The Audi S3 has always been a powerhouse in the world of hot hatches, and with 296bhp and a 0-62mph time of 4.8 seconds, this third-generation model is the most powerful four-cylinder Audi has ever made. On paper it trounces rivals like the 276bhp Vauxhall Astra VXR and 247bhp Ford Focus ST, and competes directly with the 316bhp six-cylinder BMW M135i. But can it succeed where so many hot Audis have failed and deliver not just numbers, but real excitement on the road?
While the engine's 2.0-litre capacity is identical to its predecessor, it's been thoroughly reworked to produce an extra 35bhp and burn around 20 per cent less fuel - and the extra power is obvious, right from the off. Squeeze the throttle and after a brief pause as the turbo fills its lungs, the car punches forward with an urgency most hot-hatch fans won't recognise.
The power delivery is linear and super smooth, right up to the 6,500rpm red line, and feels as close to a six-cylinder as you'll get in a car with just four. Another surprise is the bassy engine note, not just at high rpm, but throughout the rev range. It may be the product of a speaker (or 'electromechanical sound actuator' as Audi describes it) embedded in the bulk head along with flaps in the exhaust, but it draws you into the driving experience and immediately elevates the S3 above lesser A3s in the range.
There are two gearboxes to choose from, a six-speed manual or for an extra £1,480 you can have the six-speed twin-clutch S tronic fitted to our test car. Opting for the auto has a number of benefits; it improves fuel economy and CO2 emissions from 40.4mpg and 162g/km in the manual model to 40.9mpg and 159g/km, and also cuts the 0-62mph time by 0.4 seconds, thanks to a launch control function.
Die-hard hot-hatch fans are unlikely to agree, but it's probably a better fit than the manual, considering the S3's high-tech approach. Leave it to think for itself and shifts are beautifully ironed-out at all but very low speeds, while it fires through the changes instantaneously in manual mode, with a small burp from the exhausts on upshifts.
The S3 hasn't just been to the gym, it's been on a diet, too - shedding 60kg compared to the old model. Thinner, stronger steels used in the MQB platform, as well as an aluminium bonnet, front wings and front suspension sub-frame all contribute - and there's a positive effect on the handling, too.
Audi has fitted a variable ratio steering system to the S3, which means there's less twitchiness around the straight-ahead, but the car will turn progressively sharper the more angle you apply to the wheel. It certainly works, but unfortunately there's relatively little feel, just added weight as you toggle up through the various driving modes. Still, the way the car reacts to your inputs is pleasing - tucking its nose in quickly, digging its claws into the road and egging you on to get back on the throttle as early as you dare.
There are benefits to front-wheel drive (low-cost, lightweight) and rear-wheel drive (agile handling), but the four-wheel-drive S3 makes a unique case for itself. There's none of the torque steer associated with front-wheel drive and all that grip means you can fling it around like a hooligan and be fairly sure you won't end up facing the wrong way. Plus, driving it fast is as simple as it gets; you simply point it at a corner, turn the wheel, feel a hint of understeer and blast out the other side. And the same applies when the weather turns grim.
Throttle response, damper stiffness, steering weight and shift points for the S tronic gearbox can all be altered via the adaptive dynamics system, which offers five modes - comfort, auto, dynamic, efficiency or individual. Opting for dynamic really brings the car alive on twisty roads, and turns the volume up to maximum, but never feels overly harsh. A brittle ride has always been a given on S and RS models, but while the S3 has 25mm lower suspension and firmer spring and damper settings than the standard A3, it's a more refined car than its predecessor when you want it to be, yet more agile, raucous and engaging when you find the right road.
Fast Audis have always been about flying under the radar, and the S3 continues that trend. You'll be able to spot one thanks to its silver wing mirrors, quad exhausts, 18-inch alloys and deeper bodywork, but it doesn't shout about its performance. It's a similar story on the inside, where stunning wing-back sports seats covered in quilted leather, a flat-bottomed S3-branded steering wheel and a turbo boost gauge within the rev counter are the only giveaways. But when an interior is as well-crafted as the A3's in the first place, subtle enhancements are all it takes.