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Audi's all-season hot hatchback and sport saloon get more power and presence, and an uprated mechanical spec

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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. 

So why has this model so often failed to ignite much enthusiasm from enthusiasts? Even the 207bhp original Audi S3, now considered an attractive modern classic, came in for criticism because Audi dared to use the ‘Quattro’ moniker. Its crime was to employ 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 with its mechanically similar and recently outstanding cousin, the Volkswagen Golf R. But now, with a bit more punch and a much-enhanced mechanical specification, 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.

On price, meanwhile - and in line with just about every combustion-engined performance car - the Audi S3 has been creeping its way upmarket over the past few years. The current, fourth-generation car appeared in 2020 as both regular A3 and S3, the latter on offer from a whisker under £40,000.

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But now that Audi needs to make more profit out of fewer sales of cars like this, departure prices on what used to be thought of as the entry-level, most affordable Audi ‘S express’ are about 15% higher, and closer to £50k.

DESIGN & STYLING

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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 has been difficult to tell the cars apart at a glance at times. Less so now, though.

Audi is justifying the car's hiked prices with some interesting new technical content. Having appropriated the clever torque-vectoring rear differential of the Volkswagen Golf R for the hotter-still Audi RS3 two years ago, Audi now makes it standard fit on the S3 as well. It has uprated the car’s front-axle wishbones and bearings, and chosen a more aggressive front wheel geometry for it; uprated the brakes; uncorked some extra power and torque from the car’s 2.0-litre turbocharged four-pot engine; fitted a new titanium sports exhaust; and retuned its lowered sport suspension, having paid particular attention to the adaptive damper tuning of upper-tier Vorsprung models (though we tested a passively damped Black Edition saloon).

Audi's come up with a rather neat, more restrained-looking version of the old Auto Union four rings logo for this car. It's slightly plasticky-looking, but I still quite like it.

The more purposeful mechanical specification comes along with a matching visual makeover for the exterior consisting of bigger grilles and intakes up front, and a more aggressive mock diffuser at the rear. In a bright colour like the Python Yellow of our test car, the S3 now makes quite an impact.

The rest of the design changes are limited to little details, such as the model badges newly carried at the base of the B-pillar, and the new daytime-running lights (which, as with those of the RS3, you can customise for lighting pattern if you so choose). They’re only little improvements, but feel quite ‘classically Audi’ in how they refine the appeal of the car in an understated, slightly geekily technical way.

INTERIOR

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Inside the cockpit, the facelifted S3 has revised fascia and centre console designs; a slightly different gear selector controller, which still somehow feels strangely fiddly for a car that could do with a more substantial ‘handshake’; wider chromed air vents, and some new trim materials; and a revised infotainment system. There are newly integrated driver assistance systems as well to keep the car compliant with EU safety standards - but they’re accessible quickly, via physical controls, and therefore less irksome than they might otherwise be. 

The front seats are widely adjustable, fairly supportive and sporty-feeling, granting a good driving position. In the back, passenger space is a little tight for grown adults in the case of the saloon - but acceptable in what is, by design, one of the more appealingly compact fast executive four-doors on the market.

Material quality is still quite high here for the compact car class, and the digital technology - particularly the Virtual Cockpit digital instruments - is impressive too. This isn't one of Audi's overly minimalist cabin layouts, so it retains permanent physical controls for the heater, drive mode selection and other key functions, which boosts easy usability.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

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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 ft 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 gearbox.

Among the car’s various drive modes, Audi has added a new Dynamic+ setting, which, if you’re game enough to select it, wastes no time announcing this car’s agenda. It amps up the throb of the car’s exhaust but also hikes the engine’s idle speed slightly, in order to get quicker standing starts out of the dual-clutch gearbox.

This is, sure enough, a markedly more raw, direct and unfiltered kind of performance car to drive than it used to be. It makes sense, if you consider the slightly more rarefied price positioning, for Audi to go after really keen drivers a little bit more, and office car park show-offs a little less – and that’s definitely what the S3 is doing. 

It has a boostier, gruffer power delivery than the pre-facelift car and feels a touch more urgent as it pulls towards the redline. It makes for a car with plenty of real-world-accessible pace, but also a slightly bolder and more expressive audible character than it used to have. The engine has quite a fruity thrum about it. No doubt with some digital back-up, and probably not by coincidence, it does a passable impression of an RS five-pot.

RIDE & HANDLING

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More striking still is how much flatter and grippier the car’s handling is, and how much more agile and better balanced mid-corner it is. That new front axle definitely creates a crisper and more adhesive turn-in for the S3, and a greater appetite for mid-corner speed too. But it’s the way the clever rear differential allows the car to stay on line, rotating a little towards the apex even, as you add power that feels like the real dynamic development here. 

This is a fast Audi you can hustle along and chase through bends. It gives more back the harder you drive it, and has that bit of devil-may-care dynamic attitude that so many junior Audi S cars have been too straight-laced to bother with over the years.

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

Push hard and there’s a clear 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. Really, it seems that all that really separates the S3 from the RS3 hyper-hatch now is a bodykit, an extra cylinder and around 80bhp.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

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Audi's slightly cheaper S3 Sportback has now become a £46k buy at entry level, when four years ago you could have secured one for less than £40k. For a fully laden S3 Vorsprung saloon with metallic paint and a few options, you should expect to pay more than £52k. These prices now begin to undermine the S3's long-held status as the sensibly priced, accessible fast Audi – even if they've only risen as much as so many other combustion-engined performance cars have in recent years.

On economy, expect the S3 to return better than 35mpg on a moderate cruise, which is impressive enough considering its performance.

VERDICT

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The need to compete that bit harder for true enthusiast drivers, in a market increasingly hostile to bigger-emitting performance cars, may have worked out quite well for the Audi S3, which has dispensed somewhat with the reserved character it used to have and discovered its Hyde side

It’s fast, but not so serious about going fast as to decline to be fun – and while it feels firmer, coarser and a little naughtier than second-string performance Audis typically are, its directness makes it surprisingly likeable.

The S3’s uprated engine, blowing through that new titanium exhaust, puts you in mind of the old four-cylinder Ford Focus ST with its alternative, off-tempo, five-pot-wannabe growl.

Felix Page

Felix Page
Title: Deputy editor

Felix is Autocar's deputy 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. 

Matt Saunders

Matt Saunders Autocar
Title: Road test editor

As Autocar’s chief car tester and reviewer, it’s Matt’s job to ensure the quality, objectivity, relevance and rigour of the entirety of Autocar’s reviews output, as well contributing a great many detailed road tests, group tests and drive reviews himself.

Matt has been an Autocar staffer since the autumn of 2003, and has been lucky enough to work alongside some of the magazine’s best-known writers and contributors over that time. He served as staff writer, features editor, assistant editor and digital editor, before joining the road test desk in 2011.

Since then he’s driven, measured, lap-timed, figured, and reported on cars as varied as the Bugatti Veyron, Rolls-Royce PhantomTesla RoadsterAriel Hipercar, Tata Nano, McLaren SennaRenault Twizy and Toyota Mirai. Among his wider personal highlights of the job have been covering Sebastien Loeb’s record-breaking run at Pikes Peak in 2013; doing 190mph on derestricted German autobahn in a Brabus Rocket; and driving McLaren’s legendary ‘XP5’ F1 prototype. His own car is a trusty Mazda CX-5.