Audi S3 Sportback review: an early drive in polished, punchy, posh rocket

Published:04 February 2020

New 2020 Audi S3 Sportback: we drive a camouflaged prototype
  • At a glance
  • 4 out of 5
  • 5 out of 5
  • 3 out of 5
  • 4 out of 5
  • 4 out of 5

By Tim Pollard

Editorial director of CAR's digital publishing arm. Motoring news magnet

By Tim Pollard

Editorial director of CAR's digital publishing arm. Motoring news magnet

► New 2020 Audi S3 Sportback review
► Early drive in prototype hot hatch
► 306bhp, new-generation AWD

The Audi A3 range was a quiet pioneer back at launch in 1996, beating the BMW 1-series and Mercedes-Benz A-Class to market by years. Hard to believe then, that the fourth generation will arrive at this spring’s Geneva motor show - and we’ve sneaked an early review of the new 2020 Audi S3 hot hatch, driven here in final prototype guise.

This explains the extraordinary ‘camouflage’ (aka marketing wrap) that adorns the five-door Sportback bodywork of the car we’re driving in the Azores. To all intents and purposes, this car is a production-ready prototype and mechanically it feels tight and ready for showrooms. Only a few of the electronic settings and final grains of plastic may change before full series production starts in time for UK deliveries in August 2020 (you can order one from May, prices expected from just under £39,000).

What’s new on the 2020 Audi S3 Sportback?

Frustratingly, we don’t yet have all the mechanical specs of the S3. While the A3 Sportback family will be shown at the Geneva motor show on 3 March, the S3 derivative won’t be shown until May so the finer details of the engineering package will have to wait until later this spring.

Audi S3 Sportback, 2020 model year

That didn’t stop your correspondent from probing away and by grilling many Audi engineers we’ve painted a useful picture of what to expect. And it looks like the new Audi S3 Sportback will continue its position at the slicker end of the hot hatch family tree. Ingolstadt knows how to balance muted restraint and premium polish with some fiendishly clever engineering that underpins its hot hatch creds.

So we know that the 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine continues with little mechanical change; the engineering focus was on maintaining outputs - believed to be 310ps, or 306bhp and 400Nm (295lb ft) of torque - while meeting tougher emissions regulations, which introduce the need for a petrol particulate filter.

No performance claims are available yet, but the new S3 is devilishly fast and we’d anticipate 0-62mph in the high four-second bracket and a top speed capped at 155mph.

Haldex 6 and a new generation of Quattro all-wheel drive

One of the main higlights of the 2020 Audi S3 family is its drivetrain. Part of the reason this model has become a significant seller, accounting for one in five A3 sales in the UK, is its all-weather ability and grippy Quattro all-wheel drive. New for the fourth generation is a brand new 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.

It’s the VW Group debut for this Borg Warner hardware, which does away with some of the complexity of earlier Haldex clutches and is designed to be lighter and faster to respond; drive at a cruise and the pump is switched off entirely, but the moment the ECU detects slip or a likely need for extra traction (when cornering or driving uphill, say) it primes the pump and applies an extraordinary 44 bars of pressure within 100 milliseconds to engage the mechanical clutch and send drive rearwards. The all-wheel drive systems adds around 70kg of extra weight and will be available on lesser A3s before too long. 

Audi S3 Sportback review

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. On this evidence, it works well.

Audi S3 review: how does it drive?

If the upgraded Quattro system is one major leap forward, the second is the latest adaptive dampers, which will be standard on the new S3. Their range of adjustment is increased by around 40%, according to the chassis engineers, 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.

We experienced a range of road surfaces in the Azores and the S3 Sportback had an admirable capability in most situations. 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. The new A3 Sportback bodyshell feels torsionally rigid and you can feel the suspension (MacPherson struts up front, a multi-link rear on more powerful models) working well to isolate passengers, despite the large 19-inch Bridgestone tyres fitted to our prototype vehicles.

