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The car you'd want for a long journey across mixed roads, but it wouldn't get you out bed earlier

Good stuff

Classy to look at, effortlessly quick, brilliant all rounder

Bad stuff

It's not as outright fun as some of its rivals are

Overview

What is it?

In the Nineties, the public’s perception of a fast hatchback was quite different to what it is today. Standard cars were stolen from young people’s mothers and had all sorts of bits glued on. First thing you did was rip out the stereo and the suspension, fit some bigger wheels and send the pictures to Max Power magazine. 

Skyrocketing insurance premiums (thank goodness that’s all over) killed the genre for its youthful target audience, but it opened the door for OEMs to increase the scope of what a hot hatch could be and who bought them.

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Right on cue, Audi swept in with something different. A new thing. A premium hot hatch: the S3. It approached the performance hatch from a classier, more mature angle. Big spoilers were replaced with restrained styling and yobbish performance made way for the less crashy world of all-wheel drive.

How many have there been?

We’re at the fourth generation of S3 already – how time flies when you’re enjoying yourself – and even that has recently enjoyed an early 2024 facelift to keep it fresh. With in-house rivals like the Golf R offering a similar package it was time for an upgrade. Not to mention mildly raucous cars like the Mercedes-AMG A35 or BMW M135i. All have circa 300bhp being pushed through a paddleshift gearbox to all four wheels. Like the S3’s recipe or not, everyone’s copying it.

What are the latest changes to the S3? 

Not too much on the face of it – some kit changes, a few tweaks to the interior, some nifty new matrix LED headlights with an assortment of patterns to choose from when you open up the car. All very significant and interesting. Actually the headline bits are the fact that Audi has borrowed the RS3’s fancy rear torque splitter tech, the pre-spooled turbocharger from the Golf R 20 Years and some engineers who know how to mess with gearboxes. 

What’s the engine and that like? 

It’s the same 2.0-litre turbocharged petrol engine that you’ll be familiar with in recent S3s, though with some upgrades to produce 328bhp and 310lb ft of torque, a 23bhp boost up on the previous car. It’s sent to all four wheels via Audi’s trusty quattro system and the rear torque splitter from the RS3, which means that the S3 is good for 0–62mph in 4.7 seconds, before trundling along to a restricted 155mph top speed. 

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The S3 is rated at 32.5mpg and 198g/km CO2, and driving it on mixed roads in Germany over a couple of hours we got around 27mpg out of the car. You can read more on the Driving tab, but there are six driving modes to sample, and the S3 demonstrates a broad range of character across them. 

So is it good to drive?

It’s the S3’s range that makes it most appealing. Efficiency makes for suitably sedate progress (best used in heavy traffic) and shows that the car can be a reliable day to day companion, offering surefooted progress through the greasiest winters, while the new Dynamic Plus mode turns the engine and gearbox up to 11 and dials the rear torque splitter into its most oversteery setting. The engine and gearbox response in the car’s sporty setting are a big improvement, the S3 much more belligerent than it’s ever been. 

If you are absolutely adamant that you prefer to steer the cogs yourself, rather than let the upgraded seven-speed S Tronic auto do it for you, there are of course the requisite flappy paddles, but perhaps the Honda Civic Type R would suit you better with its manual gearbox?

Our choice from the range

What's the verdict?

The car you'd want for a long journey across mixed roads, but it wouldn't get you out bed earlier

Audi has put a lot of effort into spicing up the S3 experience, and it’s worked. The upgraded drivetrain tech gives the car more credibility and should see off any pretenders for a little while longer. It’s hard to think of any cars around this price that have the combination of fast pace and everyday ability that the S3 offers.

There are certainly more fun sports cars out there (though the S3 has improved a lot in that regard), but if you had to cross a whole country this afternoon there are few options you’d pick before this one. It probably wouldn’t have you springing any earlier out of bed, though.

The Rivals

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