To the engineers at Audi, there is apparently no such thing as bad weather.
When conditions turn nasty, as it has on a partially flooded coastal road on our test route, they prefer to refer to it as quattro weather, in reference to the traction-enhancing properties of the four-wheel drive system at the heart of some of the German car maker’s more memorable models.
And right now, quattro weather is being laid on about as thick as you’re likely to encounter – anywhere!
With the security offered by Audi’s latest quattro four-wheel drive system helping out, we could easily live with the intense lashing of rain we’re experiencing, but when it’s accompanied by hurricane-force winds, thick fog that limits your visibility to a couple of car lengths at best and a crumbling road surface, you quickly question the sense in travelling to the lonely island of São Miguel in the midst of winter.
We’re here, on one of nine volcanic islands that make up the archipelago of the Azores in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, to drive the new 2020 Audi S3.
Set for Australian sale by the end of 2020, it is planned to head an extended range of fourth-generation A3 models ... at least until the arrival of the new RS3, which we’re told is already under development and set to make an appearance in 2021 packing up to 300kW.
Despite the seemingly endless run of new SUV models added to the Audi line-up in recent years, it is the A3 in all its various guises that continues to drive sales in many markets.
Since its introduction to the German car maker’s line-up in 1996, it has garnered well over 4 million sales globally, making the premium hatchback one of Audi’s most successful models to date.
We’re still a month away from seeing the first of the new A3 models in production guise at the upcoming Geneva motor show. But Audi decided it would be a good idea to let us loose in its latest hatchback over roads that form the transport stages of the annual Azores Rallye – an event that traditionally makes up part of the European Rally Championship.
2020 Audi S3: What is there to know?
First up, Audi has done away with the three-door hatchback that formed the entry-level model in previous generations of the A3 – and with it, goes the A3 cabriolet, which will not be offered in the new line-up.
The five-door A3 hatchback or Sportback as Audi continues to refer to it, which forms the basis of the S3 driven here and has traditionally taken the majority of sales in Australia, continues on, as does the four-door A3 sedan, a successor to which is set to make its public debut at the Beijing motor show in April.
We’ve heard whispers of the five-door A3 hatchback, codenamed AU380, forming the basis of a new junior All Road model featuring raised ride height and cladding.
Although yet to be officially confirmed by Audi, this new model is expected to see Australian sales from early 2022, possibly shifting the 'Sportback' moniker in the A3 range from the five-door hatch shown here, to a style more aligned with others of the same name.
The styling of the new A3 continues along an evolutionary path.
Key design elements include an angular single-frame grille and second-generation Q3-like headlamps – the latter of which will offer adaptive LED functions that Audi says will place it squarely at the head of its class where lighting is concerned.
The fourth generation also adopts a more prominent shoulder line, larger wheel houses and tauter surfacing than that of its predecessor, launched back in 2012.
Audi says it is too early to be talking about the engines for the new A3. Prospective customers should, however, expect a line-up of options similar to the recently unveiled eighth-generation Volkswagen Golf, with a mixture of turbocharged three and four-cylinder petrol and turbocharged four-cylinder diesel units together with a petrol-electric plug-in hybrid powerplant – the latter of which is claimed to produce up to 180kW and, with a 13kWh lithium-ion battery, provide a pure electric range of up to 60km, according to CarAdvice sources.
Mirroring moves made on the latest Volkswagen Golf, all of the new A3’s petrol engines have been updated with a particulate filter, while selected units are also set to run a 48-volt starter motor that brings mild hybrid properties for improved economy and lower emissions.
It’s a similar story for the diesels, which receive a newly developed SCR (selected catalytic reduction) filter that is claimed to significantly lower NOX emissions.
At the head of the initial line-up, the S3 retains the same turbocharged 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine used by its predecessor. The so-called EA888 unit is claimed to produce the same 228kW as before but with a 20Nm increase in torque at 400Nm.
By comparison, the new BMW M135i xDrive packs 225kW and 450Nm, while the Mercedes-AMG A35 4Matic offers a similar 225kW and 400Nm.
