaris homologation special confuses the matter even further. Although the blistered Toyota genuinely is a beast apart from everything even remotely similar, we must admit.

We think what we're trying to say is that the 'softly softly' approach might have worked well with the S3 in the past, but is it now in danger of being lost amidst a sea of excellence in this particular marketplace? Should Audi have been bolder this time around, even accepting there's still headroom in the A3 range for an RS 3 to come? And, as not much has changed with the S3's mechanicals, can the driving experience save the Audi from critical indifference? Time to find out.

How does it drive?

It took a while for the RS 3 to appear in the A3 lineage, the original 340hp model landing during the facelift era of the second-generation Audi hatchback in 2011. The S3, though, has been an ever-present in each and every iteration of the A3 line, starting with the 210hp 1999 original and growing in potency from there. That Mk1 S3 went to 225hp during its lifetime, then the replacement Mk2 S3 saw a 2.0 FSI petrol doling out a thumping 265hp. By the time the Mk3 S3 appeared in 2013, it was running 300hp and that number only swelled further to 310hp for the facelift of 2016.

Incremental gains all the way through the S3's evolution, then, but this time around Audi has decided to stick rather than twist. The same 2.0-litre TFSI four-cylinder engine as before is pressed into service, again making peak outputs of 310hp and 400Nm and driving all four wheels through the company's proprietary quattro set-up. The reason it can have the maximum 400Nm is because there is no manual gearbox option any longer, as there was on the old S3 (and where torque had to be limited 380Nm), and so your only transmission 'choice' here is a seven-speed S tronic dual-clutch auto. Performance is pretty much identical to the outgoing car: 0-62mph in 4.8 seconds, which remains seriously quick no matter the march of progress, and a top speed limited to 155mph.

Thing is, for all this moaning about on-paper stagnation of the stats, we thought that as the Mk3-derived S3 evolved, it became a rather superb performance car - although the stylish yet stodgy Cabriolet was probably best avoided. Nevertheless, the previous S3 tended to feel less nose-heavy and more eager than its big RS brother, and the ride was supple on the adaptive dampers. You picked the RS 3 for the sonics and the straight-line speed; but you picked the S3 for its more engaging dynamics.

Maybe it's just the curmudgeon in us, but this time around we think the S3 has taken a small retrograde step in terms of its handling. It's everything you expect of a powerful Audi, with impeccable traction in anything but the slimiest of conditions, a robust delivery of the turbocharged engine's power and the sort of grip that means you can lean on the point-and-shoot talents of the Sportback's chassis to simply devastating effect. It's a phenomenally fast and forgiving car across the ground from the get-go, and it will flatter people who want to go quickly but who perhaps do not want a vehicle which presents any significant risk and reward to its driver.

And there's the problem. You get in, you fire up the four-pot, you select 'D' with the stubby little transmission lever and then you just drive the S3. There are no real secrets to uncover here, no surprises revealed from the chassis. It'll understeer if you push it too much and you can just about adjust your line on the throttle mid-bend, but this chassis is a largely inert, neutral creation that means the S3 is anything but fascinating to steer. It's just too coolly competent and detached.

Then there are various other issues. The three-mode variable steering is far from Audi's worst attempt at this sort of thing, but there's still too much clagginess to the off-centre weighting in Dynamic and there's precious little feel to work with. Keep it in Comfort, where it's very light but at least pleasantly consistent. Beyond this, the noise of the S3 is artificial and - cringe - Audi has 'blessed' the Sportback with a vaguely five-cylinder-esque soundtrack piped in through the speakers. Why? There's a 'true' five-pot RS 3 on the way, so what's the point of making the four-cylinder S3 sound like the car it most patently is not? Is Audi trying to acoustically shame potential S3 buyers into upgrading to the RS model? It's not like the EA888 can't be given a decent voice of its own, as we've heard it playing a serviceable tune in several other Volkswagen Group applications over the years. And, conversely, switch the S3 out of Dynamic mode and its 'false five' opera is replaced with a humdrum grumbling from the 2.0-litre engine and the four exhaust pipes. Harrumph.

The noise and the steering we could live with, if it weren't for the fact that the S3 commits another sin from Audi's past that we thought we wouldn't see again. It's the ride quality. Adaptive dampers are an option on the S3 and plenty of current hot Audis convey themselves well on such a set-up, but the standard fixed-rate springs and dampers of this model are too brittle, especially when teamed to those optional 19s. The 310hp Sportback rides 15mm lower to the ground than other A3s and has a S-tuned set-up for the suspension, and the result is that the car jiggles and crashes around too much at low speeds. It does become more bearable on open roads and at motorway pace, but in truth the standard of the ride never attains a level which you'd call 'comfortable'. The S3 is always too keen to remind you that it's an S3, a trait which would surely become tiresome on longer journeys. Shame, because with its smart looks, strong engine and lovely cabin, this Audi has much to recommend it; it's simply that there are a few too many drawbacks to wholeheartedly fall in love with it.

Verdict

The latest Audi S3 Sportback is as proficient, as capable and as beautifully finished as it ever has been, meaning it is sure to find a devoted fanbase with little difficulty. Our problem with it is that, following on from the livelier feel of the old S3, this one doesn't feel like a significant dynamic step onwards - in fact, it feels very much like the rapid Audis of yore: devastatingly quick and secure, but not very exciting. As we've already outlined, there's a lot of choice in this sector and the Audi doesn't quite do enough to stand out amidst its competitors - but there's a solution. There are plenty of hot hatchbacks to choose from, yet there are far fewer potent four-doors at this level, so the S3 Saloon (from 39,040) might well be the more appealing prospect for petrolheads. For now, the Sportback is very good, but it's not truly great.

4.5 4.5 4.5 4.5 4.5 Exterior Design

4.5 4.5 4.5 4.5 4.5 Interior Ambience

4 4 4 4 4 Passenger Space

3.5 3.5 3.5 3.5 3.5 Luggage Space

5 5 5 5 5 Safety

3.5 3.5 3.5 3.5 3.5 Comfort

3.5 3.5 3.5 3.5 3.5 Driving Dynamics

4 4 4 4 4 Powertrain


Matt Robinson - 17 Dec 2020









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2020 Audi S3 Sportback UK. Image by Audi UK.2020 Audi S3 Sportback UK. Image by Audi UK.2020 Audi S3 Sportback UK. Image by Audi UK.2020 Audi S3 Sportback UK. Image by Audi UK.2020 Audi S3 Sportback UK. Image by Audi UK.

2020 Audi S3 Sportback UK. Image by Audi UK.2020 Audi S3 Sportback UK. Image by Audi UK.2020 Audi S3 Sportback UK. Image by Audi UK.2020 Audi S3 Sportback UK. Image by Audi UK.2020 Audi S3 Sportback UK. Image by Audi UK.








 

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