Review: the new 306bhp Audi S3 Quattro

Can the new Audi S3 drift?

Er, no. Not really.

Okay, so it’s not as good as a Ford Focus RS then?

If you’re judging your hot hatches by if or indeed how far they can skid, then no, an S3 doesn’t swell the class of two occupied by the drift-mode Ford and rear-drive BMW M140i. It’s far too well-behaved for such tomfoolery.

Boo. So what is it like?

Well for context this is the new, tweaked S3, with sharper bumpers, lights and grilles. Inside, you can spec the Virtual Cockpit screen from the TT, Q7 and other latest-gen Audis.

And you really should, because unlike the analogue dials, it offers temperature readouts for your coolant and engine oil, in addition to a turbo boost gauge and fuel gauge. Well done Audi. All hot hatches should wield a fistful of gauges.

You can still buy the S3 with three doors, five doors, or two doors and no roof, but we’ve driven the four-door saloon which is also available in the USA. You’re welcome, America.

What else is new?

A token 10bhp bump for the 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder engine, edging the S3 ahead of the 296bhp VW Golf R with which much of the mechanical gubbins are shared, and arriving neck-and-neck with the 306bhp Audi TTS.

Torque has swelled by 14lb ft to 295lb ft, but only if you spec the seven-speed S-tronic dual-clutch gearbox, thanks to its ability to handle more torque than the six-speed manual.

How fast is the Audi S3?

S3 Saloons crack 62mph a tenth slower than the three-door hatch – 4.6 seconds plays 4.5 for the lighter car. It feels every bit that quick because of the old chestnut of Quattro drive and how efficiently the car nails all its power to the road and teleports about the place. That said, you’d need a backside more sensitive than The Princess and the Pea’s lead character to spot the additional power.

But the main annoyance charging about the place in the S3 is that gearbox. Even if you’ve selected Dynamic mode to sharpen the throttle mapping, magnetic damping, engine noise and so on – effectively telling the car you want to enjoy yourself – then knocked the gearlever into manual mode, the transmission auto-upshifts at the redline. You’ve got strong throttle response, big pace, a good soundtrack… and a rogue line of code in the gearbox’s brain. This never stops being annoying.

Why is it so vexing?

If you’ve told the car you want control of your own gearshifts, that’s your decision and it shouldn’t try to second-guess you. Or why else bother having paddles at all? A good driver’s car is only as good as the driver’s inputs, so if you fluff the shift and bash into the rev limiter, that should be your problem, and your lesson to learn.

It’s a pity as letting the S3 rev out hardens the engine note into something pretty rorty, if not as outright warbly as the Golf R’s motor (which also auto upshifts its own DSG, incidentally). The flatulence as each gear pings through the sequence is additive too.

What about cornering?

It’s fascinating how the S3 – a car that’s basically a Golf R in a smarter blazer – drives so differently. It’s totally locked down. It’s all about neatness, not playfulness – a front-drive sensation with infinite traction, not remotely rear-driven.

It feels stiffer sprung than the Golf too. Mind you, gone are the days when Audi’s S cars rode like you were aboard a dashboard toughness sign-off test. The optional magnetic dampers on the S3 offer a choice spread of Comfort, Auto and Dynamic modes, and even the firmest feels like it’ll be tolerable in the UK.

Ultimately though, the S3’s reactive but numb steering and sterile stability add up to something that’s more effective than fun. We’re living in rude times for hot hatch kind right now, and there are a lot of circa-£30k turbo rockets out there which easily do the safe all-weather traction act, but come alive when poked with a stick. The S3 still isn’t in that league.