Everyone knows how you make an Audi S3. Take one Golf GTI from owner Volkswagen, add a bit of interior quality, a bit more power and four-wheel drive, and hey presto – you’re done. Oh yes, and of course, you’ll need the lightly breathed-on body of the latest standard Audi A3 to clothe it with.
So has stood the recipe since the first S3 arrived in 1999, and as the S3 enters its fourth generation, so it continues. But the latest Golf GTI is in fact a very heavy rework of the one that’s just gone off sale – so that means the S3 is, too. In fact, beneath the body, you’ll find exactly the same engine and running gear as you’d have found in the outgoing model.
You might be forgiven for expecting more from a brand-new hot hatchback, especially one that’ll set you back north of £38,000. You might be even more inclined to feel that way when you find out the BMW M135i boasts the same power output with newer, fresher underpinnings for less than the S3.
And you might be turned off altogether when you remember our favourite hot hatch of the moment, the Honda Civic Type R, can be had for more than £4,000 less. The S3, then, is going to have to be pretty special to justify its price.
A little one-dimensional
Tight rear seats and boot
Crashy ride quality
Three of a kind
It might have the same engine as the old S3, but you could argue that that’s no bad thing. After all, this 306bhp version of the Volkswagen Group’s 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo is no slouch.
It’s paired with a seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox and four-wheel drive, both of which are also carried over from the old car. Having said that, that four-wheel drive system gets a new control logic, which Audi claims ties it more closely to the stability and traction control systems, which in theory should mean that the mechanical hardware and electrical software should work together more cogently to deploy power and limit wheelspin.
For the first time, you can now order the S3 in Audi’s all-bells-and-whistles Vorsprung form; this, unsurprisingly, gives you a lengthy equipment list, but – similarly unsurprisingly – also hikes the price by almost £8,000.
Even the standard car, though, comes with leather seats, LED headlights, ambient lighting, virtual gauges and a big screen with sat-nav and Apple Carplay. But peer more closely at the spec list and you’ll start to see where a few corners have been cut; for example, the cruise control isn’t adaptive, and there’s no keyless entry or heated steering wheel – all standard features on the Golf GTI, which also happens to be much cheaper.
Three’s a crowd
The other thing you forego with the S3 is space. Its boot is tiny, and if you ever plan to put a dog larger than a dachshund in there, forget it; the way the rear screen slopes means even a medium-sized pooch will struggle for space.
In fact, the whole rear end of the S3 tapers slightly, and this also has an effect on rear seat space. Headroom is acceptable, just, but taller occupants will find their knees brushing the chunky, space-hogging sports front seats if they don’t keep them rigorously within the niches that are carved into the seat backs. You’ll fit, in other words, but you won’t have room to stretch out.
In the front front, things are a little better; the seats are quite high, so you find yourself positioned quite close to the roof, but unless you’re particularly tall or have a predilection for large hats, this shouldn’t prove a problem, and there’s elbow room aplenty. Storage space for your odds and ends is generous enough, if hardly outstanding.
The dashboard strikes a couple of bum notes – for example, the line of deeply unconvincing faux stitching which runs along the plastic dash top, while the metal-effect plastic inlays aren’t exactly becoming of a premium product. Look beyond these, though, and the build quality is rigorous, the switchgear moves with well-oiled clicks and clunks and, with its big vent pods sitting either side of the instrument binnacle, the design is eye-catching.
As with the standard A3, Audi has fitted physical controls for the air-conditioning, rather than resorting to a glossy but distracting touchscreen. The main entertainment system is well thought through and looks classy, too, which makes it easy to use on the fly.
Cost – not what it seems if you lease
So. That price, then. In fact, £38,605 is the precise figure to get behind the wheel of an S3, if you’re going to do what most people don’t and actually pay cash for the thing. That feels expensive compared with almost any other hot hatch you’d care to mention, and perilously close to the £38,850 Mercedes is asking for an AMG A35, which really does feel like too much money for a car with its dearth of talent.
Look at lease or finance costs, however, and the story changes, with the Audi looking significantly cheaper than the Mercedes over the course of a full term, and cheaper even than most of its mainstream rivals. In fact, the only one of its main rivals that’ll cost you even less to lease is the M135i.
The S3 will cost you about as much to fuel and maintain as the A35, but more than the M135i, whose slightly better fuel consumption and less onerous servicing costs make it a touch cheaper per mile. The M135i is predicted to depreciate fractionally less heavily, too.
On the road
Fast Audis have a reputation for being firm-riding, and while it’s sometimes undeserved, this is not the case with the S3.
For the most part, it’s just about acceptable – after all, this is a hot hatch, so you’d be disappointed if it didn’t feel stiff and hunkered-down – but just now and then the S3 crashes its big wheels into the edges of a pothole so abruptly it can make you jump. This tendency is not conducive to relaxed progress, and has you constantly on the lookout for craters in the Tarmac so that you can swerve around them.
