The new S3 Sportback arrives on the local market down on power. Is that enough to take the shine off Ingolstadt’s deputy hot hatch?

Automotive fans have grown to expect the shift from a given model generation to the next to include some sort of progress, and rightly so. When it comes to performance cars, that improvement is often most obviously demonstrated in the form of a little extra oomph or perhaps a tenth or two shaved from the claimed 0-100 km/h time. Rather curiously, this simply isn’t the case with the new S3 Sportback…

S3
In fact, the entry point to the Audi Sport range has gone backwards on both counts. Peak power drops from the outgoing model’s heady 228 kW to a less inspiring 213 kW (though maximum twisting force is unchanged at 400 Nm), while the latest iteration of Ingolstadt’s deputy all-paw hot hatch is a full three tenths of a second tardier to three figures than its forerunner, taking a listed 4.9 seconds to hit the mark.

Interestingly, Europe – a region that generally enjoys priority over comparatively small markets such as ours – receives the full-fat output, despite the previous-generation S3 offered in that part of the world having been detuned to 221 kW. It’s all a little puzzling, but whatever Audi’s rationale for this latest move – be it fuel quality, climate or anything else – it’s worth keeping in mind a car’s about more than mere numbers on paper. 

S3As before, the S-badged model slots in below the five-cylinder RS3 Sportback, which means its focus is firmly on blending performance and everyday usability. Like the closely related Volkswagen Golf R, this fourth take on the S3 rides on an updated form of its predecessor’s platform and again draws its urge from a version of the ubiquitous EA888 engine, driving all four wheels through the VW Group’s quick-shifting seven-speed dual-clutch transmission.

“It certainly feels a shade sharper through the bends and just as unflappable as ever”

Although the turbocharged 2.0-litre, four-cylinder petrol engine exhibits a hint of lag low down, once the rev needle passes around 2 300 r/min, power delivery becomes pleasingly linear (in spite of been detuned, the mill’s peak power is intriguingly available over a wider rev range). Performance Audis typically go fast with very little drama and that’s again the case with this S3. While the figures suggest it’s not quite as effortlessly quick in a straight line as its forebear, it certainly feels a shade sharper through the bends and just as unflappable as ever.

S3

Indeed, choice updates to the quattro system – the fully variable hydraulic multi-plate clutch ahead of the rear axle is now managed by a new modular dynamic handling control system – mean the five-door S3’s nose doesn’t wash wide quite as early as before, though oodles of mid-corner grip are still on offer. As a result, it’s a touch more involving to drive even if it’s still not downright entertaining.

What is unexpectedly beguiling, however, is the soundtrack. The exhaust note delivered via the quad-tailpipes is more aurally appealing than anticipated (and includes pops and crackles on the overrun, if that sort of thing amuses you). Admittedly, what’s heard in the cabin is enhanced – there’s a distinct shift in reverberation once the engine sound is toggled to “pronounced” – but it’s fairly convincing and adds a dash of much-needed theatre to the experience.

S3

So, is the S3 Sportback still a competent daily driver? The short answer is yes, particularly if you specify the R13 000 adaptive dampers. Well worth the extra outlay, this upgraded suspension system allows the driver to add some welcome give to what is otherwise an unyieldingly firm ride. Even on our test unit’s optional 19-inch alloy wheels (R14 000), it dials in just enough suppleness when switched to the comfort setting.

“The exhaust note delivered via the quad-tailpipes is more aurally appealing”

Like the new A3 on which it’s based, the hot hatch’s cabin is a study in classy minimalism. The facia is largely uncluttered (certain functions have been relocated to the 10.1-inch touchscreen), but some physical buttons thankfully remain, including those used to manipulate the climate control system. That said, the S3 does without a traditional volume dial, with that function instead assigned to an iPod-like, touch-sensitive disc positioned ahead of the exceptionally compact shifter.

Though the interior appears well screwed together, we did notice a slight dip in the quality of plastics applied to parts of the door and centre tunnel. Owing to a minor increase in both the hatchback’s length and width, the cabin offers a mite more room than that of the old model, even if the fitment of the quattro arrangement dictates a small sacrifice in luggage space. 

While the S3 Sportback’s base price (which is interestingly around R5 000 less than that of the previous model) sees it undercut direct rivals such as the BMW M135i xDrive (R808 188) and Mercedes-AMG A35 4Matic (R916 000), buyers should be aware it’s entirely possible to push the price tag into seven figures should you be overly enthusiastic with the lengthy list of tempting options.

The S3 badge, of course, predates both of the aforementioned competitors, tracing its origins back to the original three-door version that hit the market in 1999. Indeed, Audi effectively created the blueprint for this flavour of all-wheel-drive premium hot hatch and has gone a long way to perfecting it since.

“The new S3 Sportback again fulfils its mandate as a polished daily driver”

So, has progress indeed been made with this generation? Well, as we’ve come to expect from S-badged Audis, ultimate driver engagement simply isn’t the order of the day. That’s perfectly okay since the new S3 Sportback again fulfils its mandate as a polished daily driver with a deceptively wicked (and easily accessible) turn of pace. Still, while power certainly isn’t everything, the cut in kilowatts certainly puts a ding in this hot hatch’s street cred.

S3

At a glance

Audi S3 Sportback quattro S tronic
A step back in some ways but a step forward in others. The driving experience isn’t vastly different to that of the outgoing model, though it is a fraction sharper. The most obvious changes are found inside … and in the kW column.

Price: R795 000
Engine: 2.0 L, 4-cyl, turbopetrol
Transmission: 7-spd dual-clutch
Driven wheels: 4
Power: 213 kW @ 5 100-6 700 r/min
Torque: 400 Nm @ 2 000-5 000 r/min
0-100 km/h: 4.9 seconds
Top speed: 250 km/h
Fuel consumption: 8.0 L/100 km
CO2: 185 g/km