Overall rating: 4/5
While the competence of the quattro four-wheel drive system does rob Audi's new S3 of some excitement, it's inescapably an accomplished performance car. Refinement mixes with enhanced efficiency and you're never in any doubt that there are 300 horses under the bonnet.
In the Metal:
Audi's S3, while sporty, has never worn its heart on its sleeve in the same way as the RS 3 did. That hasn't changed for the third generation, though four exhaust outlets signal more intent than before. The changes are more subtle at the front, but look closer and you'll spot a unique front bumper and Xenon Plus headlights with LED daytime running lamps as standard. The door mirrors have an aluminium look and the side sills are in body colour, which is extended to the roof spoiler. Other bespoke items worth looking out for are the S-branded brake callipers and the five-spoke 18-inch alloy wheels. Despite all that, it would be easy to dismiss the S3 as yet another S line version of the regular Audi A3.
The same could be said for the cabin, but it's so lush that nobody will care. In fairness, there is a smattering of S3-specific items, such as the grey rev counter with a turbo boost gauge, a tactile flat-bottomed steering wheel and soft Nappa leather sports seats. Aluminium is used in the dashboard inlays and the door sills, and if you opt for the S tronic model the gearchange paddles have an aluminium 'look'. They feel a bit plastic mind you.
When someone tells you they own a 300hp hot hatch odds are you picture something unruly and even tuned. The Audi S3 is the antithesis of all that. While the new 2.0-litre TFSI petrol engine puts out some seriously impressive numbers over a wide engine speed range the quattro four-wheel drive system never fails to reassure the driver with the automotive equivalent of "I got this". That makes the S3 a formidable coverer of ground at nothing short of ferocious speed, but our first impressions are that there's not a lot of engagement with the driver in the process.
The damping is sublime and without any adaptive suspension trickery the S3 rides with composure while also exhibiting impressive body control. The brakes feel strong from the off and the steering is linear - if not full of feel. We tried both manual and S tronic automatic versions and the former was a little disappointing. The throw across the six-speed gate is long and the spacing of the brake and throttle pedal make it difficult to heel and toe as you change down through the gearbox. In contrast, the S tronic transmission really suits the car, with snappy changes, three modes of operation (normal, Sport and manual) and an enhanced exhaust note as it pops and bangs.
One thing that will emotionally appeal to buyers is the noise the Audi S3 makes. We can hanker after a turbocharged five-cylinder engine all we like, but the fact is that the four-cylinder unit is more efficient. Much like Ford has done with its Focus ST, Audi fitted an electromechanical sound actuator in the bulkhead between the engine and the cabin, which is complemented by a 'sound flap' in the exhaust that opens at higher engine speeds and loads. So-equipped the S3 is surprisingly loud from inside the car when accelerating hard, and that's not a bad thing. It makes an unusual, if sporting sound, and is at its best around 6,500rpm, just about before you need to change up.
What you get for your Money:
Prices for the three-door version of the Audi S3 start at €45,260 (on-the-road) for the manual car. The S tronic model costs €47,660. Five-mode 'drive select' is standard, as are 18-inch alloys, all the exterior enhancements mentioned above including the Xenon headlights and LED daytime running lamps, leather upholstery, dual-zone climate control, rear Park Assist, the Connectivity Package, heated front seats, cruise control etc. The options list is long and tempting as ever from Audi, but it's the performance and chassis' ability that help this car stand out from its rivals.
We assumed that the 2.0-litre engine was a development of the TFSI unit found elsewhere in the Volkswagen Group, but Audi claims it's 'new-from-the-ground-up'. Some interesting features (for those of us so inclined...) include two balancer shafts that rotate at twice the speed of the crankshaft to help reduce vibration. There are also two fuel injection systems, one directly in the cylinders and one into the inlet manifold. The results, other than a wide plateau of torque and a high power output, are relatively impressive economy and low emissions. The S tronic version is a little more efficient and a little faster than the manual car.
We came away from the Audi S3 launch impressed, but not exactly fizzing over with enthusiasm for the new four-wheel drive super-hatch. The engineering behind this car is to be marvelled at, and it's a compelling ownership prospect, but first impressions suggest that it is not particularly engaging to drive. One caveat in that conclusion is that the test roads were bereft of any truly testing low-speed corners - or elevation changes for that matter. For those reasons we look forward to giving the S3 another chance to shine.