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In-depth reviews

Audi S3 Sportback review

“The Audi S3 is a refined and quick hot hatchback with lots of tech”

Carbuyer Rating

3.7 out of 5

Owners Rating
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Pros

  • Easy to drive quickly
  • Slick-shifting gearbox
  • Fantastic interior

Cons

  • Steering lacks feel
  • Smaller boot than cheaper A3s
  • Very similar to previous model

Verdict - is the Audi S3 Sportback a good car?

Hot hatchback fans haven’t had long to wait for the new Audi S3 because this version was launched at almost the same time as the regular Audi A3 on which it’s based. You’d buy the new one for its styling and hi-tech interior, but in some ways the S3 feels very similar to its predecessor. Given the size of the S3’s existing fanbase, that might not be such a bad thing.

Audi S3 Sportback models, specs and alternatives

The 2.0-litre petrol engine remains, with a largely unnoticeable 10bhp increase to 306bhp, and it’s attached to Audi’s quattro all-wheel-drive system and a seven-speed automatic gearbox – which is now the only option because it was a lot more popular than the last car’s six-speed manual. Besides having a few bhp extra, the Audi S3 has the same layout as its arch rivals, the BMW M135i, Mercedes-AMG A 35 and the mechanically similar Volkswagen Golf R, and that means the 4.8-second 0-62mph is in the same ballpark as these alternatives (not to mention matching the old car).

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Audi has ramped up the technology with the latest S3, including its Progressive Steering feature as standard, which can vary the speed at which the steering reacts depending on driving conditions, while Vorsprung models get adaptive damping as standard. You might notice the slightly more precise steering (although we’d still like it to be more communicative), while it seems slightly more composed over bumps and off-camber corners. The quattro system is behind the magic here, with lots of traction and the ability to go almost as quickly in poor weather as when it’s bone dry.

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The styling is new and adds some excitement, with bold slashes, big wheel arches and fancy LED lighting tech. It makes the old car look relatively plain, but the S3 hardly stands out from an S line car in appearance. Despite having four (functional) exhausts and a honeycomb grille – and those S3 badges – the powerful Audi must be one of the most subtle hot hatches. It’ll appeal if you think the Honda Civic Type R or Ford Focus ST look a bit too garish, or if you want to surprise unsuspecting drivers. Don’t expect the top-level Vorsprung trim line to offer much differentiation either – visually, only a different set of wheels separate it from the Black Edition car that opens the range.

Changes from an A3 S line are just as minor inside but the latest Audi interior won’t leave you feeling shortchanged. Two screens measuring at least 10 inches dominate the cabin, which feels state-of-the-art but perhaps a little busy – there are rows of buttons on nearly every surface, and air vents mounted awkwardly atop the dash.

The new Audi S3 is available in Sportback (hatchback) and saloon body styles, but there won’t be an S3 convertible or a three-door hatch in this generation. The S3 now sits underneath the Audi RS 3, which gets even sharper looks, nearly 400bhp from a five-cylinder engine, and an even more expensive price. It steals the spotlight from the S3, primarily because it’s currently the UK’s fastest-accelerating hot hatchback.

MPG, running costs & CO2

Audi S3 manages roughly the same fuel economy as rivals

he 1.0-litre turbocharged petrol engine at the bottom of the Audi A3 range is capable of more than 50mpg combined, against which the S3’s 34.9mpg doesn’t seem all that special. But then the S3 has twice the capacity of that 30 TFSI and not far short of three times the power (and double that of the 1.5-litre 35 TFSI), so it’s not doing too badly with what it has. It’s also well-matched to its closest rivals – you won’t find a competitor that manages 40mpg on the WLTP cycle, and the quattro all-wheel-drive system doesn’t seem to dent fuel economy too much – after all, the less powerful Ford Focus ST and Hyundai i30 N will both achieve around 34mpg. Naturally, use the full extent of the S3’s performance, and you probably won’t see figures in the 30s very often.

The downside of those mid-30s economy figures is the S3’s 188g/km CO2 output, which means it’ll be an expensive proposition for company-car drivers. Now, it’s costly to tax for private buyers, too, because adding even metallic paint will tip the S3 over the £40,000 threshold. Once a car costs more than that, it’s subject to a larger VED (road tax) bill of £750 a year for the first five times you renew. With more power, the S3 will also be more expensive to insure than a regular A3, although it has the same three-year warranty and service plans will be available.

Engines, drive & performance

Lots of grip and easy to drive fast, but there are more exciting hot hatches than the Audi S3

A 2.0-litre petrol engine and four-wheel drive have become the Audi S3’s hallmarks, and the new model doesn’t do anything different. The car’s engine and transmission are largely evolutions of those used in the previous model, and while there have been small improvements in both power and torque, performance is almost identical to its predecessor. Top speed remains limited to 155mph, while the 0-62mph figure of 4.8 seconds is relatively simple to achieve, now that you no longer have to row your own gears to reach it.

