Audi S3 review
The Audi S3 combines a potent 296bhp turbo engine, four-wheel drive and a sharp chassis in a top-quality package
The S-badged models in the Audi range have always flown under the radar, and the latest S3 is no exception. That doesn’t mean it lacks the muscle we’ve come to expect from a hot hatch; it’s just that its understated looks and grown-up feel are a contrast to some of its more overtly sporting rivals.
Keen drivers may be disappointed that the sensible approach slightly dulls the thrills behind the wheel, but as rapid and refined A to B transport – with a big dose of practicality thanks to the wide range of bodystyles – the S3 takes some beating.
It’s a potent, high-quality alternative to the many other hot hatches on the market. And although it’s not the last word in performance and handling, with styling that’s not exciting enough for some tastes, the S3 is still a force to be reckoned with.
When it was first introduced back in 1999, the Audi S3 was the hottest model in the A3 family. Since 2011, it’s had to play second fiddle to the blisteringly quick RS3, but with 296bhp from its 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder engine, the latest S3 is a fast and powerful machine in its own right.
That sub-300bhp output puts the S3 somewhere in the middle of the hot hatch power chart, between the likes of the Ford Focus ST and Volkswagen Golf GTI at one end and the BMW 135i and Mercedes-AMG A 45 at the other. In terms of Audi’s own range, the S3 makes a desirable ‘halo’ model for the mainstream third-generation A3 line-up.
The latest A3 was the first car to be based on the VW Group’s new modular MQB platform, so from a technical perspective the S3 is bang up to date. Of course, it also features Audi’s trademark quattro four-wheel-drive system, although as it’s a transverse-engined model, it’s built with the Haldex system. That means the car usually sends power to the front wheels, but 100 per cent of torque can be diverted to the rear wheels as conditions dictate.
The S3 comes with a six-speed manual gearbox as standard, while Audi’s S tronic automated twin-clutch set-up can be specified at extra cost.
There isn’t much to set the car apart from other versions of the A3 visually, which is part of its appeal to many buyers. The bodywork is slightly more aggressive than that of the A3 S line, and the car gets silver wing mirrors, quad exhausts and different alloy wheel designs, as well as S3 badges. Interior changes are limited mostly to an upgraded instrument pack and sports seats.
The S3 isn’t only available as a three-door hatch. As part of the wider A3 range, the car also comes as a five-door Sportback, four-door Saloon and two-door Cabriolet – so there should be a version to suit everyone.
Engines, performance and drive
Fast Audis have long been focused more on effortless speed than driver interaction, and the latest S3 sticks to this formula. It serves up an unflappable driving experience, but it remains somewhat lacking in enjoyment when compared to the likes of the 316bhp BMW M135i.
Lower and stiffer suspension is designed to sharpen up the handling, although this can mean the car crashes over bumps and imperfections in the road, so it’s worth selecting the softer damper setting. A sports exhaust ensures the noise is more throaty than in a standard A3, but the steering could do with more feedback.
Even so, as it’s equipped with 25mm-lower springs than the standard A3, as well as quattro four-wheel-drive, the S3 sticks like glue through bends, and will only push wide with understeer if you try to carry too much speed through a corner.
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All that grip means you can get on the throttle early out of the other side, and you’ll find the pedal response sharp and straight-line acceleration very impressive.
The manual S3 will be the keen driver’s choice, but the S tronic automatic is well suited to the car’s hi-tech character. It shifts incredibly quickly when you’re driving hard, although it can prove jerky around town.
As well as the sports exhaust, Audi has fitted a speaker in the bulkhead to pump artificial engine noise into the cabin, with surprisingly good results. The tone is bassy as the revs rise, and you get some fizzes and pops from the exhaust if you spec the S tronic box.
The steering is less impressive, though. While the variable ratio system is direct and prevents the need for armfuls of lock, it provides next to no feel.
The latest S3 is powered by a 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbocharged TFSI engine, and this delivers 296bhp and 380Nm of torque across a wide rev range – 1,800-5,500rpm.
Tech developments include the use of new, stronger internal components, and a new lightweight alloy cylinder head. Audi says the current engine spec is 5kg lighter than the previous version, as well as more powerful.
