Audi evolves its take on the all-season hot hatch, but is it more style than substance?

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As a concept, the Audi S3 possesses not one jot less appeal now than it did when the model first blazed the ‘sports premium compact’ trail four generations ago in 1999.

You take an upmarket interior and blend it with four-wheel drive – and, of course, power. All very Audi. But the brilliant bit is that the concoction is then wrapped up in the skin of an ordinarily sized family hatchback. The S3 therefore represents everything modern Audi does well, only distilled into a conveniently small package. 

Once you’ve worked through an initially brief bout of lag and the crank is spinning at 2500rpm, the S3 propels itself with serious urgency

So why does this model often fail to ignite much enthusiasm from enthusiasts? Even the 207bhp original, now considered an attractive modern classic, came in for criticism because Audi dared to use the ‘quattro’ moniker. Its crime was to use an on-demand Haldex four-wheel drive system rather than Audi’s traditional, full-time Torsen-reliant quattro set-up. Since then, the S3 has been criticised for its weight, numb steering and poor value in comparison to its mechanically similar and recently outstanding cousin, the Volkswagen Golf R.

But now, with a pinch more punch and the fitment of a clever new torque-splitter on the rear axle, the S3 is renewing its campaign for the keen driver's vote. 

The upgrades form part of a wider round of mid-life tweaks for the Audi A3 family, which has been on sale since 2020 and is tipped to soldier on until at least 2027, when there's word of an electric equivalent being rolled out.

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We’ll discover shortly whether the modifications are enough to right some of the S3's most obvious wrongs, but we should also recognise that, in broader terms, the model’s place in the world has changed. In 1999, the S3 offered Lancia Delta Integrale Evo pace but with an opulence and sense of solidity anathematic to the Italian car. However, today’s car has less to prove in terms of ballistic pace. The S3 has been comfortably superseded at the top of the sports premium compact hierarchy by a new breed of 400bhp-plus supercar-fast hatches, not least Audi’s own Audi RS3 and its arch-rival, the Mercedes-AMG A45.

To succeed in 2024, the S3 therefore needs only to come across as the most rounded, capable and sophisticated of the all-weather hot hatch clique. So does it?


audi s3 saloon review 2024 02 rear tracking

With lurid paint options and four exhaust tips, the S3 could never be described as shy, but so aggressively styled is the regular A3 that it can be difficult to tell the cars apart at a glance.

Somewhat unexpectedly, the S3 has been rather more tangibly updated than the standard car, though to look at it, you’d be forgiven for thinking otherwise. The grille is wider, the front badge is mounted higher, there are new colour options, the headlights have four custom signatures and the rear diffuser has been reshaped. It’s not a lot to get your head around. 

Single-frame grille is in-filled with honeycomb black plastic and is the most aggressive iteration of the S3’s frontal to date. Expect the RS3 to up the stakes further


Underneath the steel body (seen here in saloon form, although an S3 Sportback also exists) lies the traditional mechanical arrangement. The Volkswagen Group’s EA888 turbocharged 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine is reprised - though now with power boosted from 306bhp to 329bhp and torque from 295lb to 310lb ft. 

Directly downstream of the engine sits the S-tronic seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox previously offered, although it can now decouple and allow the car to freewheel when the driver lifts off the throttle. It’s also worth noting that the S3 isn’t available with a manual.

It’s surprising that the S3 is slower off the mark than the pre-2020 car, if only by 0.2sec to 62mph. A tacit admission from Audi that these things don’t matter so much any more?

There seems to be some divergence in opinion about ‘performance’. Some of us crave ever-lower acceleration times and rejoice in the absurdity of it all, while others long ago accepted that anything less than five seconds from 0-62mph was more than quick enough for anything road-legal.

Whichever way you see it, the S3’s 0-60mph time of 4.7sec is objectively very quick and comfortably more so than even the most rabid front-driven alternatives’, such as the Honda Civic Type R.

But exciting? Not so much. The manner in which the 2.0-litre turbo engine reliably pumps out those figures is better known to road testers than most, the Volkswagen Group (but Audi-designed) EA888 unit having appeared in various forms across the Audi, Seat, Skoda and Volkswagen brands for well over a decade now.

The idle speed has been turned up by 200rpm and the turbo is pre-loaded from s lower boost pressue, so there's a heightened sense of urgency in full-bore launches. But thereafter the uniform delivery of power and torque feels endlessly broad and hugely effective, but lacks much in the way of shape or crescendo. The gearbox is reliably slick but, again, not especially engaging, its paddles in particular lacking tactility.

Sub-R8 fast Audis have always leant into the brand’s rallying heritage particularly well, and while it requires a certain suspension of disbelief, the S3 does the whole ‘WRC refugee’ thing rather well. The turbo’s sonorous whooshing, sucking and exhaling – more pervasive now that it’s pre-loaded at a lower boost pressure – would give Michèle Mouton something to smile about, and the keener ear will detect something of a five-cylinder-esque chirrup from the titanium-tipped Akrapovic sports exhaust - though I’d pay extra to do without the anti-social pops and bangs on overrun. 


More important – and potentially transformative – than any power increase is the S3’s swapping from a Haldex differential at the rear to a torque splitter with a multi-plate clutch either side of the driveshaft, which allows for vectoring between the rear wheels, where the previous car could only apportion power from front to back. 

