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First drive: Audi S3 Saloon. Image by Audi.

First drive: Audi S3 Saloon
More power and a fancier rear axle for the Audi S3, so how does it feel to drive now?

   



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Audi S3 Saloon

4.5 4.5 4.5 4.5 4.5

With the wider A3 family coming in for its modest midlife facelift, the S3 is part of that same revisionary process. But while the other cars in the range only get slightly tweaked looks and some extra in-car tech, the S3 is blessed with more - additional power and torque for its 2.0-litre turbo four engine, and a tricksier rear diff taken from learnings acquired through the mighty RS 3. But does that make the previously staid S3, still available as both a Sportback and a Saloon, a more worthwhile steer in the modern age?

Test Car Specifications

Model: 2024 Audi S3 Saloon Vorsprung
Price: S3 from 46,925, Saloon Vorsprung from 52,965
Engine: 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbocharged petrol
Transmission: seven-speed S tronic dual-clutch automatic, quattro all-wheel drive
Power: 333hp at 5,600-6,500rpm
Torque: 420Nm at 2,100-5,500rpm
Emissions: 188g/km
Economy: 34mpg
0-62mph: 4.7 seconds
Top speed: 155mph (limited)
Boot space: 325 litres

Styling

Like any other A3 for 2024 and beyond, the S3 now has a flatter, wider Singleframe grille, different air intakes and bumpers, and a choice of fresh colours and alloy wheels to go at. And, also like every S3 that has come before it, the high-performance flagship (for now - the RS 3 isn't privy to these changes, as yet) wears some of its own signifiers to mark it out as something a cut above, for instance, a 35 TFSI. That means it has silver door mirrors, side sills and in-bumper detailing, black for all its badgework, big and bespoke-design 19-inch alloy wheels, quad exhausts, and - in the case of our test car - strange 'hockey stick' highlights for the (frameless) Singleframe and that strip above the rear diffuser. We could take or leave those, to be honest, but what we will say is that while we admit the Mk4 A3 Sportback is a better-resolved piece of car design than the somewhat dumpy Mk3 five-door, we still think the four-door Saloon is the star aesthetic attraction of the current range. So if it were our money, we'd definitely be stumping up the extra 565 required to turn our 2024 S3 into a Saloon, rather than a Sportback.

Interior

Again, like the wider A3 family, the S3 gets the updated cabin design and tech, plus all its S-specific accoutrements too, resulting in a marvellous interior. With its Audi Virtual Cockpit Plus instrument cluster and the 10.1-inch infotainment system, the S3 has the right level of tech befitting an upmarket performance car like this, while the flat-bottomed steering wheel and sculpted bucket seats finished in a leather/quilted Dinamica microfibre combination give the Audi's passenger compartment a suitably luxurious ambience. The S3 also gets better, more substantial paddle shifts for its steering wheel, compared to the malnourished affairs on a lesser A3, but they're still not the greatest items in the world for a keener driver to use.

Practicality

One thing that has always baffled us is why packaging up the rear driveshafts of the quattro all-wheel-drive system is apparently harder work in the four-door S3 than it is in the five-door Sportback. We say this because, if you look at the rest of the A3 family, then the regular Saloon has a 425-litre boot, compared to an equivalent Sportback's 380 litres. Yet, for both S3 Sportback and S3 Saloon, the boot space is an identical 325 litres - a loss of just 55 litres for the five-door, but fully 100 litres in this car. Oh well; at least rear passenger space is still decent in the S3 Saloon, as are the interior storage options, so it remains a practical performance car in the overall reckoning of such things.

Performance

In the previous A3 family, we always had a real soft spot for the old third-generation S3 Saloon. It felt like it made better use of the lighter, 2.0-litre engine over its nose than its contemporary RS 3, so that while it wasn't as quick or good to listen to, it was sweeter-handling and therefore our favourite fast model of Audi's compact line-up.

And then we drove this fourth-gen S3 as a Sportback at the end of 2020, and we were back to 'classic' fast Audi review tropes. In that the S3 was quick, it was capable... and it was all just ever so slightly dull. Foursquare and unwilling to play on the throttle, which meant that driving it fast simply became a 'point-and-shoot' process that resulted in anyone being able get the best out of the car from mile one. A shame.

When we later tried the Saloon, it did feel a little sharper to steer, but not by enough - certainly not when this generation of RS 3 is such a belting thing to drive. So, in an effort to better bridge the gap between the regular A3s and the 400hp five-cylinder loon at the top of the range, Audi is trying to move the S3 closer to the RS 3 from a dynamic perspective.

We'll come onto the new diff it has in the next section, but the other chief upgrade is some additional power and torque; only 7 and 5 per cent respectively, of course, with an extra 23 horses taking the S3 from 310- to 333hp now, while torque jumps 20Nm from 400- to 420Nm overall. In a car weighing 1,610kg, you're going to be hard-pressed subjectively to tell the difference, even if Audi proudly touts a 0-62mph time that's a tenth-of-a-second quicker on this updated S3 at 4.7 seconds all in now.

But this remains a fabulously fast machine. It doesn't feel laggy low down and the seven-speed S tronic is well matched to its particular spread and delivery of its resources, while of course the nigh-on unimpeachable traction of quattro (in the dry, at least) means the S3 just deploys its 333hp/420Nm so effortlessly and fires into the middle distance with ease if you prod the throttle to any significant degree. So for sheer speed, almost everyone should find this Audi more than sufficient in that department.

