Until anything wide-arched and developed by Audi Sport rolls in, this is the new flagship of the latest A3 range. It's the 310hp Audi S3 Sportback and could it conceivably be all the 'mega'-hatch you'll ever need?
In the Metal:
The new Audi S3 Sportback looks superb - it's not all dumpy and lumpen like its immediate five-door predecessor, although a large part of that must go down to the fact the fourth-generation A3 is a striking, angular thing in any specification, never mind as the halo version. For the purposes of clarity, S-specific details are the usual: larger and more aggressive front air intakes; silver detailing all over the body and clothing the door-mirror housings; larger alloys; subtle styling addenda in the form of a rear spoiler, front splitter and a lower body kit; and then quad-exit exhausts at the back. Clad it all in one of the new colours, like searing Python Yellow, and you have a cracking-looking hot hatch with masses of kerb appeal that, on the other hand, oozes enough dignity to be able to be parked outside the best restaurants without fear. Having said all that, we still prefer the appearance of the new S3 Saloon to the S3 Sportback.
Inside, the S3 also pays big thanks to the standard A3 line upon which it is based, mainly because this is another smashing Audi cabin. But therein also lies the rub: sit in an S3 soon after trying a regular A3 in S line specification and you'll be hard-pressed to tell you're in the range-topper. It has a flat-bottomed steering wheel and a few displays in the instrument cluster unique to the S model, but otherwise it looks almost identical to the cockpit of a 35 TFSI version. Given you'll be paying a big premium to sit in the 310hp model, this lack of obvious, sporty differentiation inside the S3 might annoy you when it comes time to buy the car.
The S3 continues with a 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder petrol engine for the 2020s, albeit this time around there is no manual gearbox option; all cars' wheels are propelled via a seven-speed S tronic dual-clutch automatic. This does mean 400Nm from the four-cylinder engine, rather than a capped 380Nm, but some might lament Audi's decision not to push the S3's outputs up a bit to put its obvious German competition in the horsepower shade. Nevertheless, that engine is good enough to propel the quattro S3 from 0-100km/h in just 4.8 seconds, on the way to an electronically limited top speed of 250km/h.
So, it's a fast car, and it certainly feels it in operation. There's little to report in the way of turbo lag or that weird hesitancy some Volkswagen Group dual-clutch transmissions can display, while grip and traction are largely unimpeachable - even in the greasier, colder conditions of a northern-hemisphere winter's day. You put your foot down in the Audi S3, the transmission responds and off you go, motoring up the road at a rapid lick. It is easily, disarmingly fast.
And, like so many S3s that have gone before it, neither hugely dramatic nor rewardingly involving as a result. Plus, there are a few issues. Such as ride quality, which is on the firm side. Audi's variable dampers are an option on the S3, but the standard kit is 15mm-lower S Sport suspension with its own spring/shock absorber tuning and the resulting comportment, when teamed to the 19-inch wheels, is a little too abrupt in its vertical movements at all times. It's not appallingly uncomfortable to ride in the hot Audi, and its comfort levels improve as speeds ride, but there are smoother, big-power hot hatches out there than this one, which serves to make you constantly aware of its powerful nature with an incessant jiggling sensation when on anything other than pristine tarmac.
Then there's the noise, which is strangely synthetic. In Dynamic mode, the S3 almost makes a five-cylinder-like warble, and that only grates because you know that a) the engine isn't a five-pot, it's a four-cylinder, and b) a five-cylinder A3 will be incoming once the new RS 3 arrives. The flipside of this is that, in anything other than Dynamic mode, the S3 doesn't make many appealing sounds at all and so there's not much sonic pleasure here.
Finally, there's the steering. Audi's multimode set-ups often leave a lot to be desired, especially in the Dynamic setting. To be fair, the S3's take on this sportiest steering isn't the worst offender in Audi's back catalogue, but it still harbours traces of that odd, sticky sensation when you turn it just off dead-centre. It feels far more organic and pleasant in Comfort mode, although it's incredibly light in this setting, and there is at least an Individual configuration menu to let the driver have the drivetrain in Dynamic with the steering in Comfort if you so want (we DID want), but it's a shame that non-RS Audis remain blighted with ho-hum set-ups when it comes to (arguably) the most important driver interface of all.
Other than these gripes, however, it's your typical S3 experience. The traction out of corners is quite remarkable, allowing the driver to deploy as much of the engine's grunt across as broad a spectrum of conditions as you could wish, while understeer is reduced to minimal levels and the body control is excellent. The Audi functions fine in low-speed driving and when cruising along open roads, where the ride is the only contributor to occupant discomfort - you'll hear nothing of the engine nor tyres in such circumstances, the S tronic slushes gears unobtrusively if not pressed to work hard, and the S3's aerodynamic bodywork cuts through the air in unruffled fashion. It is massively, massively capable, the S3; it's just that, for a 310hp all-wheel-drive hatchback, it's sadly not massively, massively exciting to boot.
What you get for your Money:
At €54,620 for the S3 Sportback, the Audi splits its biggest rivals, the BMW M135i xDrive and the Mercedes-AMG A 35 4Matic. And it's worth bearing in mind that the high-spec Audi A3 S line 35 TFSI S tronic is just under €40,000. By way of recompense, the S3 gains a decent standard equipment list including LED exterior lights, 18-inch alloys, sports seats, Virtual Cockpit and much more.
We actually liked the old Audi S3 more than the RS 3 in most circumstances, even though it was nothing like as interesting from a technological standpoint. So, the fact the German company has done the 'same old, same old' routine for its non-RS fast model might make you think we're going to love the new S3 almost as much. However, its all-too-firm ride and fake exhaust noise somewhat take the edge off the 2.0-litre turbocharged model here and we'd also prefer the A3 Saloon bodywork. But, other than these grumbles, the S3 joins the BMW M135i and Mercedes-AMG A 35 in the ranks of Teutonic hatchback hardware that make the act of going quickly not only incredibly accessible, but also largely undramatic.