This is the new Audi S3, a near-300bhp four-wheel drive hot hatch that’s as quick as a Porsche 911 and a rival for BMW’s M135i and the forthcoming Mercedes A45 AMG. Is it a VW Golf GTI turned up to 11, or just a faster Audi A3? Read on for our first drive review of the new Audi S3…
How does the new Audi S3 measure up against the old Audi S3?
There’s more power, more torque, but less weight, fewer emissions, and improved fuel consumption. The turbocharged four-cylinder beneath the bonnet has exactly the same cubic capacity as the outgoing 1984cc engine, but it’s actually completely new. Power has climbed from 261bhp at 6000rpm to 296bhp produced from 5500-6200rpm, and torque is up from 258lb ft (at 2500-5000rpm) to 280lb ft (at 1800-5500rpm).
But fuel consumption and CO2 emissions have improved too, thanks to both the new engine and a 60kg reduction in the kerbweight (a result of the lightweight MQB platform shared with the latest Volkswagen Golf). There’s little between the six-speed manual and optional six-speed dual-clutch S-tronic ‘box (£1480, and fitted to our test car) but opt for the latter and the S3 will officially return 40.9mpg and emit 159g/km (the old S3 S-tronic managed 34mpg and 193g/km CO2). That, and with the S-tronic gearbox the S3 is seven-tenths quicker to 62mph, the 4.8 seconds it needs is the same as a Porsche 911 Carrera.
I’m not sure the new Audi S3 looks like a 300bhp hot hatch…
True. Apart from the extra aluminium orthodontics in the front grille and intakes, a few discreet S3 badges, and the aluminium-look mirrors, there’s little to differentiate this Audi from any other A3 with the S-line bodykit. The only really distinguishing feature is the new set of quad exhausts, a trademark ‘S’ model feature that wasn’t on the outgoing S3 due to cost issues and engineering difficulties.
Yet inside the S3 does feel special. The regular A3’s high-quality cabin is already a minimalist delight, with its slimline pop-up multimedia screen, aircraft engine-inspired air vents and thin metal-effect spar dissecting the dashboard. And the S3 adds new grey dials with a built-in boost gauge, a great set of diamond-quilted seats, a flat-bottomed steering wheel, and (in our S-tronic model) a chunky set of gearshift paddles.
Access to the back seats is no more than okay, but a more practical five-door S3 will arrive in summer 2013, and that Sportback model should carry a premium of around £600.
How does the new S3 drive?
Like any other A3 if you’re just going through the motions of the daily commute. It’s quiet and refined, the S-tronic ‘box slips smoothly between gears, and the seats are comfortable and supportive.
But fiddle with the Drive Select system, select the Dynamic setting, and the S3 changes character. An ‘electromechanical sound actuator’ in the dash and two valves in the exhaust turn up the noise, so now the 2.0T snarls richly as the revs rise (though there’s no turbo roar like in the RS6) and with each upshift there’s a lovely deep whoompf from the quad pipes.
The Dynamic setting also sharpens the gearshifts, and the S3 follows the revised R8 supercar and finally has a set of paddles that aren’t the size of TicTac packets. Strangely, the RS6 (launched at the same event) has kept the old small paddles, but unlike the RS6 – which won’t ever change gear if you use the Manual mode – the S3’s S-tronic ‘box always upshifts when you reach the limiter.
The S3’s steering gains some extra weight too in the Dynamic setting, so although there’s no more feedback, the slight lifeless spot around the dead-ahead position is banished, and a Focus ST-style variable rack means the ratio gets quicker as more lock is applied. It’s not quite as quick into corners as the Ford, or as sharp as a Megane RS, but the S3 does manage to feel light and agile as you pitch it down a good country road.
All S3s feature 25mm lower ‘S’ sports suspension, but although there weren’t any major issues to report with the ride on smooth German roads, as ever it’ll take a drive in the UK before we can deliver a definitive verdict. An A3 S-line on 15mm lower sports suspension struggles on our rough roads, so ignoring the optional 19s but going for the adaptive magnetic dampers might be the best choice. Our car didn’t have the trick dampers, but again they can be tweaked through the Drive Select system – and if you don’t want the steering, gearbox, engine and suspension in Comfort or Dynamic, or trust the Auto setting to match your driving style, then you can mix and match it all yourself via the Individual mode.
But the S3’s trump card is its traction. A Focus ST or Vauxhall Astra VXR will torque steer out of tight corners or even in a straight line, yet even when we were treated to torrential rain and hail, the S3 never had trouble transferring its torque to the sodden roads.
The Audi S3 has always been a good all-round hot hatch, but this latest version has a broader repertoire: it’s more refined and the cabin is unmatched in this class, and it’s also more fun to drive hard. The S3 isn’t quite as involving as any of the Ford/Vauxhall/Renaultsport crowd, but I’m not sure that matters when the rest of the package is so complete.