New Audi S3 2020 review

Storming new Audi S3 Sportback joins standard hatch in line-up, but what’s it like on the road

Overall Auto Express Rating

3.5 out of 5

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It’s hard to fault the new Audi S3 for the way it makes its performance oh-so accessible. However, the way it drives is only a mild evolution, so those expecting a new experience will need to look elsewhere. Instead, the big changes are technological, and in the cabin. For buyers wanting a premium hot hatch, it certainly fits the bill. However, a Honda Civic Type R offers more fun for less cash, if that’s what matters the most.

This is the new Audi S3, one of two hot A3 models on the way (the five-cylinder RS 3 is due in 2021) and the company’s answer to the Mercedes-AMG A 35, the latest BMW M135i and the upcoming Volkswagen Golf R.

As such, the S3 still retains a position at the very top end of the hot hatchback performance ladder, without skirting too close to the 400bhp-plus now put out by super-hatches such as the Mercedes-AMG A 45 and likely the next RS 3. It’s an exercise in evolution, not just in terms of how it looks, but also under the skin.

That’s because despite this being a new-generation S3, dramatic changes really are few are far between. It uses the same platform, engine and gearbox as its predecessor, with only minor changes alongside revised suspension and steering. The end result is that while the original S3 was a bit of a pioneer back in 1999, the specification of the 2020 car doesn’t exactly jump off the page.

Power is up, but only by 10bhp to 306bhp. Torque has increased, too, now standing at 400Nm. As always, there’s quattro four-wheel drive, and power gets to the wheels via a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic gearbox with paddles on the steering wheel for driver input; there’s no proper manual gearbox available. The result is 0-62mph in 4.8 seconds, which matches the outgoing car, while top speed remains electronically limited to 155mph.

The S3 rides 15mm lower than the regular A3 on its standard passive suspension set-up, but high-spec cars such as the Edition One driven here – more or less equivalent to range-topping Vorsprung models in the UK – are fitted with adaptive dampers.

One new feature under the skin of the new S3 is what Audi calls Modular Dynamic Handling Control. It’s a computerised management system that links the traction control set-up, torque distribution (which can be distributed fully to the front or rear axles) and adaptive dampers together so that they work in harmony. The end result is an S3 that’s ever so slightly more resolved than the last one, but you have to look hard for differences.

The level of performance is well within the sweet spot of what you can realistically extract on the road. It’s pacey; the S3 surges forward with only a hint of turbo lag as the engine revs cleanly to 6,500rpm, and in Dynamic mode there’s a new engine note.

The S3 has turned to the dark art of sound actuation through the speakers, but rather than trying to boost the four-cylinder noise, the fake sound piped into the cabin is a five-cylinder note at the top end. It’s eerily convincing, but also odd when you remember that four cylinders reside under the bonnet. Keep things in Comfort and it defaults back to a familiar four-cylinder thrum that’s quieter for motorway cruising.

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The dual-clutch S tronic gearbox feels snappier in the S3 than in many other Volkswagen group cars, and thankfully so, given there’s no manual option. Jumping on the paddles for shifts is the only way you’ll get involved in this regard.

In the corners the Audi has immense grip reserves. You can carry a lot of speed through a series of bends and it will take a lot of provocation to get the neutral S3’s traction control light flickering. Row back the electronic assistant into its Sport setting, and you can get a slight feeling of rotation from the back axle if you go in search of it, but the quattro all-wheel-drive system really doesn’t want you to. Instead it fires you around a bend as quickly as possible, even taking off-camber corners in its stride with admirable composure.

The steering is short on road feel and feedback, but it’s deadly accurate and neatly weighted in Dynamic mode, and with the amount of grip on offer, you don’t need to be precise with your inputs to get the S3 down a challenging stretch of tarmac quickly. It is a very easy car to drive fast.

We’ve not had the chance to try the car on its standard passive suspension set-up, but the adaptive dampers offer another area where the S3 changes over the car of old, albeit by only a fine margin. In Dynamic the ride is as firm as ever for tight body control in corners, but ride quality in Comfort feels a little more forgiving than it did previously. This helps to enhance the S3’s credentials as a premium hot hatchback that you can live with every day.

To that end, the car’s visual makeover is subtle at first glance, especially when compared with S line versions of the regular A3. The front end has more aggressive, larger air vents with black honeycomb detailing. Similarly, the rear end is defined by a new lower section for the bumper, complete with diffuser and real quad exhausts.

Inside it’s a familiar environment compared with S line versions of the A3, with the S3 receiving some minor trim alterations. Carbon inlays on the dashboard are optional, while the sports seats – which are plush quilted leather on the Vorsprung model – receive contrasting yellow stitching. Again, as in the A3, the interior is probably the biggest change between the last S3 and the new one, based on a new design using more hard piano-black plastics, rather than soft-touch materials.

The infotainment is sharp and easy to use, with a 10.1-inch central display allied to a 10.25-inch digital instrument panel or full-size 12.3-inch Virtual Cockpit system. However, the central screen can only be operated via touchscreen inputs.

To accommodate quattro four-wheel drive, the S3’s boot shrinks when compared with front-wheel-drive A3s, down from 380 litres to 325 litres.

Buyers after the top-spec Vorsprung car will have to wait until later in 2020, but the standard S3 is available to order now.

Model: Audi S3 Sportback quattro S tronic Vorsprung
Price: £39,500 (est)
Engine: 2.0-litre 4cyl turbo petrol
Power/torque: 306bhp/400Nm
Transmission: Seven-speed automatic, four-wheel drive 
0-62mph: 4.8 seconds
Top speed: 155mph (limited)
Economy/CO2: 35.4mpg/183g/km
On sale: Now

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