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That’s because Audi’s seven-speed automatic gearbox is now standard, and while some drivers may rue the lack of a manual option, they’re clearly in a minority, given the popularity of the auto. It’s no great shame either, because the transmission is fast and smooth. It’s a familiar gearbox but seems to have been given a more focused feel for the S3, and you can use paddle shifters if you want to change gear yourself.

Most fast Audis seem to offer little in the way of steering feel, and the S3 is much the same – although it is accurate and well-weighted when you put it in the Dynamic driving mode. Sport mode slightly reduces the impact of the traction control, while Comfort takes out the harshness of uneven tarmac.

Whatever setting it’s in, there’s no shortage of grip; the quattro system is really confidence-inspiring even in poor weather, and makes it easy to access the car’s performance in a way that alternatives without four-wheel drive can sometimes struggle with. Its aim seems to be to allow you to corner as quickly as possible, and even tricky off-camber corners don’t unsettle it.

Interior & comfort

Hi-tech and luxurious, with sporty touches added for the S3 too

The clean lines and minimalist look of the last Audi S3’s cabin have been replaced by a more tech-focused approach. The 10.25-inch touchscreen has moved to the centre console, and a Virtual Cockpit digital instrument cluster is standard.

It’s good that Audi hasn’t used the touch-sensitive sliders for the climate control functions that you’ll find on the Cupra Leon and Volkswagen Golf R, but the cabin does look a little overstyled from the driver’s seat. The air vents seem like something of an afterthought, while there are lots of buttons and stalks.

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Like the exterior, most of what you see is shared with less powerful S line models, although the S3 does get yellow stitching and the option of carbon trim. Standard equipment on the Black Edition includes a black exterior styling pack, 19-inch alloy wheels and Nappa leather upholstery, while Vorsprung trim includes a black styling pack, a different 19-inch alloy wheel design, adaptive suspension, a B&O Premium Sound system and matrix LED headlights. A Comfort & Sound options pack bundles together items like a reversing camera and an upgraded stereo system; other options like a panoramic sunroof and a powered tailgate are available too.

Practicality & boot space

The Audi S3’s four-wheel-drive system eats into boot space

Longer and wider than before, the new Audi S3 has extra head and legroom in both rows of seats. It’s easily spacious enough for four adults, although the small fifth seat and the transmission tunnel below it means travelling with five people on board will be cramped on longer journeys. There are big door pockets, a new cubby for your phone and a couple of other storage areas, plus nets on the seatbacks.

While lesser front-wheel-drive Audi A3s have a 380-litre boot, the mechanicals of the all-wheel-drive system give you a slightly smaller boot at 325 litres. It’ll still be just about big enough for most family needs, and is 40 litres bigger than the boot in the more powerful RS 3. Folding the S3’s 40:20:40 seats increases the available space to 1,145 litres. You don’t lose any luggage capacity by opting for the S3 saloon, although you do get a less convenient shape and smaller opening, so the hatchback still rules for practicality.

Reliability & safety

The S3 should get a great safety score, while Audi is far from the worst premium brand as rated by customers

Some of the technology might be new but the platform, engine and gearbox are all carried over from the last car, so we’d hope any common problems have been ironed out. The fact that one in five Audi owners reported a fault in the first year of ownership suggests otherwise, however. Audi finished all the way down in 30th place from 32 brands in the 2023 Driver Power owner satisfaction survey, below all other premium brands. That was behind its rivals BMW and Mercedes, in 21st and 25th, and even three places behind Volkswagen, despite the two brands’ cars being very similar under the skin. The A3 didn’t appear in 2023’s survey, but the Q3 crossover was placed 27th out of 75 cars – more promising than the brand’s overall result.

With the Audi A3 and its derivatives set to be big-selling models for the company, anything but a five-star Euro NCAP score is effectively out of the question. Fortunately, the Audi A3 (and the S3 since it’s so similar) lived up to expectations when it was crash-tested in 2020. New technology includes Car2X, where the car communicates with other cars and local infrastructure to warn of accidents and traffic, while standard equipment includes autonomous emergency braking, pedestrian and cyclist detection and lane-departure warning.

Vorsprung adds extra features such as adaptive cruise control, lane-change assistance, self-parking ability and traffic-sign recognition. Many of these features can be added to the standard trim as optional extras.

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Andy is Carbuyer's managing editor, with more than a decade of experience helping consumers find their perfect car. He has an MA in automotive journalism and has tested hundreds of vehicles.

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