Audi shows us lots of animations and a slightly mesmerising cutaway prototype which demonstrate the propensity of this new arrangement, lifted from the RS3, to help the car rotate around its middle, and even – engineers snicker naughtily – kick the tail out when conditions allow, by channelling more of its reserves to the outer rear wheel in hard corners. 

Akrapovič sports exhaust might be on the loutish side, but lends an element of rally refugee appeal - if you're prepared to indule in a bit of synthesised fantasy.

Push hard and you can feel it for yourself; there’s a sensation of being pulled around each fast corner as if connected by a rod to its apex, which makes judging your line much easier and encourages a more ambitious entry speed, while also reducing the amount of steering input needed, given the new directional influence of the S3’s stern. 

It’s all very impressive, but perhaps a little beyond the dynamic remit of a mid-rung hot hatch; it seems that all that really separates the S3 from the RS3 hyper-hatch now is a bodykit, an extra cylinder and around 80bhp. 

What the S3 does better than ever before – and every bit as well as its direct rivals – is change direction. A truly communicative helm you’ll not find in this class of car, but the weighting of the motion and gearing of this Audi rack breeds some confidence, and it is confidence underwritten by a chassis that feels less inclined to push its nose wide than ever before.

As with the previous-generation S3, this chassis is also keen to send plenty of drive to the rear, though on the road this manifests as unflappable neutrality when exiting bends, rather than anything approaching oversteer.

And it’s ‘neutrality’ that best describes the S3’s handling. It’s less inclined to reward a trailing brake on the way into corners, remains doggedly on your chosen line through the mid-corner, and then, assuming you’ve selected the optimal gear, fires itself onto the next straight in deadpan fashion. Moreover, if you’re liberal with the throttle and prepared to let the chassis electronics get to work, the S3’s ability is remarkably unaffected by inclement weather.



audi s3 saloon review 2024 01 front tracking

If £37,000 sounds expensive given that the S3 won’t, in the fullness of time, rank as even the top-billing model in the A3 range, know that this is very much the going rate in 2020 for a premium-brand four wheel-drive hatch with around 300bhp.

The BMW M135i xDrive and Mercedes-AMG A35 4Matic+ flank the Audi by around £500, and it’s worth noting that all three share similarly strong residuals. To sample the next rung up in the mega-hatch hierarchy – currently occupied by the 415bhp Mercedes-AMG A45 S, which will be joined next year by the RS3 – you would need to spend more than £50,000 and resist the temptation of bona fide sports cars such as the BMW M2 Competition.

S3 edges premium rivals in the short term, though the Mercedes-AMG A35 holds its value more effectively if you keep it for three years

Of course, in terms of specification, it’s unlikely many S3s will remain at £36,975. LED headlights and Audi’s Virtual Cockpit are among several useful features that come as standard, but unless you want your car in white or blue, you’ll need to spend more on paint, and many owners will then upgrade the standard 18in wheels.

Having electrically adjustable front seats, a reversing camera and the upgraded Bang & Olufsen sound system will then push the price to more than £40,000.

What Car? New car buyer marketplace - Audi S3


For any new Audi S3, the judging criteria is well-defined. Too raw and involving and you invite accusations of being unfit for purpose, of lacking the day-in, day-out approachability owners will pay for. Equally, if the car is too relaxing and aloof, we’d not hesitate to call that out as an undesirable trait. The S moniker must stand for something. An S3 should therefore offer a good level of engagement but never forget its manners or true calling: a firm sense of security underwheel, whatever the weather.

This latest iteration certainly hits its target it terms of composure. It grips the road superbly well, understeers less markedly than before, and inculcates an enjoyable sense of confidence in the driver. The S3 is easy and quietly enjoyable to guide along almost any road, whether or not you choose to unfurl its wicked turn of pace.

Audi delivers an effective if somewhat unlovable hot hatch

There’s character here, for sure, but you’ll have to learn to love some of the more synthetic elements of it all, and that extends to the dynamic behaviour; what the S3 gains in predictability and manoeuvrability, you could argue it sacrifices in whimsy and frivolity. 

You wonder if, with this round of updates, the S3 has fastened another button on its crisp, plain white shirt, when really it could have afforded to loosen its tie and let its hair down a bit. 

Felix Page

Felix Page
Title: News and features editor

Felix is Autocar's news editor, responsible for leading the brand's agenda-shaping coverage across all facets of the global automotive industry - both in print and online.

He has interviewed the most powerful and widely respected people in motoring, covered the reveals and launches of today's most important cars, and broken some of the biggest automotive stories of the last few years. 

Richard Lane

Richard Lane
Title: Deputy road test editor

Richard joined Autocar in 2017, arriving from Evo magazine, and is typically found either behind a keyboard or steering wheel.

As deputy road test editor he delivers in-depth road tests, performance benchmarking and supercar lap-times, plus feature-length comparison stories between rival cars. He can also be found on Autocar's YouTube channel

Mostly interested in how cars feel on the road – the sensations and emotions they can evoke – Richard drives around 150 newly launched makes and models every year, and focuses mainly on the more driver-orientated products, as is tradition at Autocar. His job is then to put the reader firmly in the driver's seat. 

Away from work, but remaining on the subject of cars, Richard owns an eight-valve Integrale, loves watching sportscar racing, and holds a post-grad in transport engineering.