► New 2020 Audi S3 Sportback review
► Angry looks and new tech...
► ...plus tried-and-tested powertrain
The 300(ish) horsepower, all-wheel drive hot hatch market is getting crowded. Alongside the perennial Golf R, BMW and Mercedes-AMG have gotten in on the action with the M135i and A35. Put it altogether, and Audi’s latest S3 has some serious competition.
What’s new on the Audi S3 Sportback?
A fresh look to coincide with the regular A3, obviously, with a tremendously aggressive face complete with angled design elements in the front bumper and detailed light clusters, and quad exhausts at the rear. And unlike other cars made by Ingolstadt, the S3's pipes are fully functional.
Changes to a regular A3 hatch are few and far between inside, save for sports seats that use recycled PET plastic bottles in the upholstery and Audi Sport graphics for the digital instrument cluster. Material quality is fine, if not the usual Audi stellar, and the stubborn curmudgeon in me breathes a sigh of relief that the A3 has manual air-con controls over the Golf and Octavia’s touchscreen menus. Even so, the cabin isn’t filled with much in the way of surprise and delight.
The main highlight of the S3, though, is its capable powertrain – one that’s familiar to VW Group fans. The engineering focus for the powertrain was to maintain outputs – which the teams have achieved: the 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo makes 306bhp and 295lb ft, sprinting to 62mph in 4.8 seconds and onto 155mph.
What's the interior like?
It's quite subtle, but there are some changes under the skin that add up to a gentle evolution. New tech includes a Haldex 6 multi-plate clutch slung under the boot floor, apportioning drive front and rear in a more sophisticated way than systems from the past two decades. That Haldex clutch sitting just ahead of the back axle does gobble up some boot space; where a normal A3 Sportback has a double-decker loadbay, the S3 has a single-tier boot, dropping boot litreage from 380 down to 325, but it’s still a fair size and a practical shape for swallowing your day-to-day clobber.
For the first time, the S3’s quattro system can now be entirely rear-wheel drive in extremis, and the electronic brain brakes individual wheels for a torque vectoring effect. Power around a slippery corner at speed, plant the throttle and you can feel the Audi tuck in to the corner, with an impressively neutral feeling and a high level of grip. Instead of having different control systems for the quattro, dampers and brakes there is now a single unified digital brain making decisions for a smoother, quicker, more reliable response. Adaptive suspension is on the options list, as are larger 19-inch wheels (S3s roll on 18s normally) – both are standard only on toppy Vorsprung models.
Strong performance then?
Oh, absolutely. The S3, like its Golf R compadre, is one of those cars that is almost completely effortless to drive quickly. Given the familiar powertrain, the S3 will be like putting on an old pair of trainers for VW Group hot hatch owners – despite being turbocharged, this engine suffers no boosty lumps of power anywhere in the rev range – just a continuous surge of acceleration from 2000rpm to the limiter.
The dual-clutch auto still shifts gears with impeccable finesse but gone is the sliding shifter of the old model – replaced by what looks like a metal cigarette packet sticking out of the centre console. There’s no manual switch or selection, but the gearbox locks the car in manual when you start using the paddles.
The most noticeable change over the old model is how raspy and aggressive the engine sounds in this latest tune. The noise is artificially enhanced when you’re in Dynamic, but it’s well judged – not overly video game-esque in sound, with the odd tactical pop and bang from the exhausts. Nice.
How does the latest S3 drive, then?
Our test car had the adaptive dampers option box ticked, and one we recommend you do when it comes to ordering one that isn’t a Vorsprung. Their range of adjustment is increased by around 40%, according to the chassis engineers we talked to during our prototype drive, allowing for softer settings and a pillowy ride comfort or, at the other extreme, a firmer set-up for vice-like body control when you’re playing out your Hannu Mikkola fantasies on the B-road drive home.
You control many of the systems (dampers, steering weighting, throttle response, gearbox mapping and exhaust sound) through the Audi Drive Select button on the decluttered dashboard. In Comfort mode, the car feels more relaxed, softer damper settings soaking up cobbled roads, lumps and bumps. Crank it to Dynamic and the steering weights up nicely, without some of the artificial heft that earlier systems experienced. That’s the marked change over the previous S3: while there’s still not a generous amount of feel, this generation turns more eagerly into bends than before. That alertness is welcome when you’re stringing hairpin bends together in the European wilderness.
That more alert steering wheel is complemented greatly by the skiploads of grip available – the S3 is a very difficult car to unstick from the road, even when you’re entering corners far too quickly.
New Audi S3: verdict
The new Audi S3 continues its positioning at the posher end of the hot hatch scale. The sheer pace and grip available from the engine and drivetrain are more than enough to be worth your time, in that very polished, all-round-package kind of way.
But all of this adds up to a ruthlessly efficient experience and not exactly much of a really fun one. I’m willing to bet you can cover more ground in an S3 than you can in some purpose-built sports cars, let alone other hot hatches, but some of those who arrive at the finishing line later will have a wider grin on their face.
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