Audi S3 Sportback (2013-2020)
"The S3 delivers hot-hatchback performance without the stereotypical boy-racer brashness"
- Quality interior
- Impressive acceleration
- Upmarket image
- Uninvolving handling
- Plain styling
- Expensive options
Audi was never a brand to let fashion pass it by, and was eager to join in with the ‘hot hatchback’ craze as soon as it could. Its first small car for the UK market, the three-door A3, was launched in 1996 and, sure enough, it was followed by a high-performance S3 version, in 1999. However, the A3 didn’t become available in five-door Sportback form until the second generation of A3 was launched. With the added practicality of two extra doors, the Audi S3 Sportback immediately impressed and went on to become a very desirable model. With the arrival of a new Audi A3 in 2020, it's also expected an overhauled S3 will arrive soon.
Until then, the S3 Sportback is a very polished product and can confidently compete with cars such as the Ford Focus ST and Volkswagen Golf GTI for driver appeal, while feeling classier than both. It provides huge amounts of power and performance without outlandish looks, leaving its more aggressive-looking and even faster RS3 sister to mix it with the Honda Civic Type-R, BMW 1 Series M135i and Mercedes-AMG A-Class A45. But while the RS3 sits in the limelight, the S3 is possibly an even more appealing package.
The S3 Sportback has always been baked to the same recipe, using a compact five-door body, a four-cylinder turbocharged engine and a quattro four-wheel-drive system. These ingredients are all somewhat upgraded over those served up in less exotic Audi dishes. The body itself is only subtly restyled yet leaves you in little doubt that you’re looking at no ordinary A3; the 2.0 TFSI turbocharged four-cylinder engine is tuned to deliver 306bhp; the quattro four-wheel-drive system includes Haldex differentials for more effective distribution of power between the front and rear wheels. The S3 has a six-speed manual gearbox as standard, but Audi’s S tronic twin-clutch automatic gearbox was a very popular option.
If all this sounds rather technical, it is, but this complexity is nothing to worry about. The idea behind any S3 is that it should be a car you just get in and drive, letting the technology do all the work. The four-wheel-drive system is on hand to provide oodles of grip, which increases driver confidence and safety on slippery roads. Allied to traction control electronics, it does everything it can to let you drive exactly how you want without the car exhibiting any of the tricky behaviour that afflicts certain highly-strung rivals.
Some enthusiastic drivers say that this lack of drama robs the S3 of any magic, but while some may revel in the oversteer you experience on the limit of grip in a powerful rear-wheel drive BMW 1 Series, many more will enjoy the way the S3 simply gets down to the business of high-performance driving with unwavering competence and safety, even in poor weather.
And that’s the S3 Sportback, through and through. Park it next to an RS3 and it looks rather plain in comparison; there’s very little about the styling that grabs the attention. Yet it’s somehow very special in its own right, with its bright xenon headlamps and LED daytime running lights, and its athletic poise that comes from lowered suspension and 18-inch alloy wheels. The subtle S3 badging helps, too, but it’s the four provocative exhaust tips that give the biggest clue as to the performance potential that lurks under the surface.
Inside, it’s more of a compact executive express than a road-bound rally car. It’s all similar to any other high-specification A3 Sportback, but there is an upgraded instrument set with sportier styling and supportive sports seats in Napa leather.
If you don’t need the added practicality of this five-door Sportback variant you can choose your S3 to be based on the ever-popular three-door hatch or a four-door Audi A3 Saloon. There’s an open-top Audi A3 Convertible in S3 form, too. The Sportback is our favourite.
As fast hatchbacks go, the Audi S3 Sportback may be unspectacular to look at but it’s spectacularly easy to live with.
MPG, running costs & CO2
In a world where environmental awareness is higher than ever but performance cars have never been more popular, the latest Audi S3 Sportback comes relatively close to letting you have your cake and eat it.
The statistics are most impressive if we first disclose the S3’s 306bhp and 0-62mph potential of 4.6 seconds, because the Audi S3 Sportback can achieve up to 43.5mpg (using the older NEDC testing method) and produces CO2 emissions of 149g/km.