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It revs to a 6,800rpm maximum, and when pressed the S3 hatchback will cover 0-62mph in 4.8 seconds with the optional six-speed S tronic gearbox fitted; with the standard six-speed manual, the sprint takes 5.2 seconds.
All bodystyles will go on to reach a limited top speed 155mph, although Saloons are a tenth slower from 0-62mph, while the Cabriolet – which is only available with the S tronic box – takes 5.3 seconds.
MPG, CO2 and running costs
Impressively, the 2.0-litre TFSI in the latest S3 is not only more powerful than the previous model’s engine, but cleaner and more efficient, too. When hooked up to the S tronic transmission, it claims fuel economy of 41mpg and 159g/km CO2 emissions for the three-door hatchback and five-door Sportback versions. The six-speed manual box makes these cars slightly less efficient, with 40mpg and 162g/km.
Go for the S3 Saloon, and you can expect 40mpg economy irrespective of gearbox; the S tronic claims 160g/km of CO2 and the manual emits 164g/km. Meanwhile, the S tronic-only Cabriolet has official figures of 39mpg and 165g/km. This means the entire S3 range sits in road tax band G, so buyers currently pay £180 per year in VED.
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Starting prices for the Audi S3 range are slightly higher than for its BMW M135i rival, at just under £31,000 for three-door models. And if you want an automatic box, you’ll pay a premium of around £1,500 on all variants.
Prices increase through Sportback, Saloon and Cabriolet versions of the S3, with the latter weighing in at just under £40,000. BMW’s M235i Convertible is around £2,500 cheaper.
That’s before you’ve started to spec your car, and as ever with an Audi, it’s easy to get carried away with options. However, residual values should be strong, and the brand offers a range of fixed-price servicing plans to help keep maintenance costs down.
Most versions of the Audi S3 sit in insurance group 36, apart from the S3 Cabriolet, which is bumped up to group 42. So your annual premiums are going to be expensive – although the car does compare favourably with the BMW M135i, which sits in group 39 across the board. Then again, the BMW M235i Convertible is rated below the S3 Cabriolet, in group 40.
The Audi S3 has a very strong reputation for holding on to its value. In fact, taking into account the cost of ownership – including fuel and servicing – trade expert CAP claimed in 2014 that you’d be better off buying a new S3 than a year-old one. Either way, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to expect the car to retain a healthy 55 per cent of its purchase price come resale time in three years.
Interior, design and technology
The Audi S3 is a great hot hatch option if you’re not looking to attract attention. The styling tweaks over lesser A3s are subtle, but are easily identified by Audi fans. They include silver wing mirrors, quad exhausts, slightly more aggressive bodywork than the A3 S line and some S3 badges dotted around the interior and exterior. Xenon headlamps and LED daytime running lights also set the S3 apart, and we think the car looks purposeful and poised on its standard 18-inch alloy wheels.
As with the standard A3, it’s built on the VW Group’s latest modular MQB platform, so the car shares key engineering elements with models including the SEAT Leon, Volkswagen Golf and Passat, and Audi’s own TT – with more to come. Yet this group cost-saving strategy is certainly not apparent in the product.
The interior has always been one of the biggest selling points of the regular A3. It combines liberal use of top-quality plastics with a very cohesive and premium design, backed up by impeccable build quality and highly tactile switchgear.
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The S3 only adds to this, creating an extra sense of occasion with its quilted Nappa leather wingback sports seats, a flat-bottomed S3 steering wheel with multifunction controls, and a turbo boost gauge in the rev counter. The instrument dials all have grey faces and white pointers, exclusive to the S3, and you also get a set of racing car-style lightweight alloy pedals to remind you of the car’s potential.
Sat-nav, stereo and infotainment
The S3 is available with Audi’s MMI Navigation, including MMI touch. This allows you to ‘write’ characters on the top surface of the control wheel with your finger – useful for entering postcodes and phone numbers.
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You can also enable Audi connect to hook the car up to the Internet, and the seven-inch flat screen will display user-tailored services from social media to mapping and contacts. Voice recognition allows you to send text messages on the move without having to touch your smartphone, too.
The high-quality DAB sound system can be further upgraded to Bang and Olufsen spec, which includes subwoofers mounted in the doors.
