Audi S3 Sportback (2018) review: stealth speed

[Total: 4    Average: 2.8/5]
CAR’s offices are based in Peterborough, UK – a small amount of you reading this will know that already. But did you know that the 200,000th Golf R was recently sold here? They’re ten-a-penny in the surrounding areas near CAR HQ, with at least five finding spaces in our office car park.

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It’s a great car, but what if you want to at least be a teeny bit different when it comes to picking your under-the-radar hot hatch? Audi’s S3 should be on your shortlist. We’ve already driven the S3 Saloon, but we thought we’d give the Sportback hatch a drive, given its wider remit in Europe.

So, what’s special about this thing?

It’s a spicy mix but not exactly anything ground-breaking, looking at the on-paper stats. A 2.0-litre turbo petrol that cranks out more than 300bhp, Audi’s usual quattro all-wheel drive system, seven-speed dual-clutch box and sports suspension.

Given this is an S model, rather than an RS3, there are quad exhausts instead of two fat oval ones, and the car we tested was the slightly pricier (and more handsome) S3 Black Edition, which isn’t pictured. As the name suggests, the grille, window surrounds and door mirrors are finished in black and Audi throws in a Bang and Olufsen sound system as standard.

How’s the interior?

Getting on a bit in terms of design, but the A3’s 2016 update kept things from getting too stale. There’s a flat-bottomed steering wheel, navigation and media services navigated through a retractable screen and some chunky soft-touch plastics.

The S tronic’s shifter is a little old-school compared to Optimus Prime foot-like lever found in newer Audis and the graphics on the infotainment screen aren’t as crisp as some rivals but it all still works well.

Is it fast?

Absolutely. The VW Group 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo is the same staple found in the Golf R and range of Seat Leon Cupras, for example. Like those cars, acceleration is smooth right up to the redline, with a hearty growl as you get there and a cheeky fart on upshifts from the dual-clutch ‘box.

It’s deceptively fast for something that doesn’t appear much different to a well-specified A3 S-line in the looks department.

And the handling?

More playful than you expect, actually. There’s bags of grip from Audi’s all-wheel drive system, squirting the S3 around corners at considerable lick without a hint of understeer. But if you want to be a bit more playful you can really egg it on into kicking the tail out. A welcome surprise.

With the optional Magnetic Ride (required if you want the larger 19-inch, five-spoke alloys), we recommend keeping the S3 out of Dynamic mode when not driving like you’re in a hurry – the ride is extremely jiggly. Our setup of having the engine and exhaust in Dynamic, gearbox in Manual and suspension in Comfort seemed the best fit for almost any driving situation.

Verdict

This generation of A3 might be getting on a bit, but the S3 is still an incredibly desirable bit of kit. The engine is punchy, there’s grip aplenty and the interior is usefully laid out and well-built.

There’s a restrained aura to the way it delivers that power – much like the Golf R – and there’s a stigma attached to small fast Audis that won’t make you the most popular driver in your neighbourhood, but the S3 is a truly desirable bit of kit.