New Audi S3

9 Apr, 2013 7:45pm Jack Rix

We get behind the wheel of the all-new 296bhp Audi S3, ahead of its arrival in UK showrooms in July

Verdict

4
The new S3 feels as crushingly fast as its predecessor in a straight line, but makes unexpected improvements in other areas. The bassy soundtrack is as close to a six-cylinder as a four-cylinder gets, it feels lighter on its toes in corners and the lightning-fast S tronic gearbox is a perfect match. Dial down the dynamic settings and it's more refined and comfortable than ever, too. More feedback through the steering wheel would be appreciated, and ultimately the handling feels safe rather than lively, but Audi has done enough to make keen drivers think twice before buying the BMW M135i.

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.

Disqus - noscript

This car looks so perfect! And it's around £6k cheaper than the A45 AMG and very nearly as quick! Gimme one please.

The car every t*sser in the land wants, and every estate agent t*sser will drive. No thanks!!

I think I'd take the M135i out of the 3 cars, best looking in my eye and that engine along with RWD is hot hatch gold IMO. I do like the new A3 though.

You only buy this car if you can't afford the RS3 when that comes along

Why would you waste 10-15k on an RS3 that might do 0-60 in 0.5 seconds less?? I think you would only get an RS3 if you had more money than sense.

How ilogical, the RS3 is aimed at a completely different customer. That's like saying you only buy the RS3 if you can't afford the R8.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but the 1 series is notorious as being one of the ugliest vehicles ever made.

I think it looks good, your opinion of how it looks has no baring on my thoughts and is of no interest.

Superb car!! Stylish yet subtle.

The 1 Series is ugly, 99.99999% of people think this... You're in the 0.000001% who don't, therefore you're opinion is wrong.

Looks are subjective, there is no right or wrong.

That's a bit of an exaggeration pal, I myself aren't keen on the 1-Series, but his opinion's his opinion, it can't be wrong.

If you paint the one series light green, it would look like the pig from angry birds!!

Ssangyong?

296bhp and a 0-62mph time of 4.8 seconds @ GBP32k!
Those are some impressive stats, I must say. I shudder to think how fast the RS will be.
Think about it: sub-5s to 100kmph in a supermarket hatch. That is incredible, in light of emmission control, safety nazis and the general encroachment of the nanny state in all areas.

Seems like a great car. I still prefer the M135i though - more fun to drive, better sound and better looking (no, it it is not ugly, and the Audi is just plain boring). People claiming the M135i is ugly have not seen one in real life.

Why couldn't this motor car, for all its undouted virtues, look just a teeny weeny bit different to its predecessor to any but car nerds? Are its customers so devoid of imagination that they can't cope with anything new? Mon Repos on wheels I fear (or possibly Chez Nous.)

It is fast. Full stop. Shame it doesn't have the looks to go with a sub-5 second car. It rolls in corners and the steering is light and handling is nowhere near as good as the baby Beemer or even the baby Merc.

...Or they just have a different opinion to yours?

Yes, of course. Different people, different opinions and preferences. That's just how it's supposed to be. Would be boring otherwise.

What do you want? An ugly massive aerofoil on the back of it perhaps?.. side skirts, maybe big scoops and big bendy creases going down the sides in some un-proportional way to make it stand out. Maybe some tasteful stripes? This A3 looks superb, and thank God it looks the way it does. It is stylish, sleek and subtle, unlike many of the gargoyles that are being produced by other manufacturers today. The baby Merc is an awful car.

I like the New Audi S3

Hmm, as the owner of an '09 plate S3 here are some thoughts: The improved dynamics and especially the 60kg weight reduction are very welcome. I see from the early reviews thought that the new S3 will still have the same old Audi problem of lack of steering feel. What is their problem with that? It seems to infest most of their cars so you have to wonder if, for some bizarre reason, it is deliberate. It's my main criticism of the current car. As for the styling, well there is no doubt it is good looking car but for me it just looks too much like a bigger A1 and almost identical to an S-Line. I like understated but this is so under the radar you'll look at it and think: It's a what?? It was how much??? I'm getting a bit bored of my S3 now so will I chop it in for this new one? No... I'm probably going back to rear drive BMW because I can actually drive a bit. You might 'fly round corners' in a downpour in the S3 as one comment puts it but I'll be having a lot more fun driving full stop.

Is the new RS3 going to have 8 exhausts?

It'll have two ovals ones, probably.

The other 'S' models have 4 exhausts as well, 'RS' models usually have two huge circular exhausts.

I have driven neither the Merc nor the S3. My comment was based on car reviews that I have read.

Since you bothered asking, I'll quote from a couple, but next time, please do your own reading.

Andrew Fenkel (The Sunday Times): The S3 just isn't that much fun to drive. For a start, the ride is too harsh, even on the smooth Bavarian roads.

It's a problem that would be just about tolerable if the chassis were of a calibre to make you want to drive it fast on a good road to begin with, but this one doesn't. It may be astonishingly quick in a straight line, but in the corners it is simply frustrating.

"For all its class-leading attributes, the S3 is among their number, a machine that drives better on paper than it does in real life."

Greg Kable (Autocar) mentions the S3's rather conservative appearance relative to the competition. He says: There's little drama to the performance and the soundtrack lacks intensity.

The problem is, the S3 lacks feedback, and with it feels rather characterless."

The most boring car on earth

Most of those comments say nothing of the handling. In recent years, S3s have been very good and neutral handlers. Given that it shares the same basic layout and AWD system as the A45, I can't imagine the A45 handling "better." And the S3 will have no problem keeping up with the M135i on a twisty road; rear-wheel drive power slides aren't the fastest way around a track or from A to B.

I'm about to order one, I was going A45 but merc have recalled them so I didn't bother plus I'd save 8k, I can live with 0.4 seconds. I,ll admit it was between this and the new Golf R but the audi was much nicer inside

Key specs

  • Price: £31,980
  • Engine: 2.0-litre four-cyl turbo
  • Transmission: Six-speed dual-clutch auto, four-wheel drive
  • Power/torque: 296bhp/380Nm
  • 0-62mph: 4.8 seconds
  • Top speed: 155mph (limited)
  • Economy: 40.9mpg
  • CO2: 159g/km
  • Equipment: Leather sports seats, flat-bottomed steering wheel, 18-inch alloys, sports suspension, cruise control
  • On sale: July

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