Audi S3 Sportback review
“The Audi S3 is a refined and quick hot hatchback with lots of tech”
- Easy to drive quickly
- Slick-shifting gearbox
- Fantastic interior
- Steering lacks feel
- Smaller boot than cheaper A3s
- Very similar to previous model
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.
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, as 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 and Mercedes-AMG A 35, and that means the 4.8-second 0-62mph time is pretty similar too (not to mention matching the old car).
A new computerised feature aims to tie all the components together better than before, and it works to some extent. You might notice 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 just as fast when the weather turns.
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. The S3 Vorsprung trim level adds a black styling pack and bigger wheels for a meaner look, but the same styling additions are available on the regular A3 S line too.
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 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
An Audi A3 with a petrol engine is said to manage around 50mpg, which might make the S3’s 34.9mpg figure look a little disappointing. It’s worth remembering, however, that the S3 has just over twice the power of the 148bhp 35 TFSI engine, and unsurprisingly its hot hatch rivals are pretty well matched. 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.
The S3’s 183g/km CO2 output 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 nearly £500 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
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. Much is carried over straight from the outgoing car and, while power and torque are very slightly up on before, the new S3 is just as quick as the one it replaces. The 0-62mph sprint takes 4.8 seconds and you can hit a limited top speed of 155mph.
A seven-speed automatic gearbox might be standard this time around but luckily it flicks between gears quickly. 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 and makes the car’s pace accessible. 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
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.
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 includes 18-inch alloy wheels and Nappa leather upholstery, while Vorsprung trim includes a black styling pack, bigger wheels, 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
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. It seems that the S3 saloon offers the same luggage capacity, but without the versatility of the hatchback’s full-height boot opening.
Reliability & safety
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 23rd out of 29 brands in our 2021 Driver Power owner satisfaction survey, below all other premium brands. Jaguar and Volvo finished seventh and ninth respectively; BMW was 21st.
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.