New Audi S3 prototype review: hot hatch gets its bite back
Audi has employed a range of small changes to the S3 that add up to make it a far more convincing hot hatchback package
Balance has long been the name of the game for the Audi S3, needing to offer an engaging driving experience without treading too closely on the toes of the more serious RS 3. The outgoing model didn’t quite find it, but our early drive shows this new model is much more capable, with improved performance and more engagement to help it stand out in a crowded segment.
It’ll join Audi’s updated A3 range when it's revealed in a few months time, but for now we’re focusing on the S3, which is hiding away substantial hardware changes designed to give the hot hatchback the credit it craves.
Starting with the design – though not completely clear from our camouflaged test car – the S3 will share its fresher look with all Audi A3 models. This includes new and more aggressive bumper designs, plus revised lighting and wheel options, too. While the changes aren’t major, they should help keep the car looking sharp against premium rivals.
Under the bonnet, the new S3’s turbocharged 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine has received a power bump from the current car’s 296bhp to a more impressive 328bhp. Torque is also up from 400Nm to 420Nm, and comes with a more aggressive accelerator map, as well as a new pre-loading function for the turbocharger that aims to improve response by keeping it spinning even when off the throttle.
These attributes of the new S3 are accessible through a new Dynamic Plus driver mode that also has other effects, such as a faster idle speed and sharper gearshifts from the seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox. A new ESC Sport setting will allow a subtle amount of slip before getting involved, while also changing the characteristics of the chassis’s new rear differential – a ‘Torque Splitter’ borrowed from the RS 3 and Volkswagen Golf R.
As with the RS 3, the S3’s mechanical clutch pack controls torque across the rear axle, over-speeding the outer wheel to help rotate the car on turn in. Audi’s also uprated the brakes to a larger 327mm set on the front axle, and overhauled the steering geometry to help give a more positive off-centre feel and higher grip levels.
How does this all feel on the road? Well we wouldn’t go so far as to call the new S3 an ‘RS 3-lite’, but it has certainly found some teeth where the previous car was lacking. There’s a lot more response to almost all of the dynamic elements – from steering that feels more positive and a touch heavier, to the engine which is sharper and more defined in character. Audi will also offer an optional part-titanium exhaust system that’s also available on the Golf R, although any extra volume seemed subtle at best.
While the extra power is welcome, there is a slight increase in lag due to the higher boost pressures, but this is in some form offset by the pre-loading capability of the turbocharger. This does its job by keeping the engine on the boil, but its full effect is only really felt when in the Dynamic Plus mode. This setting also comes with a firmer ride quality to the adaptive dampers and more aggressive mapping for the transmission, although you can mix and match different dynamic attributes in the Individual mode if you wish.
We drove the car on surprisingly challenging roads around the mountains of Oman and found the tighter body control and more communicative steering to be a significant improvement. The ride quality, while still flexible enough to remain comfortable in its softer settings, really did lock the body down, helping give the whole package a more athletic feel.
Push hard and there’s still a safety net of understeer, but thanks to the new differential on the rear axle you are able to incite some rotation on corner exit with enough space. The effect is not as pronounced as in the RS 3, but it’s still a welcome aspect to the overall driving experience. The dusty tarmac of our test drive perhaps isn’t the most representative of what we have in the UK, however, so we’ll need to leave our full verdict until later.
|Audi S3 Sportback
|2.0-litre 4cyl turbo petrol
|Seven-speed dual-clutch, four-wheel drive