Audi S3 Sportback

German pocket rocket goes under the knife to combine practicality with performance.

Overall Auto Express Rating

4.0 out of 5

From its styling to the power on tap, the S3 is a worthy entry point to performance Audi ownership. The addition of daytime running lights and a five-door body is welcome, and while the steering feedback lets it down, there’s masses of grip and pace. We can’t wait for the six-speed DSG box at the end of the year, either.

It's not only a great car to look at – Audi’s A3 helped define the premium hatch sector at launch back in 1999.

Even now, nearly 10 years later, the performance flagship S3 still delivers a unique combination of four-wheel-drive grip, savage performance from its four-cylinder turbocharged engine and an upmarket interior. Yet the Audi has never been the most spacious or practical car in its class.

All that could change with the latest revamp. As well as giving the hot A3 a fresh look, the company has introduced a new five-door Sportback version, as driven here. The focus is on improving versatility and usability, as well as efficiency – CO2 output has fallen from 217g/km to 201g/km. So, has the hardcore S3 gone soft?

Not a chance! Styling cues have been taken from the pretty A3 Cabriolet, which means a resculpted bon-net with sharper creases framing the front grille. The front apron has been repro-filed and headlamps redesigned – R8-style LED daytime running lights are now included as standard.

Completing the makeover on the outside are 18-inch, five-spoke alloy wheels, as well as a subtly revised rear bumper and tail-lamp cluster.

Aside from the introduction of a sporty, flat-bottomed steering wheel and a splash of aluminium trim round the air vents, not much has changed inside. And this is a good thing – every last inch of the interior, from the leather-wrapped bucket seats to the logical layout of the dashboard, is still of the highest quality.

The 2.0-litre TFSI engine serves up exactly the same 261bhp output as before. But now, the power delivery feels a bit more progressive and easier to use than in the previous S3.

Audi says the quattro four-wheel-drive hardware distributes the engine’s torque even more quickly between the front and rear wheels, for added stability and traction. And out on the road, the improvement is immediately obvious – the level of grip delivered by the S3 is seemingly endless.

Throw the newcomer into a bend and all four tyres stick firmly to the tarmac. The throaty exhaust note, powerful disc brakes and six-speed manual box add to the appeal.

What’s more, our car came fitted with the optional magnetic dampers, which are perfectly judged. As with previous generations of S3, though, the steering is a disappointment. It’s simply too lifeless and artificial to do justice to the sledgehammer engine and talented chassis.

All things considered, the latest S3 remains an extremely attractive pro-position. The five-door Sport-back version is £27,720, and for that money you are getting the practicality of a family hatchback and the performance and agility to match a Subaru Impreza STi or Mitsubishi Evo X on a track. To cap it all, there’s Audi’s bulletproof build, class-leading residual values and unrivalled brand image.

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