Thankfully, at motorway speeds, the S3 settles somewhat to become merely taut rather than crashy, glossing over expansion gaps well while still giving you an inkling you’re in something a little more special than the average A3. It’s just a shame there’s quite a bit of tyre noise, otherwise this would be a fine cruiser.
The gearbox is smooth and quick-witted, but unlike some performance autos it won’t let you have your own way, shifting up for you as you approach the red line and shifting down if it thinks you should be in a lower gear, even in its sportiest set-up.
When you’re pressing on in the S3, that can become a bit irritating. That said, it does fit with the character of this car, because among hot hatches the S3 has always been one of the most foolproof – a point-and-shoot device that sorts everything out beneath you so you can simply nail the throttle and exit a corner with a minimum of fuss.
So it goes with this latest version. Brake for a corner, turn the precise and well-weighted wheel, floor the throttle. It doesn’t really matter how gently or roughly you do any of the above; the S3’s brain will work out exactly how much of that throttle input you can get away with, where the power needs to go, and which wheels need to be subtly braked to send the S3 round the bend without crashing.
You can’t feel it doing this, which is the impressive bit; as a result, you simply feel as though you’ve picked the correct line and applied the right amount of throttle, no matter what you do. They say flattery will get you nowhere, but it certainly counts for something here.
This is a brutally quick car, too, with an engine that seems to have all the bases covered – a low-end wall of torque that doesn’t build so much as exist, seemingly spontaneously, and carries you all the way to the red line with a digitally enhanced and slightly anonymous blart from the speakers. As with the rest of the car, it isn’t characterful – there’s no soulful wail or swelling of power as the revs rise – but it is effective.
You can probably flummox the S3, but we didn’t like to find out, because the chances are you’d have to be trying so hard to get it out of shape that when it did all go wrong, the first you’d know of it would be when you woke up suspended by your seatbelt in a tree.
Its capability and consistency make the S3’s performance very accessible, and also make it hard to screw things up. But they also mean that if you’re looking for a hot hatch that will respond to the nuances of your throttle and steering inputs, you’ll be disappointed.
Whether you feather or floor the throttle, whether you feed in the steering or yank the wheel around like a madman, the S3 will respond the same way. It lacks the depth or sparkle of an M135i or a Civic Type R, for sure, but some people will adore its unerring consistency and the consummate ease with which it allows you to go shockingly quickly.
The Telegraph verdict
For this is one of those cars in which going fast is a doddle; a car in which anyone can feel the raw thrill of going round a corner quickly, without fear of being spat off into a ditch. It is, still, the foolproof hot hatch it always was.
For our money, though, there are more entertaining, more rewarding hot hatches out there. Many of them manage to pull off a more supple ride without losing anything in rigidity, too, and most are endowed with more space.
This, then, is a good hot hatchback that plays in a market thronged with great ones. There’s no doubt it has its place; the S3’s recipe will be tempting for some. But for us, it’s just not tasty enough to outweigh its flaws – or to justify its relatively high price.
Telegraph rating: Three stars out of five
On test: Audi S3 Sportback
How much? £38,605 on the road
How fast? 155mph, 0-62mph in 4.8sec
How economical? 34.9mpg (WLTP Combined)
Engine/gearbox: 1,984cc four-cylinder petrol engine with 306bhp, seven-speed dual-clutch automatic gearbox, four-wheel drive
The electric bits: N/A
Electric range: N/A
CO2 emissions: 183g/km
VED: £895 first year, then £155
Warranty: 3 years / 60,000 miles (unlimited mileage in first two years)
Boot size: 325 litres
Spare wheel as standard: Not available
BMW M135i xDrive
306bhp, 38.7mpg, £37,700 on the road
BMW’s latest M135i is the first to be four-wheel drive. It might have a face only its mother could love, but it’s cheaper to buy (or lease) and run than the Audi, not to mention a little more involving to drive and more spacious. If you’re after a hot hatch with an upmarket badge, it’d probably be our choice.
Honda Civic Type R GT
316bhp, 33.2mpg, £36,415 on the road
Still the king of big hot hatches in our eyes, the Civic Type R’s incisive handling and brawny engine mean it offers the most thrills you can get in a hatchback body. That it’s also very spacious and surprisingly comfortable, especially in this more lavish GT form, only adds to its cred. You’ll forego the automatic gearbox and four-wheel drive and you’ll lose more money on resale than the Audi, but frankly, life’s too short to care.
Ford Focus ST Auto
276bhp, 34.4mpg, £34,735 on the road
If you must have a hot hatch with an auto ’box, though, save yourself four grand, and choose this Focus over the Audi. OK, you’ll have to live without the posh badge, but you’ll make up for it in involvement; the ST is a hoot to drive, and its gearbox won’t boss you around like the Audi’s does.
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