While its figures might not be in the plug-in hybrid league, they’re very impressive for a car designed for performance. These figures assume the fitting of 18-inch alloy wheels and Audi’s S tronic automatic gearbox. Choosing a manual gearbox sees economy fall to 40mpg and 162g/km.
Road tax is £145 per year unless the car's price was over the £40,000 threshold. In this case, tax increases to £465 for years 2-6 of ownership.
Though fuel and road tax might not break the bank, you should be aware that car insurance costs will be high on a car like this one, and true to form the S3 Sportback sits in insurance group 39. Before committing to buy a car like this you should always check that you can get insurance in the first place, then how much it’s going to cost.
All Audi models come with a three-year/60,000-mile warranty, a package which is slightly less generous than the three year/unlimited mileage warranty offered by Mercedes and BMW. It could, however, be extended by the dealer to a four-year/75,000 mile or five-year/90,000-mile warranty for £250 or £550 respectively.
This doesn’t seem especially generous, though, when Toyota offers a five-year/100,000-mile warranty as standard, Hyundai provides five years/unlimited mileage and Kia provides an industry-leading seven-year/100,000 miles of warranty cover on every new car.
The yearly maintenance on your S3 will be determined by whether you’re in the low-mileage category or not. If you’re likely to cover fewer than 10,000 miles a year, your S3 will be placed on an annual servicing routine. This makes sense, because if you do a lot of short, local journeys the engine might rarely get to full, optimum operating temperature.
However, if you expect to cover a higher annual mileage, the car can be serviced according to a variable schedule, with sensors detecting wear and condition: a service alert light appears on the dashboard when the service is due.
Fixed-price service plans are available, too, and the S3 is likely to cost no more for routine maintenance than a Volkswagen Golf GTI. Bear in mind, though, that the S3’s uprated brakes and wide, sporty tyres can be expensive to replace when they’re worn.
Engines, drive & performance
Like most fast Audis, the Audi S3 has always been geared more towards effortless, easy high-speed driving than setting out to get the adrenaline pumping. With the latest S3 Sportback, it’s business as usual.
BMW 1 Series fans might not be delighted by the lack of drama in a hard-driven S3, but in reality it makes the car extremely reassuring when so much power lurks beneath the surface despite the huge amounts of power on tap. It’s a car that anybody can jump straight into and drive however they like – it’s just as happy to pootle around town as to be let off the leash on a favourite country road.
By comparison to the regular three-door Audi S3 hatchback, the Sportback actually feels ever-so-slightly more characterful on a twisty road, though if you really push it, it doesn’t behave quite so tidily as the three-door car. Braking mid-corner or accelerating aggressively with the traction control switched off, it is possible for the tail to swing out a little, but it never leads to the kind of lurid power slide that some BMW drivers are fans of, nor does it ever feel likely to become dangerous.
That Haldex-assisted quattro four-wheel drive system gives the S3 Sportback endless traction even on damp roads and there’s huge amounts of grip from those wide tyres; you have to be pushing really hard to run out of grip in a corner and few will achieve this at legal speeds.
Our only real criticism is of reserved for the steering. Though it never fails to point the car in exactly the direction you want it to go, it’s rather lacking in feel and reminded us a little of driving a car in an arcade game. While some drivers may find that rather appealing, we’d rather feel a little more involved in the process of driving.
The S3 Sportback uses stiffened and lowered suspension, which this adds to the car’s handling prowess but means a rather firm ride compared to the regular A3 Sportback, with the car almost ricocheting off bumps and potholes. However, you can pay an extra £1,000 to have added Audi’s Magnetic Ride adaptive suspension, which has a comfort mode to make the ride more tolerable.
The latest S3 uses a 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbocharged TFSI engine producing 306bhp, enabling the S3 Sportback to sprint from 0-62mph in 4.6 seconds with the optional six-speed S tronic automatic gearbox fitted; it takes a little longer if it’s equipped with the standard six-speed manual, at 5.3 seconds.
