At a glance, the three preceding generations of S3 didn’t exactly provide us with much in the way of diversity. From the 1999 Mk1, each version has combined a turbocharged four-pot with quattro-branded all-wheel drive. Two decades ago we got a 1.8-litre unit and six-speed manual gearbox for 210hp; today it’s 2.0 litres and seven S-tronic with 310hp. But the fundamentals are unchanged; claims of usable, accessible performance in a practical package have remained paramount throughout – and return with the 2020 car. Only now, thanks to an onslaught of similarly configured rivals, the fourth-gen S3 arguably needs to go further than its predecessors to standout. Surely it cannot merely rest on its fast and mature laurels any longer, and leave the RS3 to really excite.
Of course that rather goes against Audi's established DNA. It’s always been the safe, dependable fast hatch, promising all-weather performance above all else. Playfulness has never ranked high on an S3’s priority list and Audi has never really denied that. But times are a changin’. These days, reactive front axles and slip angle make for better Instagram content, while LED lighting and digitalised cabins lure more prospective customers into showrooms.
Naturally, Audi’s new S3 attempts to appease for all of the above, starting with the exterior, which has been given the full Audi Sport treatment. A wide-mouthed front grille, and fake bonnet slits are split by angular headlights, while at the back there’s more LED lighting and fake grilles, along with four exhaust tips. That’s from a single centre pipe in a four-cylinder car. Opinions on a postcard, please. Whatever your thoughts in that area, the rest certainly packs some visual punch in an otherwise understated form.
Inside, the new S3 stays true to its forebears and jumps straight to a high grade of trim and tech. In 2020, that means low-set leather sports seats, a 10.1-inch touchscreen with smartphone-aping graphics and responses on the centre console, and a digital instrument cluster. The latter is 10.25-inch as standard or optional 12.3-inch with the Virtual Cockpit Plus upgrade, where the full customisable views are available. Unlike bigger Audis, the S3 doesn’t get the lower central touchscreen, although few will complain about proper climate control buttons and the small but tactile drive selector featured on the transmission tunnel. The volume control button is one of few touch sensitive ones that’s easy to work quickly, but it still doesn't beat a proper knob.
The TFSI engine, VW Group’s EA888 evo4 motor, is in a bespoke tune with fuel injection pressure raised to 350 bar (from 220) and 1.8 bar of turbo pressure. A bigger intercooler condenses the air further, minimising lag for quicker responses and an extended peak torque window. The resulting numbers are 310hp at 5,450-6,500rpm and 295lb ft of torque from 2,000-5,450rpm, 4.8 seconds to 62mph and a 155mph limiter, in a car weighing 1,500kg. Podgy? Not for an S3; it’s 5kg less than the Mk3 and 30kg lighter than the Mk1.
It’s also only 50kg more than the front-drive 2020 Golf GTI, which helps to back Audi’s claims for a more excitable, pointier chassis to go with familiar, unstickable S3 traits. On our German test route, where the tarmac is admittedly much smoother than British stuff but not without its occasional imperfection, the adaptive damped S3 (standard cars get passive shocks) rides with confidence and composure. There’s a satisfying amount of squidginess in comfort mode, so the front dampers really soak up speed humps but do a good job of gathering up any vertical wallow straight after. The S3 feels light because of this, and remains so as your pace increases on open sections of road. There’s some body roll on turn in, but the sporting intent is always clear in the way the suspension tenses with load and the nose feels absolutely nailed to your direction of travel.
On a sun-baked surface, the quattro system is predictably unflappable. The motor and gearbox are sweetly matched, so it takes only a few tenths for the car to switch from a low-rev, refined cruise, to a high-rev sprint. Do that, even mid corner, and the driveline’s reactivity, not to mention a higher percentage of rearwards torque (it now sends up to 40-bar through the Haldex electrohydraulic clutchplates), means you’re hauled around rather than greeted without encountering any tugs on the steering wheel. There’s also lots of underlying mechanical grip, so even more enthusiastic pedalling is met with steadfast maintenance of your line. The engine’s elasticity and the ‘box’s quickness feel ideally matched to the hardware on each corner. Carrying great pace across country has never been easier in an S3, put it that way.
But is it entertaining? A click into Dynamic mode ups the ante, with the chassis tightening to a noticeable degree - enough to make small thuds through the uprights. On German roads, though, the damping still has plenty in reserve to let the suspension absorb bigger lumps – and lets you get on with the business of picking a line. Open the taps and the S3 seems totally on top of it all, albeit, with a better distribution of weight – helped, we suspect, as much by the moving of driveline clutch hardware to the rear end of the propshaft as the additional torque split – resulting in the much promised (though still unexpected) measure of adjustability.
The S3's steering is fast but not overly so, and coupled to a responsive front axle where there’s a small but useful degree of roll about the horizontal centre line. Feel is reliably numb, but commitment on corner entry communicates through the chassis well enough, with a tenth or two of safety understeer before the load builds up and balance switches to neutral. If you’ve entered off throttle, the rear might lend you a degree or two of rotation. Enter a tight corner on the brakes and you’re given oversteer with the ESP off. Then the all-wheel drive is there to gather it up.
On a section of twisting, left-right-left tarmac, it was surprising to the point of genuine amusement. It’s playful to whatever degree (literally and figuratively) that you ask it to be, which is a sea change for its maker. On grippy tarmac at least, the car never achieves the sort of rotation angles Renault Sport’s all-wheel steering Megane RS Trophy can, nor is its engine – even with its coarse, throat-clearing upshifts and audible gargles off throttle – anywhere near as raucous as the i30 N’s (less-potent) unit. But the car’s cohesion and the control that it lends you from behind the wheel, at both ends of the driving spectrum – well, it's fairly convincing. Especially when you couple that to the fact the S3 can then easily settle into a cruise and comfortably seat five adults.
We’ll admit our test route and its near perfect surfaces only go some way to telling the story as far as UK buyers are concerned. And at £37,900, the S3 is pricier than the AMG A35, which is a problem when the latter is better looking. But for the first time Audi can realistically claim to have delivered a hatchback which is rewarding on the limit while not sacrificing the stability bias it is famous for. Clealy a definitive verdict requires British roads and the full gauntlet of right-hand-drive rvials, but on first impressions Audi may finally have delivered the class leader it has failed to produce in any of the generations preceding this one. Imagine that.
SPECIFICATION | 2020 AUDI S3 SPORTBACK TFSI (8Y)
Engine: 1,984cc, turbocharged inline four
Transmission: 7-speed dual-clutch S-tronic auto, all-wheel drive
Power (hp): 310@5,450-6,500rpm
Torque (lb ft): 295@2,000-5,450rpm
Top speed: 155mph (limited)
Weight: 1,500kg (unladen)
MPG: 38.1 (WLTP combined)
Price: £37,900 (OTR, first UK deliveries November 2020)
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