Ever-so-slightly refreshed looks, a little bit more power and some extra torque - the facelifted Audi S3 Saloon is very much a case of 'as you were'. Yet don't dismiss it as a result, because this is one of the best hot Audis of any age, power and price you can buy.
In the metal
We love the Audi A3 Saloon. Proportionally, this is the best three-box design Audi makes right now, and indeed it might also possibly lay claim to 'ever' while we're at it. We also love the way the S-model Audis are carefully spruced up to look sporty without being OTT, with quad exhausts, discreet body kits, silver detailing and (optional) 19-inch alloys of gorgeous design all working wonders. Therefore, marrying the two together to create the S3 Saloon results in the best-looking Audi aside from the TT and the R8, and the minor facelift detail changes that the entire A3 range has benefitted from only serve to keep the hottest four-door looking super-cool and desirable.
Ditto the interior, crafted to the last degree of solidity and finished in black. So much black. However, nice S-specific details make it feel special, while the Virtual Cockpit (an option) provides a real sprinkling of TFT fairy dust to any Audi to which it is fitted. This generation A3 might have been around for four years now but the cabin is showing no detrimental signs of ageing and the S3 Saloon, as a result, feels like a thoroughly class act inside and out.
In the world of earnest driving enthusiasts, a manual is always better than an automatic, even if it's a dual-clutch automatic. Right. Right? Um... no. We've always said the S tronic is better suited to the S3's controlled all-weather, all-roads pace and now the gearbox has seven speeds instead of six, it makes the car feel even more rapid than before. That's due to the fact there are closer-spaced ratios in the transmission, and also because there's a genuine mechanical advantage to having the S tronic for 2016MY, which is an additional 20Nm of torque for a 400Nm headline figure - manual S3s make do with the old car's output of 380Nm.
All S3s, whether fitted with a clutch pedal or not, have also been given a 10hp shot in the arm, which makes this S tronic Saloon rather punchy; 0-100km/h takes a scorching 4.6 seconds, which is not far off the Audi RS 3's 4.3-second sprint. And although we think the paddle shifts on the wheel should be made of metal instead of plastic, and we are constantly annoyed by Volkswagen Group's insistence on putting its sequential shift gate the wrong way round, in all other respects the S tronic makes total sense. It's whip-crack fast at shifting gears in all circumstances, responding well to clicks of the paddles (seriously, they're all right to use, but come on, would just a metal-effect finish have been too much to ask?), while it's also torque-converter smooth when you're merely taking on motorways or urban driving tasks. There are pleasing burbles and thumps from the exhaust on downshifts in sportier driving modes, even though the S3 isn't a raucous, loud hooligan of a car, and the S tronic better allows you to elicit those sounds as you decelerate for a roundabout, junction or slow-moving fellow road-user.
Don't misconstrue our praise of the S3 Saloon as proof Audi has finally mastered thrilling rear-biased handling on its affordable cars, as this 310hp four-door won't be the sort of machine to please tail-out heroes. What it does do is manage to engage its driver while maintaining a very composed air during even the most daft of cornering speeds. The steering's better than we remember it, blessed with reasonable feel and more consistent responses off-centre. The brakes are faultless. The body control, on the S3's adjustable dampers, is rigid and unyielding in Dynamic mode and yet supple enough in Comfort to make the S3 feel like a compact Audi A8, so if you like your performance car to either resolutely corner flat or breathe with the road, the S3 can accommodate (just set up your preferred parameters in the 'Individual' setting of the Audi's drive modes). So no, the rear axle isn't particularly playful, yet you can marginally adjust the S3 Saloon's line mid-bend with the throttle - and it never exhibits any of the nose-led tendencies of the RS 3 in the process. If, before you drive it, you accept how the S3 Saloon is going to go about the business of travelling quickly, then you'll find little to fault about the excellent dynamic show it then puts on.
What you get for your money
A decent amount of standard equipment, the wonderfully engineered chassis and a lack of direct competitors make the Audi S3 Saloon a tempting proposition, but it's only cheaper than the pricey Cabriolet version; both the three-door S3 and the Sportback are less costly, and some would say more practical - despite the fact that, with the rear seats in place, the Saloon has more boot space than any other A3. There are also still plenty of options to choose from that could easily see an S3 Saloon quickly change from being a €50,000 car to being a €65,000+ motor, and we're kind of wondering why (noble a decision as it is to preserve it) Audi didn't just do away with the manual model and make the S tronic gearbox standard equipment, rather than a €2,400 or so option.
One last point worth noting is that the Audi S3 is available on PCP from just €459 per month.
Audi's pulled off a fine sequel to its original S3 Saloon with this 2016MY car, with all of its strengths preserved and just a few of its rougher edges polished away. Costly to buy and dear to run, the S3 won't be the pragmatic choice in the tweaked A3 line-up, but what it does represent is one of our favourite performance Audis of the lot. It's definitely a sweeter, more enjoyable car to drive either fast or slow than the range-topping RS 3 Sportback, its additional rear bulkhead makes it a little bit tauter than its hatchback S3 siblings and it's kind of the car we've always wished the S4 had been. That it's also absolutely great to look at outside and in is merely the capstone on one of Audi's finest constructions.