New 2020 Audi S3 Sportback review

Crank it to Dynamic and the steering weights up nicely, without some of the artificial heft that earlier systems experienced, and the melody from the trademark quad exhaust pipes takes on a five-cylinder warble reminiscent of earlier RS3s and - dare we say it - Quattros. It’s artificially enhanced by a speaker attached to the scuttle ahead of the driver and we found it surprisingly well judged, with the occasional pop and bang on the overrun. You can already imagine Audi’s sound engineers applying 27% more grrrr for the upcoming RS3.

Performance and overtaking ability

Although no figures are yet confirmed, it’s obvious the S3 is a quick car. A tap on the stubby, short metal gearlever (it’s more of a switch on the centre console) will flick between Drive and Sport, whereupon you finger-tap paddles on the steering wheel to zip up and down the seven ratios of the S Tronic dual-clutch transmission. Performance is more than ample and I’d question the need for anything faster - only power addicts will need to consider that future RS3. There’s even a launch mode for full-bore standing starts; tellingly, it caps the number of usages to five (after which it pulls the plug on the traffic light grand prix).

Enthusiastic driving will clearly take its toll on economy. No efficiency or CO2 ratings are published yet, but during our somewhat spirited laps of the Azores and its verdant topography, we saw fuel consumption plunge way below what the official figures will likely claim, averaging just 21mpg according to the onboard trip computer. Low rolling-resistance tyres and stop-start will only go so far…

Expect new 2020 Audi S3 Sportback to cost from around £38,500 in the UK

The interiors of our prototypes were disguised and we’re not allowed to tell you yet what the cabin is like in detail. Suffice to say the usual Audi build quality is present and correct and the level of digitisation mimics the MQB platform buddies such as the new VW Golf 8 and Seat Leon - so big screens, huge sweeping digital instruments and a host of clever driver aids make a first appearance. There are striking J-shaped metallic door handles front and rear, and puddle lights under each doorway projecting four-ringed Audi logos on to the road when you open the front doors. More than that, we can’t yet tell you.

Audi S3 Sportback interior and practicality

The A3 bodyshell has swollen over the years and this is now a surprisingly roomy car: space up front is generous and my 6ft 3in frame can comfortably sit behind myself in the back seats (only the one-piece quilted leather front sports seats block the view somewhat, which may annoy inquisitive children). There’s also a typically large transmission tunnel bisecting the rear compartment, owing to that propshaft sending drive rearwards. Count on two rear passengers, not three.

That Haldex clutch sitting just ahead of the back axle does gobble up some bootspace; where a normal A3 Sportback has a double-decker loadbay, the S3 has a single-tier boot, but it’s a fair size and a practical shape for swallowing your day-to-day clobber.

Author Tim Pollard and the new 2020 Audi S3 Sportback

Verdict

The new 2020 Audi S3 will continue its positioning at the posher end of the hot hatch scale. If you want more thrills and bluster, and extra posing power, the chances are you may prefer the rear-drive handling of the BMW M140i or the rorty behaviour of a more in-yer-face fast Ford. But on this early evidence, Audi’s popular hot hatch will provide a compelling mix of skills, scoring highly in all-weather rocketship ability, premium polish and a great all-round package. We’ll update our Audi S3 Sportback review later in summer 2020 when we drive the series production hot hatch.

Read on for our earlier review of the outgoing Audi S3 Sportback by Jake Groves.


Audi S3 Sportback review: the 2019 one

► Audi's S3 hatchback tested
► 306bhp 2.0-litre 4cyl turbo
► Plus auto 'box and quattro

CAR’s offices are based in Peterborough, UK - a small amount of you reading this will know that already. But did you know that the 200,000th Golf R was recently sold here? They’re ten-a-penny in the surrounding areas near CAR HQ, with at least five finding spaces in our office car park.

It’s a great car, but what if you want to at least be a teeny bit different when it comes to picking your under-the-radar hot hatch? Audi’s S3 should be on your shortlist. We’ve already driven the S3 Saloon, but we thought we’d give the Sportback hatch a drive, given its wider remit in Europe.