Practicality, comfort and boot space
Practicality is one of the major points of differentiation between models in the S3 range, due to the variety of bodystyles available. If space and versatility is important to you, the S3 Cabriolet is least likely to appeal – but all the other models provide reasonable practicality
All serve up decent comfort for the driver and front passenger. The standard leather sports seats are supportive when you’re pushing hard, yet comfortable enough for long journeys. Plus, there’s a wide range of adjustment, so few owners will find fault with the driving position.
Cabin storage is decent without being exceptional; there are large bottle holders in the door bins, a central storage cubby for odds and ends and a reasonable-sized glovebox.
To boost the S3’s practicality, Audi offers a fair amount of tech, too. Aside from Internet access via the MMI system, with all its associated apps and services, you can specify a reversing cameras and an automated ‘hands-free’ parking system.
At 4,237mm long, the S3 hatchback and Sportback are a little shorter than the 4,263mm SEAT Leon – in spite of shared underpinnings – and the 4,324mm BMW M135i. The size and packaging mean the Audi offers less interior space than its VW Group stablemates the Leon and Volkswagen Golf, but it’s only those sitting in the back who will feel the pinch.
Leg room, head room & passenger space
Large door openings on the three-door mean access to the rear isn’t as tricky as in some rivals, but once you’ve climbed aboard, the space is a little cramped, especially for adults. The same goes for the S3 Sportback and Saloon, but at least their rear doors make it easier to get in.
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The Cabriolet provides the worst rear accommodation, as the hood mechanism pushes the back seat closer to the front row. Still, all models have three seatbelts in the rear as standard, as well as Isofix child seat mountings.
With the rear seats in place, the S3 three-door offers a boot capacity of 325 litres, and this extends to 1,060 litres when they’re folded. Rivals like the BMW 1 Series and Volkswagen Golf provide more space, but the load bay in the Audi is a useful size and shape. The five-door Sportback has 340 litres and 1,220 litres thanks to its longer wheelbase.
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As you’d expect, the S3 Saloon isn’t as practical as either of the hatchback models, even with the seats folded, although it does serve up the largest boot space with the rear seats in place, at 390 litres.
Not surprisingly, the S3 Cabriolet has the smallest boot, with a capacity of only 285 litres when the roof is retracted.
Reliability and Safety
As it’s a high-performance hatch, the Audi S3 will inevitably work its way through tyres and brakes more quickly than a standard A3. That’s no reason to believe the car will be any less reliable, though, because the quattro powertrain, as well as the engines and electronics, have been so thoroughly tested across so many different models within the VW Group. The car also feels extremely well screwed together, with no flimsy trim or materials to generate annoying squeaks or rattles.
Audi trailed rivals in the Auto Express Driver Power 2015 satisfaction survey, finishing in 13th place out of 32 in the manufacturers’ chart and 25th out of 31 in the dealers poll. But the standard A3 put in an impressive performance, ranking 27th out of 200 cars to give you some peace of mind.
The A3 was awarded a full five-star crash test rating by Euro NCAP, having scored 95 per cent in the adult occupant protection category. And, as you’d expect from a premium brand like Audi, the S3 is available with a whole host of advanced safety equipment.
These options range from radar-controlled cruise control and lane keep assist to traffic sign detection and a self-parking function – although they’re not necessarily cheap. Still, multiple airbags, anti-lock brakes and stability control are all included as standard.
The Audi S3 comes with a three-year, 60,000-mile warranty, which is par for the course, but nothing special these days. Premium brands in general have some catching up to do with the warranty commitments made by more mainstream rivals, such as Toyota (five years/100,000 miles), Hyundai (five years/unlimited miles) and Kia (seven years/100,000 miles).
As usual, you can pay to extend the warranty, although this doesn’t come cheap. Increasing the cover to up to five years will set you back a not insignificant £545.
On paper, the servicing options for the Audi S3 look a little complicated, but really they’re not. You just need to decide whether you’re a low-mileage driver (covering under 10,000 miles annually) or not.
Cars on the low-mileage servicing scheme require fixed annual check-ups. Meanwhile, owners who choose the high-mileage programme can opt for a variable schedule – this relies on the on-board computer to provide a dashboard alert when maintenance is needed.
Audi offers a variety of fixed price servicing plans, too, but the reality is that the S3 shouldn’t cost any more to maintain than an equivalent Volkswagen Golf.