Long-term tests

Audi S3 Sportback: long-term test review

Final report: our Audi S3 wasn't perfect, but it did show many strengths

Overall Auto Express Rating

4.0 out of 5

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The S3 could be written off as a Jack of all trades, but I think that’s a little unfair in some ways. It could do with more practicality, and there were a few gripes elsewhere, but otherwise it passed the sternest test of any long-term test car; it kept my other half happy. That’s not always easy… 

  • Mileage: 6,304
  • Economy: 33.0mpg

I love it when a car slips into my life so seamlessly that it seems like only a few weeks ago that I took delivery – but the Audi S3 has just been collected, and I can categorically say that it’s delivered on just about everything I’ve needed it to.

Early in its life on the fleet, the Audi was thrown into an Auto Express track battle against its close rivals, and while its solid on-road performance didn’t quite translate into thrills on track, it fulfilled its brief, serving up manageable dynamics and impressively unflappable speed. Conclusion: it’s a great starter performance car.

On the road, where your surroundings don’t sap speed quite like they do on track, it feels livelier. My other half, Sophie, took the wheel a fair few times and she always remarked on how much she liked driving it.

She said that after her usual transport – a Mercedes E 220d Coupé – the S3 felt more agile, faster and better connected to the road. I can’t argue with that, although she did feel that connection was a bit too much sometimes. “When you go over a particularly bumpy road, it doesn’t feel like it settles down; it throws you about a bit, even on the motorway” she said.

I have to agree with her. I’ve banged on about this before, but even on the smaller 18-inch alloys wheels, it’s a bit bobbly. I drove the new RS 3 recently, and on 20-inch wheels the more sophisticated suspension meant the hottest model in the A3 range rides noticeably better than this car.

But the S3 has swallowed my golf clubs and trolley with only a slight overspill into the rear; it’d be nice if the boot was a little wider and a little deeper. There was still enough capacity for numerous bags of sand and compost as we made over our garden this summer, though, and the interior has worn well given that the car has been pressed into service as a load lugger. It’s carried boxes of heavy tools too; whatever the S3 was loaded with, it never felt sluggish.

However, I couldn’t get on with the cabin design. At first it felt muddled, and it never got any clearer – for me at least.

I accept it’s a case of different strokes for different folks, but I didn’t find the Audi’s dash design pleasing or all too logical. It always felt like a bit of a mish mash. Sophie, on the other hand, thought it was fine. The styling inside was a positive for her, and she got along with the tech – when it worked.

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Which brings me to one of the biggest issues I had with the S3: the infotainment. It’s mostly great – the main display is bright, and for a touchscreen it’s one of the more responsive, easier-to-use systems; the digital dash provided the detail I wanted, too. But it was all sent into chaos when the two panels would crash without warning – sometimes together, sometimes separately – the worst time being when I was just a mile or so from my destination in inner-city Birmingham. The car left me to work out the final complicated instructions on my own, even when Android Auto was hooked up.

Audi told me a patch was coming, which is a good job, because – at times – it made a real strong point of the S3 into a weak area.

Aside from this, the Audi was easy to live with and I’ll miss it. My other half will, too.

Audi S3 Sportback: second report

Holiday shows off Audi S3's plus points

  • Mileage: 5,502
  • Economy: 33.0mpg

The holiday season seems like a long time ago now, but with a busy summer meaning time was slipping away, my partner Sophie and I decided to book a week’s break in Cornwall to catch the last of the sun’s rays before they got blocked out by a blanket of autumn cloud.

Of course, my better half was in charge of the packing, and with my golf clubs taking up the back seat, we made the most of the S3’s relatively compact 325-litre boot. It’s compromised by the four-wheel-drive car’s diff under the floor, but the S3 still took a golf trolley, two suitcases and another squishy bag. Soph packed light so there was only a little overspill into the cabin. Some of it might even have been mine, I’m told.

We left late on a Thursday evening, but still had to navigate some road closures, which the S3’s sat-nav prompted us about nice and early. The 320-mile trip took a while, which meant I really appreciated the brilliance of the S3’s adaptive headlights on the tight, twisting roads of rural Cornwall, lined by high hedges on either side.

This tech has filtered down from larger Audis, and it’s great, dipping the lights to create a “black box” around the oncoming car, tracking its path so as not to dazzle other drivers, and keeping the near side lit up for my – by that point – tired eyes.

Given that the clocks go back soon, I know this type of technology will come into its own in the winter months.

However, one feature we both had to endure more than appreciate was the seats. Maybe we just haven’t found the correct position yet, but after a few hours on the road, both of us were getting numb behinds. It’s not helped by the S3’s busy ride, even on the smaller 18-inch wheels, which seemed to unsettle not just the chassis, but also my passenger. However, I did notice that it’s a little smoother when the car’s loaded up.

Neither me nor Sophie could fault the seats’ support. They fixed us in place later in the week as I explored the S3’s solid, unflappable handling and excellent traction and performance to try and make up some time when we were a bit late for a booking. But on the monotonous drag along the M4, down the M5 and onto the A30, we had to pull over to stretch our legs.

At least we didn’t have to stop for fuel. Not troubling the turbo, and cruising along at 1,500rpm in top gear, the S3’s trip computer hovers around or just over 33mpg, and that’s backed up by my tank-to-tank calculations.