So, what’s special about this thing?

It’s a spicy mix but not exactly anything ground-breaking, looking at the on-paper stats. A 2.0-litre turbo petrol that cranks out more than 300bhp, Audi’s usual quattro all-wheel drive system, seven-speed dual-clutch box and sports suspension.

Given this is an S model, rather than an RS3, there are quad exhausts instead of two fat oval ones, and the car we tested was the slightly pricier (and more handsome) S3 Black Edition, which isn’t pictured. As the name suggests, the grille, window surrounds and door mirrors are finished in black and Audi throws in a Bang and Olufsen sound system as standard.

How’s the interior?

Getting on a bit in terms of design, but the A3’s 2016 update kept things from getting too stale. There’s a flat-bottomed steering wheel, navigation and media services navigated through a retractable screen and some chunky soft-touch plastics.

Audi S3 Sportback interior

The S tronic’s shifter is a little old-school compared to Optimus Prime foot-like lever found in newer Audis and the graphics on the infotainment screen aren’t as crisp as some rivals but it all still works well.

Is it fast?

Absolutely. The VW Group 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo is the same staple found in the Golf R and range of Seat Leon Cupras, for example. Like those cars, acceleration is smooth right up to the redline, with a hearty growl as you get there and a cheeky fart on upshifts from the dual-clutch ‘box.

It’s deceptively fast for something that doesn’t appear much different to a well-specified A3 S-line in the looks department.

And the handling?

More playful than you expect, actually. There’s bags of grip from Audi’s all-wheel drive system, squirting the S3 around corners at considerable lick without a hint of understeer. But if you want to be a bit more playful you can really egg it on into kicking the tail out. A welcome surprise.

The 2019 Audi S3 Sportback review: road test, prices and a verdict you can trust

With the optional Magnetic Ride (required if you want the larger 19-inch, five-spoke alloys), we recommend keeping the S3 out of Dynamic mode when not driving like you’re in a hurry – the ride is extremely jiggly. Our setup of having the engine and exhaust in Dynamic, gearbox in Manual and suspension in Comfort seemed the best fit for almost any driving situation.

Verdict

This generation of A3 might be getting on a bit, but the S3 is still an incredibly desirable bit of kit. The engine is punchy, there’s grip aplenty and the interior is usefully laid out and well-built.

There’s a restrained aura to the way it delivers that power – much like the Golf R – and there’s a stigma attached to small fast Audis that won’t make you the most popular driver in your neighbourhood, but the S3 is a truly desirable bit of kit.

Check out our Audi reviews

Specs

Price when new: £38,500
On sale in the UK: Orders May/June 2020, deliveries August 2020
Engine: 1984cc four-cylinder petrol, 306bhp, 295lb ft, full specs to be confirmed
Transmission: 7-speed twin-clutch S-Tronic automatic, all-wheel drive
Performance: tbc 0-62mph, 155mph (limited), tbc mpg, tbc CO2
Weight / material: tbc/steel and aluminium
Dimensions (length/width/height in mm): tbc

Rivals

Other Models

Photo Gallery

  • The new 2020 Audi S3 Sportback sports an identical 306bhp to its predecessor
  • Zebra disguise, Kings Road stance: the new 2020 Audi A3 Sportback in sporty S guise
  • They didn't do a very good job with the camouflage: you can still read the S3 badge!
  • Quad exhaust pipes give the game away: this is the new Audi S3 Sportback
  • Audi S3 Sportback: five doors only and no three-door in 2020
  • Hand-cut disguise for new 2020 Audi S3 Sportback on the Azores
  • Audi A3 Sportback is a little bigger than before, but not by much
  • Expect new 2020 Audi S3 Sportback to cost from around £38,500 in the UK
  • Author Tim Pollard and the new 2020 Audi S3 Sportback

By Tim Pollard

Editorial director of CAR's digital publishing arm. Motoring news magnet

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