The automatic gearbox actually feels quicker, too, perhaps because you don’t have to make the gear changes yourself and can just hold on to the wheel with both hands while the car does all the work. The S tronic is our favourite gearbox for the S3 Sportback and not just because it’s faster; its effortlessness and efficiency suits the fuss-free nature of the car. Gearshifts are very quick indeed, the only flaw being that it can be a little jerky at low speeds around town.
An interesting feature, though it sounds like a bit of a gimmick, is the hidden speaker that produces an artificial engine note. Surprisingly, we rather like it – it’s really is hard to tell whether or not you’re hearing the genuine noise of the powerful engine.
Interior & comfort
Every Audi A3 has a terrific interior – it’s one of the car’s main selling points. The materials are high quality, the design is cohesive and the layout is easy to understand, while everything is solidly assembled. Every switch and button feels tactile and controls are a joy to operate. It is feeling rather dated now, however, and an all-new Audi A3 was launched in 2020.
Inside the S3 Sportback, the fact that everything feels so normal is a reflection of the nature of the car. Though it’s capable of extraordinary speeds, it’s no less suited to carrying four adults or a small family on everyday journeys than any other Audi A3 Sportback.
There is some provision for its sporting abilities, though, including a flat-bottomed steering wheel and sports seats in quilted Nappa leather. There’s a differently styled instrument pack, too, with a turbocharger boost gauge in the rev counter.
Of course, being the Sportback this S3 has the advantage of greater interior space than the regular S3, making it a more practical car than its three-door sibling and giving passengers in the back a bit more legroom and headroom.
Though passenger comfort is fine at a standstill, it can deteriorate when the S3 is in motion. The car’s tough sports suspension causes the car to ride rather firmly and you’re never in any doubt when the car passes over an imperfection in the road surface. Interior noise levels don't seem any worse inside than in a regular Audi A3 Sportback, though – a sign of either the S3 being carefully developed or the A3 being too loud to begin with.
The specification level is broadly similar to the S line trim in the regular A3, with the addition of heated seats. MMI Navigation sat nav remains a costly but worthwhile option.
Practicality & boot space
Those sitting in the front will notice no difference between the S3’s hatchback and Sportback versions. Both have plenty of space for the driver and front-seat passenger to sit in comfort, with only the tallest struggling for head- or legroom. There are plenty of places to store the odds and ends you might want to take on a journey; both doors have good-sized bottle-holders, there’s a sizeable central storage cubby and the lockable glovebox is big enough for a few cans of drink.
Things are rather different in the back, though. Compared with the regular S3, where passengers have to exercise a certain amount of flexibility to get in the back in the first place, then immediately want to break free, those in the back of an S3 Sportback are comparatively well accommodated. They have their own doors, for a start, and the small increase in wheelbase (the distance between the front and rear axles) over the three-door car is much appreciated, giving rear passengers a decent amount of room for their knees. Headroom in the back is also marginally improved as the roof doesn’t curve down quite so much towards the back of the car.
The S3 Sportback also has a slightly bigger boot than the three-door, at 340 litres rather than 325 litres. Both can be extended by lowering the rear seatbacks, the Sportback enjoying a capacity boost to 1180 litres against the 1060 litres of the smaller car.
Reliability & safety
The reliability of the S3 Sportback is difficult to specify as our annual Driver Power owner satisfaction survey covers the A3 range as a whole without breaking it down to individual models. The A3 itself has shown marked improvements in its owner satisfaction record in recent years, though, and the technology under the skin of the S3 has been proven by many other cars from the Volkswagen Group, to which Audi belongs.
The Audi A3 range, of which the S3 is a part, was rated average for reliability in our 2019 Driver Power owner satisfaction survey of cars currently on sale in the UK. Of the owners who responded, 16% reported experiencing a problem with their car at least once in the first year.
Families can take comfort in the A3’s five-star rating from crash test experts Euro NCAP, which it also approves for the S3 Sportback. The likelihood of an accident occurring is reduced by technology such as lane-keep assist, traffic sign detection and radar-controlled cruise control.