(Click here to read our comparison between the new Bimmer and AMG with this new S3's predecessor, still the current model in Australia.)
The prototypes we drove all featured a seven-speed S-Tronic dual-clutch gearbox with steering wheel-mounted shift paddles. However, Audi assures us the new S3 will continue to be offered with a standard six-speed manual transmission.
The new A3 retains the same structural base as before. The starting point for the fourth-generation hatchback is the familiar MQB platform – the same hot-pressed steel and aluminium structure used by a whole host of Volkswagen Group company models, including the latest incarnations of the Volkswagen Golf, Skoda Octavia and Seat Leon to name just a few.
Audi isn’t giving away too much on the technical front just yet. However, it says the wheelbase and track widths remain much the same as the previous model.
The suspension is also carried over with only minor modifications to the geometry; lower-end models receive a combination of MacPherson struts at the front and a torsion beam arrangement at the rear, while more powerful models get a more sophisticated combination of MacPherson struts up front and a multi-link setup at the rear.
One crucial change is the design of the adaptive damping control, which will continue to be an option on various models, including the S3 we’ve come to the Azores to drive.
In a significant shift in engineering philosophy, it switches from magnetic to hydraulic actuation in a process Audi claims provides faster reaction times for improved wheel control and a broader spread of damping characteristics over a variety of different road surfaces.
The revised adaptive damping control, which is an option on the S3, offers three different settings: comfort, auto and dynamic. They are among five different driving modes that can be accessed through the Audi Drive Select function.
The other modes are efficiency and individual – the latter of which allows you to alter the characteristics of the damping, throttle, steering and gearbox on an individual basis to best suit any given journey.
Further changes are concentrated at the steering. Depending on the model, buyers will be able to choose between a standard non-variable setup and a newly developed variable system.
Standard on the S3, the variable setup, known by Audi as progressive steering, uses variable tooth space on the rack and a more powerful electric motor to alter the ratio and assistance according to speed and steering angle; it’s light and less direct in city driving and quite weighty and very sharp in response out on the open road.
Audi has also reworked the quattro four-wheel drive system that will be used by selected new A3 models, including the initial top of the line S3. Its electro-hydraulic pump now operates at up to 44bar of pressure, leading to faster operation of the multi-plate clutch integrated within the rear axle and with it a more rapid apportioning of drive to the axle with the most grip.
In a long-overdue development, the drive split between the front and rear axles is now fully variable, meaning up to 100 per cent of the engine's reserves can be delivered to the road through either the front or rear wheels depending on the driving conditions. This hints to increased traction and more neutral handling characteristics compared to the old A3, whose quattro four wheel drive system was only able to send 50 per cent of drive to the rear wheels.
Unlike some rivals, though, Audi does not offer a drift mode with its latest hatchback, not even in S3 guise.
Complimenting the changes to its four-wheel drive system, the new A3 also adopts a reworked Electronic Stabilisation Control (ESC) function. It permits what Audi describes as “wheel selective torque control”.
In short, it is capable of applying light braking force to the two wheels on the inside of a corner during spirited driving. The upshot, according to Audi, is “even more agile, fluid and safer” handling.
In a move Audi says has played a crucial part in heightening its driving appeal, the new 2020 A3 also adopts a so-called central chassis management system as part of an overall upgrade to its electronic architecture. It networks various systems, including the engine, adaptive damping, steering, four-wheel drive system and ESC, by way of a controller area network (CAN) bus, providing them with faster response times.
Inside, the A3 has taken on a highly technical look with a thoroughly redesigned dashboard and centre console featuring more upmarket materials and trim elements than those used before.
As with the new Volkswagen Golf, the traditional gear lever is replaced by a stubby drive-by-wire shifter in models fitted with the optional seven-speed dual-clutch S-Tronic gearbox. (Audi has yet to release interior pics, but you can see our spy photos here.)