It’s something I’ve been thankful for lately, and while this isn’t exactly brilliant by conventional family five-door standards, remember that this is a 306bhp, 1,500kg 2.0-litre turbo hot hatch with four-wheel drive and a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic gearbox. So that return’s not bad in my book – especially when a flex of your right ankle means the S3 can easily dispatch a line of traffic headed by a slow tractor.

I know that from experience, because much of our holiday travelling around the West Country included such moments – not least because it seemed like the rest of the UK’s holidaymakers had the same idea as us.

I actually think that this generation of hot hatchbacks is a landmark, which is why I took the S3 to another landmark to flag it up: Land’s End. A week’s holiday proved as much to me. I admit that this is also true of its contemporaries – the VW Golf R and the Mercedes-AMG A 35 – but the S3 can take pretty much everything you can throw at it, even if it is compromised in a few areas.

It carried our luggage for a week, it’s efficient, it boasts some excellent big-car tech and infotainment, it felt reassuringly solid when storms rolled in off the Atlantic and it’s more engaging and capable than you might think when you really push it. Yes, it could do with a little more personality, but I’d go so far as to say it can be fun. Ride aside, it’s refined and comfortable – well, mostly, if your journey is under two hours.

Audi S3 Sportback: first report

Our new S3 Sportback feels like a typical Audi

  • Mileage: 1,834
  • Economy: 32.1mpg

Sometimes, you get in a car and you just know which manufacturer makes it – and I reckon I could tell our new S3 fleet car was an Audi from behind the wheel even if I were wearing a blindfold.

From the way the door shuts behind you with a high-quality ‘thunk’ to the soft leather on the sports seats, the instantly recognisable driving position they place you in, and the sensations you get when the steering weights up and you’re conscious of the considerable grip the chassis can generate building in a corner, it feels very much like an Audi to me. So much so, in fact, that I was genuinely struck by how much the S3 spoke to me the first time I drove it, even though it’s considered not the most communicative driver’s car.

There were also some less welcome reasons that reinforced my opinion, but for now, I’ll stick to the positives. First, the sensation you get in bad weather is of a planted, compact four-wheel-drive car with an incredible level of performance that you can seemingly deploy without fuss at any time and in any conditions.

The S3 uses the VW Group’s ubiquitous 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder engine tuned to produce 306bhp, driving all four wheels through Audi’s Haldex quattro system and a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission. Its power delivery is smooth and linear. In fact, it feels like it’s been mapped to really ramp up towards the rev limiter – which is something I like.

I’ve come to accept that the steering in a hot hatch won’t be full of feel (unless it’s a Honda Civic Type R) but mushiness I can’t excuse; the Audi has very little of this, with a nice, direct feel to the variable-ratio set-up and the way its nose points towards an apex.

However, one trademark that used to give away fast Audis in the past, a firm ride, is unfortunately present here too – and even on my car’s smaller 18-inch wheels (the design of which I actually prefer to the 19-inchers). Maybe it’s to do with the non-deletable S line sports suspension.

A recent trip into and back out of London with my girlfriend and her mother saw them both nagging me to slow down on the way out of the capital. I was only doing 20mph or so, but a little more speed and energy in the suspension didn’t help to smooth things out either.

I had to concede to my passengers that, yes, it was a bit lumpy and could be more refined in how it deals with bumps, even if this focus does help on a country road – but I still think it’s too stiff even then.

Swift Audi S models have come so far in recent years, mostly offering a smooth, composed ride, but according to my recent test team it seems that things have taken a slight step backwards with this new S3.

I also put its practicality to the test right away, loading it up with a suitcase, golf clubs and a golf trolley ready for a week away, and while some of my luggage spilled out of the, shall we say compact 325-litre boot (its overall capacity is compromised due to the rear differential), it took everything I needed.

Of course, a hot hatch is about performance, and I’m enjoying everything the S3 has to offer in this respect. I’ll go into more detail in a future report, but 0-62mph in 4.8 seconds is impressive. Yet on a long run I’ve managed more than 40mpg and the S3 is averaging 32.1mpg, so it’s even offering respectable running costs although it’s not fully run in yet. In spite of the Audi’s drawbacks, I’m always amazed by the breadth of ability modern cars offer. 

Model: Audi S3 Sportback
On fleet since: May 2021
Price new: £38,870
Engine: 2.0-litre 4cyl turbo, 306bhp
CO2/tax: 185g/km/£155
Options: Red brake calipers (£290), memory feature for driver (£1,150)*, digital matrix headlights (£430)**, panoramic glass sunroof (£1,055), lumbar support for front seats (£260) 
Insurance^: Group: 34/Quote: £871
Mileage: 6,304
Economy: 33.0mpg
Any problems? None so far

*Not available on UK models **Only available on Vorsprung models ^Insurance quote from AA (0800 107 0680) for a 42-year-old in Banbury, Oxon, with three points.

Sean’s been writing about cars since 2010, having worked for outlets as diverse as PistonHeads, MSN Cars, Which? Cars, Race Tech – a specialist motorsport publication – and most recently Auto Express and sister titles Carbuyer and DrivingElectric

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