Third-gen S3 squeezes itself into premium hot-hatch territory and quickly carves out its place.
It’s a tight squeeze for the Audi S3 Sportback between lower- and higher-priced hot-hatch competitors, but this $59,990 third-generation model could actually form a sweet spot between them.
Although the Audi S3 Sportback costs $18,500 more than a Volkswagen Golf GTI with which it shares its basic platform, the GTI Performance Pack reduces the gap to $12,000, leaving the forthcoming Golf R likely wedged hard against the S3’s tag.
Now available as a five-door Sportback model only, the Audi S3 shares its engine and its all-wheel-drive layout with the Golf R, but its 5.0-second 0-100km/h (in optional dual-clutch automatic spec) is actually a tenth slower. That’s because local Audi S3 Sportback models have a slightly detuned 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder engine due to Australia’s heat, the manufacturer claims. (Incidentally, the current Golf R is also detuned for the same reason, but there’s no word yet if the next one will…)
Locally, the S3 produces 206kW of power between 5100-6500rpm (down from 221kW at 5500-6200rpm) and 380Nm of torque between 1800-5100rpm (identical to overseas models but with the maximum ending 400rpm earlier).
Both the six-speed manual and six-speed dual-clutch gearbox are available for an identical price. The manual, however, misses a launch control feature, takes 5.4 seconds to reach 100km/h and Audi says is expected to make up a miserly three to four per cent of sales.
The 1445kg S3 Sportback auto also claims 6.9L/100km combined, down 0.1L on the 20kg-lighter manual model.
Compared with its premium hot-hatch rivals, the Audi S3 Sportback is $5000 cheaper than the BMW M135i and $10,000 less expensive than the Mercedes-Benz A45 AMG.
It is a tenth slower than the turbo six-cylinder-powered BMW, and four tenths slower than the hyper-Merc that also shares the S3 auto’s official economy figure. But the Audi is far better equipped than the M135i, almost matching the A45 AMG’s standard equipment.
Included in the S3 Sportback are 18-inch alloy wheels, xenon headlights, front and rear cameras with auto parking function, keyless auto-entry, seven-inch colour display with satellite navigation and 10-speaker audio, electrically-adjustable and heated front seats, and full leather trim.
For a further $4990 – which brings the S3 Sportback on par with M135i pricing – an S performance package further brings adjustable magnetic dampers, tombstone sports buckets with diamond cross-hatch stitching (but manual adjustment), 705-watt 14-speaker Bang and Olufsen stereo, full LED headlights, red brake calipers and anthracite alloy wheels.
As with the regular A3 range, the S3 Sportback is also available with an $1800 Assistance Package incorporating adaptive cruise control, blind-spot assistance, lane-keep assistance, auto high beam and ‘pre sense’ technology that powers-up the windows and tightens seatbelts when an accident occurs.
A panoramic sunroof is a $1950 option.
Tick all the boxes, though, and the Audi S3 Sportback is still better equipped than the M135i for around the same money, and remains cheaper than a similarly-loaded A45.
Its interior is also miles ahead of both of them. The A3 interior is a beautifully crafted and properly premium bit of clean, ergonomic design. The centre screen looks impossibly thin for such a high-resolution unit, and the way it elegantly rises from the dashboard is not unlike a premium television dropping from the ceiling of a home theatre suite. The circular vents rotate with smoothly damped precision, and the white contrast stitching is as lovely as the subtly applied carbonfibre strip dividing the upper and lower dash.
The luxury and comfort of the interior is matched by hushed wind noise levels, although the wide tyres throw up a deafening roar on coarse-chip surfaces that forms the only blot on this Audi’s refinement score.
The 2.0-litre turbocharged engine – all-new except for the block and 5kg lighter than the same-sized unit it replaces – is super silken and really quite sweet to rev. The exhaust burble is distant and subtle, like the M135i’s and unlike the brash A45’s, and the blurt on the auto’s upchanges adds a layer of aural satisfaction over the manual-equipped cars.
Its 6800rpm cut-out can feel a bit low in the manual version, too, as it has a wider gap between second and third gear than the dual-clutch, hammers home shifts faster and more finely taps into the engine’s best.
But the manual gearbox is so fluent and well-oiled that it is easily understood why purist buyers (all sub-five per cent of them…) would make the choice. There’s a valid argument that because many S3 buyers are aspiring professionals on a career projectory, and who are likely to be stuck in traffic, clutching in and out isn’t ideal. Conversely, however, the manual allows drivers to feel connected with the car even when commuting, and there’s genuine pleasure to be had from working the gearbox even when not driving hard; what do you think?
We sampled both an Audi S3 Sportback with standard fixed dampers and with adjustable magnetic ride, the latter of which can be optioned separately for $1600 or as part of the aforementioned S line performance package.
In this case the optional dampers are a must. The ride on standard suspension is far too jiggly and sensitive to surface changes.
All S3s have an Audi Drive Select function that allows either set Comfort, Auto or Dynamic settings for the engine/gearbox, steering and engine sound, or an Individual mode that permits separate choices for each of them. But ticking magnetic dampers adds a suspension control selection to the mix.
It’s a testimony to the brilliance of the magnetic dampers that Comfort mode is the ideal selection. There’s none of the floatiness too often associated with settings that aim to be the most comfortable but are actually induce sea sickness on Australia’s poor roads. Instead, the S3 Sportback is permitted to breathe over undulations while better isolating the cabin from harsh imperfections and still remaining secure at all times.
Auto is a fine middle ground, but Dynamic should be reserved for racetracks.
Comfort mode also helps the S3 Sportback’s handling. Because the standard dampers are tight, they don’t work the outer front tyre in particular as hard in bends. The softer magnetic ride allows the car to roll a bit more, allowing the wide Pirelli P Zero Nero tyres to cling to the road and resist understeer, but bringing the rear end into play. The S3 Sportback can then slide slightly and help its nose back towards the apex for fun, rather than just fast cornering.
The steering is brilliant in the S3 Sportback, though again it’s best to choose Comfort or Auto because Dynamic needlessly subtracts power assistance and adds weight. At 2.1 turns lock-to-lock, the variable-ratio set-up is sharp, yet it always feels reassuring on the centre position.
There’s nothing awe-inspiring about the Audi S3 Sportback because it isn’t loud and super-quick like the A45 AMG, and it isn’t a throttle-oversteer-inducing hoon like the M135i. But it is a smooth operator, a wonderfully slick conveyance that also looks good, goes hard and offers wonderful dynamics.
It also doesn’t feel squeezed between its VW Group stablemates and other fellow German competitors, but rather nails a rare sweet spot in the market.