Audi S3 review
The Audi S3 offers excellent quality, a potent 296bhp engine, four-wheel drive and a sharp chassis
With quattro four-wheel drive and 296bhp from its all-new 2.0 turbocharged engine, this latest Audi S3 sits above the usual hot-hatch suspects like the 247bhp Ford Focus ST and 267bhp Vauxhall Astra VXR. Instead it goes up against the 316bhp BMW M135i and 355bhp Mercedes A45 AMG. Fast Audis are famed for their exceptional acceleration, and the S3 certainly delivers with a 0-62mph time of 4.8 seconds if you order the optional six-speed DSG gearbox. A sports exhaust and a speaker in the bulkhead give it a bassier tone on full throttle than lesser A3s, while the variable ratio steering is direct but could do with more feel. Lower and stiffer suspension is fitted to sharpening up the handling, and it works, but select the softest damper setting and the S3 is more forgiving than its predecessors. This time around, there are four S3 models to choose from - three-door, five-door Sportback, four-door Saloon, and Cabriolet.
Our choice: S3 Saloon manual
If you want to fly under the radar, any of the Audi S3 models are ideal. There are subtle changes over the less potent models in the A3 range - including silver wing mirrors, quad exhausts, 18-inch alloys and deeper bodywork - but it doesn't shout about its performance. The standard A3 already has the best interior in its class, and the S3 adds to the sense of occasion with stunning wingback sports seats covered in quilted leather, a flat-bottomed S3-branded steering wheel and a turbo boost guage in the rev counter.
Fast Audis have always focused more on effortless speed than genuine driver interaction, and true to form the S3 feels unflappable, but lacks the personality of the BMW M135i. The combination of firmer, 25mm-lower suspension and four-wheel drive means all models stick to the road like glue; only if you carry ridiculous speeds into corners will it begin to push wide with understeer. All that grip means you can jump back on the throttle early in corners and, for a turbocharged engine, throttle response is razor-sharp, while straight-line acceleration is huge. Audi offers a choice of a six-speed manual and a six-speed DSG automatic. The manual model is the driver's choice, while the DSG that feels the better fit with the S3’s hi-tech character. However, while the S Tronic gearbox's party piece is quick-fire shifts when you're driving hard, it's rather jerky around town. As well as a sports exhaust, Audi has fitted a speaker in the bulkhead that pumps artificial engine noise into the cabin – it’s a questionable strategy, but one that works, giving a bassy tone as the revs rise. Choose the DSG gearbox and you get to enjoy little burps from the exhaust on upshifts, too. Our only complaint is with the variable ratio steering – it’s direct and prevents the need for armfuls of lock, but there next to no feel.
Although its higher-performance threshold means the S3 will undoubtedly chomp through tyres and brakes quicker than the standard A3, there’s no reason to believe it will be any less reliable. It has a full five-star Euro NCAP crash test rating, with 95 per cent in the adult occupant protection category, and its stuffed with all the advanced safety systems you’d expect from a premium car. They include radar-controlled cruise control, lane keep assist, traffic sign detection and a self-parking function. You can even have your A3 park itself. In the 2012 Driver Power reliability survey, Audi finished 15th out of 30.
Practicality is a big consideration when buying an S3, as, price aside, it's the major point of differentiation between the models. The three-door S3 offers 325 litres of space with the rear seats in place or a maximum 1,060 litres with them folded. That’s not as large as the BMW 1 Series of VW Golf, but still a usefully sized space. The Sportback has a longer wheelbase, so there's more rear legroom and a 340-litre boot with the seats up, or 1,180-litres with the seats down. The Saloon can't compete with the seats down, with 845 litres, but its boot is more practical more of the time, with a 390-litre space with the rear seats up.
Wingback leather sports seats are standard on the S3, which are supportive during fast cornering, but comfortable enough for long journeys, and they look great, too. Large door openings mean climbing into the back is easier than expected, but legroom is a little cramped for adults once you’re back there.
The all-new 2.0 TFSI engine is not only more powerful, but cleaner too. Opt for the DSG auto and the S3 returns fuel economy and CO2 emissions of 40.4mpg and 162g/km, while the 0-62mph time drops by 0.4 seconds thanks to a launch control function. In the manual model you’ll see 40.9mpg and 159g/km. The purchase price is slightly higher than the 316bhp BMW M135i, especially if you pay £1,480 for the DSG ‘box, although it undercuts the 355bhp Mercedes A45 AMG. Residual values should be strong, and Audi offers a good range of fixed-price servicing plans to help keep maintenance costs down.