What still confuses - and, if we're honest, irks - us is that in its sportier settings with the new, optional Akrapovic exhaust system fitted, Audi makes the S3 acoustically simulate a five-cylinder engine. This would be disingenuous from any manufacturer at all, trying to get a four-pot turbo motor to sound like a five, but it's especially egregious from a company which actually has a five-cylinder engine at its disposal... and one which it already uses in this very model range anyway, in the form of the pinnacle RS 3. Given that the S3 uses the EA888, which we've always thought is one of the more tuneful turbocharged four-cylinder engines in the world in some of its better applications over the many years it has been in service, we're particularly disappointed Audi persists with this fake warbling from the S3 in the midrange. If you can work through it and press on to higher revs, the false-five notes drop away, but you'll definitely pick up on them from time to time and you might (like us) find them annoyingly insincere.

Ride & Handling

Barring the silly imitation five-pot blarings, what we've now established about the 2024 model year (Audi calls it 2025MY, but as we're still eight months out from that calendar year then we're obliged to disagree) S3 Saloon is that it has an exceptional drivetrain to take advantage of. Where it presses this home, though, is in the way it handles. Praise be, some of the kinematic life has come back to the fourth-gen S3, and it's all down to the revised rear axle.

Previously, the S3's Haldex four-wheel-drive system could punt torque at the back axle, but it had no capability of splitting said torque to either of the rear wheels because it had just one clutch plate back there. However, the updated car uses the torque-splitter set-up Audi has trialled to such success on the RS 3, with two clutches now able to apportion any rear-axle torque to whichever back wheel can handle it best.

In practice, this makes the S3 a delight to drive. Get on the power early out of a tight corner and instead of that sensation of the front wheels scrabbling to try and haul the Audi's nose first, now the S3 eagerly slings torque at its outer-rear wheel. It means the back of the Saloon can modify the entire car's stance and attitude coming out of corners, making it so much more involving and rewarding in equal measure. Big powerslides possible? Maybe not, but there's no doubting this S3 does not feel anything like as nose-led and inert as it did prior to the switch to this torque-splitting rear axle.

We're still lukewarm on the S3's steering, which is accurate and light but largely feel-free, but the variable dampers fitted to our test car also gave the rapid Audi a fantastic blend of ride comfort - it's informative and firm-edged, but never crashy or uncomfortable - with spot-on body control at the limit, while the S3's brakes are strong and nicely calibrated. The added appeal of how well the Saloon drives is that, while the Sportback is one hot hatch among many, the S3 four-door doesn't have any obvious direct rivals - some of them, like a BMW M235i Gran Coupe or the Mercedes-AMG CLA 35, have the same number of access points to the passenger cabin but lay some pretence claim to coupe-dom. The Audi doesn't do that, making it all the more likeable; it's just a very accomplished compact supersaloon.

Value

The Audi S3 is a pricey proposition these days, although it feels worth the money given the overall quality of the way it looks outside and in, and how brilliantly it drives. It's sold in two specifications, Black Edition and Vorsprung, and the two body styles, giving a choice of four S3s to go at. Entry point is a Sportback Black Edition at 46,925, while the Vorsprung is a hefty 52,400. If you want the S3 as a Saloon, to either of these prices you add 565, resulting in our test four-door Vorsprung kicking off at a not-inconsiderable 52,965.

At least the equipment levels of the S3 are generous to compensate for the asking prices. On top of the equipment-enhanced kit list of a regular A3 model, the Black Edition S3 comes with 19-inch five-twin-spoke alloys in Anthracite Black, Progressive Steering, S Sport suspension, Audi Drive Select with the S3 Torque Splitter, a Sonos Premium Sound System, gloss-black and S-monogrammed brake calipers, Audi Beam, decorative inlays in Black Dinamica, the flat-bottomed three-spoke multifunction steering wheel with S logo and shift paddles, a head-up display, front Sport seats and rear seats in fine Nappa leather, adaptive cruise control, black exterior styling for badges and so on, and a multicoloured ambient lighting interior package.

The Vorsprung, meanwhile, goes full luxury with its own design of 19-inch multispoke alloys, damper control for the S Sport suspension, the S Technology Pack Pro, Audi Matrix LED headlights with LED rear lights, dynamic front and rear indicators, and a headlight cleaning system, carbon-fibre inlays, Advance Key, Audi Beam with Vorsprung logo, a 360-degree camera, electrically adjustable front seats with driver memory function, enhanced adaptive cruise with extra driver assist safety features, a panoramic roof, and a powered tailgate. So there are a lot of toys here for your money, which all goes to make the S3 Saloon Vorsprung feel as prestigious as a 50-grand-plus, 333hp car really ought to.

Verdict

Audi may have played it a bit safe with the rest of the updated A3 family, but what look like - on the surface - a couple of minor detail changes for the S3 have turned out to be transformative. The extra power and torque are neither here nor there, this was always a fast car and it remains so today, but the far more active and far more enjoyable rear axle on the Audi turns what was an underwhelming performance vehicle pre-facelift into something quite superb in this format. Order it as a Saloon for the maximum in kudos points, too.



Matt Robinson - 21 Apr 2024



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2024 Audi S3 Saloon. Image by Audi.2024 Audi S3 Saloon. Image by Audi.2024 Audi S3 Saloon. Image by Audi.2024 Audi S3 Saloon. Image by Audi.2024 Audi S3 Saloon. Image by Audi.

2024 Audi S3 Saloon. Image by Audi.2024 Audi S3 Saloon. Image by Audi.2024 Audi S3 Saloon. Image by Audi.2024 Audi S3 Saloon. Image by Audi.2024 Audi S3 Saloon. Image by Audi.








 

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