The prototypes we drove were early production examples, and certain sections of their interiors were covered in disguise. However, we can report the new Audi receives a reworked Virtual Cockpit featuring a digital instrument display and matching infotainment system mounted high up within the centre of the dashboard together with a host of new features, many of which have already been launched on other models, including an optional head-up display unit, SIM-enabled real-time navigation and puddle lights.
Accommodation wise, it’s much the same as before. With external dimensions close to the outgoing model at 4351mm in length, 1816mm in width and 1441mm in height, the new A3 Sportback is pretty much on par with its key premium brand hatchback rivals in terms of front and rear seat space as well as boot space, according to Audi.
Our time behind at the wheel of the new S3 was quite limited and, as mentioned earlier, occurred in less than favourable weather conditions. Still, it was enough to confirm Audi has succeeded in subtly improving its performance hatchback.
The changes are far from radical and most aimed at guaranteeing it retains the intrinsic values that have made it such as success over the years. However, they also make it a more accomplished car with a broader set of characteristics than its predecessor – itself a high achiever in its own right.
The appeal starts with the superb driving position and excellent weighting of the controls, including the brake pedal, which delivers much improved feel than before.
The S3’s four-cylinder engine is a well-known quantity, though the addition of a particulate filter appears to have robbed it of some of its inherent smoothness at lower revs, where the prototypes we drove proved uncharacteristically loud and a little gruff. It’s terrifically willing through middling revs, though.
It’s here, from about 2500rpm onwards, where it is at its athletic best with a strong sense of torque-infused shove and, thanks to the inherent qualities of Audi’s valve lift system operating on each of its 16 valves, a suitably urgent top-end properties. It also now comes with a reconfigured sound generator that gives it a distinctive growl akin to Audi’s more powerful five-cylinder powerplant when pushed hard.
There’s a pervading sense of ride refinement that defines the S3’s on-road character at city speeds. The suspension and reworked adaptive damping provide excellent compliance and increased levels of comfort, even on the optional 19-inch wheels and 235/35 R19 Bridgestone Potenza tyres worn by the prototype.
It’s no limousine, granted. But apart from the odd dose of tyre slap on transverse ruts, it certainly rises above its predecessor in this respect.
Audi credits the improved ride to the ability of the hydraulic fluid within the dampers to flow at a greater rate than before. This enables them to better deal with road shock, changing the characteristics between soft and hard at each individual damper. It also says the performance of the sensors used to measure vertical movements within the body and the movement of each individual wheel has also been has improved, leading to faster reaction times.
It is out on the open road, though, where the full extent of the changes brought to this fourth-generation model really ring home. The moment you up the pace, you’re aware of the gains in dynamic prowess.
Hustle the new S3 through a series of corners and you’re confronted by a heightened sense of steering feel. The effort required remains high, but there’s greater response and more feedback at any point.
Apart from the steering, Audi’s engineers have also targeted improved body control and increased grip as part of changes brought to the S3. Point it through a series of challenging corners and you immediately discover they have delivered on their goal.
There’s greater poise to the body, reduced roll angles and an altogether more fluid feel to the handling. The whole car feels more finely tuned, more alive than any previous S3.
Arrive in a corner quickly and you can feel the ESC system subtly braking the inside wheels and the quattro four-wheel drive system apportioning drive to the outside wheels in a bid to quell any hint of understeer as you arrive at the apex.
The ability of the sixth-generation quattro four-wheel drive to deliver a full 100 per cent of its drive to the rear wheels also provides the new S3 with greater traction and a truly impressive drive out of corners, even in treacherous conditions.
We’re going to need more seat time to confidently explore the full spread of dynamic qualities to the 2020 S3. On the face of it, however, this new model strikes a fine balance between cosseting comfort and engaging agility. Its crowning achievement is its precision.
While previous incarnations of Ingolstadt’s performance hatch sometimes felt oddly detached, this new one delivers greater accuracy in any given driving situation.
If these qualities manage to permeate their way into lesser A3 models, Audi should have another winner on its hands – quattro weather or not.
NOTE: As a prototype drive, the scoring on this review should not be taken as our final assessment. We'll drive the market-ready S3 in the months ahead.