The latest Audi S3 offers a small but significant package of improvements that include extra power, classy interior tweaks and a more involving 4WD system. Jonathan Crouch takes a look.
The latest Audi S3 offers 310PS, 10PS more than before. This, when coupled with the quattro all-wheel drive chassis, results in a performance car that could have been designed for the iffy British climate. It's not cheap but it's nevertheless capable of nearly 45mpg. Amazing.
There's something very right about the Audi S3. Always has been, always will be. When the first version was launched back in 1999, it didn't get much in the way of attention. That's because it was unveiled at virtually the same time as the mechanically identical Audi TT 225. Well, I say identical. The engines were the same but Audi tweaked the S3's down to 210PS, so it wouldn't prove quicker than the glamorous TT. I got to drive the two cars back to back and was convinced the S3 was the quicker cross-country vehicle merely by dint of the fact that you could see out of it so much better. Audi eventually upped the power of the 1.8T engine up to the full monty 225PS in 2002. That car was replaced by a second generation S3 in 2006. This was powered by the 2.0TFSI engine, offering a lot more scope for big power. With 265PS as standard, it was one of the quickest point-to-point cars sensible money would buy. It was also offered as a five-door Sportback and with the option of the DSG twin-clutch gearbox. While 265PS would have certainly punted you into the premier league of hot hatches in 2006, these days you need a bit more. When the original version of this car was launched in 2012, that meant an increase to 300PS, a figure Audi has now upped to the 310PS output featured by this revised version.
Of course, the S3 needs to respect its place in the hierarchy. There is, after all, an RS3 model that's even quicker, but ask yourself whether you really need a vehicle that'll get to 62mph quicker than the 4.6 seconds the S3 will detain you for. Customers can choose between a standard six-speed manual or an optional seven-speed S tronic dual-clutch automatic gearbox. That auto transmission is new, a replacement for the previous six-speed S tronic. Its added ratio allows Audi to fit a lower first gear - which accounts as much as the increased power for the 0.3s improvement in the 0-62mph sprint time. Changes to the software controlling the Haldex multi-plate-clutch four-wheel drive system now allow it to send up to 100% of drive to the front or rear wheels, depending on the traction available. Audi claims to have programmed the system to provide a greater percentage of drive to the rear wheels during spirited driving. The idea is that this will provide the S3 with more neutral on-the-limit handling traits, with less of a tendency towards understeer and a more tail-happy character than previous model. As before, Audi drive select is standard. It allows you to tweak the characteristics of the electronic accelerator, the boost of the progressive steering and the shift points of the optional S tronic gearbox. The user determines with the push of a button whether these systems operate in comfort, auto, dynamic, efficiency or individual mode. In individual mode, drivers can compose their own preferred profile within certain limits.
As before, there's a choice of four S3 bodystyles - 3-door hatch, 5-door Sportback, 2-door cabriolet and 4-door saloon - but whichever you go for, this sporting variant doesn't tread a lot of new ground from an exterior design perspective. Subtle styling changes made to this revised model include revised bumpers, redesigned headlamps with optional matrix LED operation, a wider grille and more heavily structured LED tail-lamps. Otherwise, things are much as before. When viewed from the side, the aluminium-look mirror casings and the pronounced side sills still catch the eye. A platinum grey diffuser houses the exhaust system's four oval tailpipes, which feature chrome tips. A large roof spoiler is said to generate downforce onto the rear axle. It certainly does look good. The interior is typically jewel-like, with beautiful detailing but a pared-back feel. The 'Virtual Cockpit' instrument display used in the TT and other pricier Audis is now available in this car as an option. This displays the most important driving-relevant information in high resolution on a 12.3-inch diagonal TFT screen. The driver can switch between two views by pressing the "View" button on the multifunction steering wheel. In addition, the menu structure that works the centre dash MMI infotainment screen has been redesigned and is now more intuitive. Otherwise, everything is pretty much as before, with classy materials and strong build quality. The hatch most will want with three or five doors has a 365-litre boot - and there's still the option of saloon or Cabriolet bodystyles if you want them.
Prices haven't changed much, so they still start at around £33,000, with the £2,500 option of S tronic auto transmission. Inside the cabin, the sophisticated and now MMI infotainment system in the S3 is well worth taking the time to master. The key option with this improved model is the clever 'Virtual Cockpit' system replacing the conventional instrument dials with an eye-catching 12.3-inch TFT display. But of course, there's much else to select from. As for infotainment, well Audi reckons that this improved S3 sets fresh standards here. An 'MMI radio plus' set-up with an electrically extending 7-inch diagonal monitor is standard, along with 'MMI navigation'. Go further and specify the 'MMI navigation plus with MMI touch in conjunction with the Audi connect' package (what a mouthful!) and you can have many online functions in your S3 at high speed via the super-fast LTE standard. They include, for example, navigation with Google Earth and Google Street View traffic information in real time, as well as practical information on parking, destinations, news or the weather. There's also a free 'Audi MMI connect' app that enables other services, such as online media streaming and transfer of a calendar from a smartphone to the MMI. Mobile phones with iOS and Android operating systems can now be connected with the car via the standard Audi smartphone interface. The assistance systems in the S3 come directly from the full-size class. Adaptive cruise control can, when combined with the 'Audi pre sense front' safety system, bring the car to a stop autonomously from speeds below 19mph. Further safety technology includes Audi side assist (to prevent dangerous blind spot overtakes), Audi active lane assist (to stop dozy drivers from drifting out of their lanes on the highway) and camera-based traffic sign recognition (that pictures speed signs as you pass and displays them on the dash). Plus there's a park assist system to help steer you into the tightest space.
The Audi S3 is never going to be a notably cheap car to run. You don't buy a 310PS all-wheel drive petrol-powered sporting car that wears a ritzy badge if counting the pennies is your prime motivation, but the S3 shouldn't be a ruinously expensive ownership experience either. The previous version of this model was always a low depreciator, used buyers attracted to the smart image and surprisingly modest fuel thirst. The latest S3 does better in terms of efficiency. Combined fuel economy stands at 44.1mpg. This corresponds to CO2 emissions of 148g/km. That's a useful improvement, especially when considering the 10PS power boost.
The Audi S3's formula of a compact hatch that's beautifully finished, effortlessly rapid and backed up by the all-weather security of four-wheel drive is one that really works in this country. It's a lovely piece of product conception and there's really nothing quite like it from any rival manufacturer. Pace, four-wheel drive and that sort of quality? It's just not happening anywhere else other than at your Audi dealer and that's what makes the S3 quite such a desirable item. This latest version might feature a heck of a lot of new engineering and we take our hat off to its improvement in efficiency, but in reality not a whole lot has changed. The car is quicker and more economical, and the technology is even more impressive, but the buyer proposition remains much the same. When you've hit on a winning formula, you mess with it at your peril.