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Car reviews - Audi - A3 - S3 Sportback

Our Opinion

We like
High-quality and tech-laden cabin, superb performance, polished handling, ride quality on optional adaptive suspension
Room for improvement
Some equipment should be standard, auto lacks resolve, suspension lacks ultra-focused mode of Golf R

Gallery

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Audi logo5 Jan 2018

Overview

FOUR point eight seconds. That was an acceleration time from standstill to 100km/h once reserved for expensive exotics, and yet it has now become the claimed digits for hot hatchbacks such as the Audi S3 Sportback.

Indeed, even as we last year farewelled our Holden Commodore SS home-grown hero, that 6.2-litre V8-engined sedan bowed out with a 4.9s claim. Sure, a Ford Focus RS is quicker (4.7s) but it is also hardcore. Meanwhile, this posh Audi is only beaten by the 4.6s-rated six-cylinder BMW M140i.

Thank a 3kW power increase for the 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder engine to 213kW, and an additional cog inside the now-seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission, still dubbed S tronic. Meanwhile the all-wheel-drive system has been retuned to provide greater rear-wheel bias.

Add minor styling and equipment tweaks, and it appears as though several small changes will attempt to make for a greater whole with this penultimate model in Audi’s small hatch line-up.

Price and equipment

Pricing remains pegged at $62,900 plus on-road costs for this facelifted S3 Sportback, with the sedan costing $2000 extra, while a six-speed manual and S tronic auto are no-cost selections.

New LED headlights are signified by a different shape to meet with a redesigned front grille and bumper, while sequential indicators debut for the first time inside the also-redesigned LED tail-lights. This facelifted model also scores a blind-spot monitor and autonomous emergency braking (AEB), plus Audi’s full-colour Virtual Cockpit display as standard for the first time.

The 7.0-inch screen continues with integrated satellite navigation and voice control, but it further adds Apple CarPlay/Android Auto connectivity and a digital radio. Standard kit otherwise remains similar to the model launched in 2013, though, including 18-inch alloy wheels, heated and electrically adjustable front seats with Nappa leather trim, keyless auto-entry and cruise control.

An S performance package continues to bundle diamond-pattern sports bucket seats, adaptive suspension, Bang and Olufsen audio system, and red brake callipers for $3490 with the standard 18s or $4990 with 19s – as fitted to this test car. A further Assistance package also includes adaptive cruise control, automatic adaptive high-beam, and active lane-keep assistance for $1500 extra.

Interior

The S3 Sportback was already the clear class leader for interior design and finish, and this facelifted model only furthers its push beyond any rival inside. The consistently grained, soft-touch plastics and smooth yet tactile rotation of all controls remains the clear hot hatch benchmark, no question.

However, although a greater number of car-makers – such as Peugeot, Volkswagen and Volvo – are moving towards offering full-colour driver displays, Audi’s absolutely remains the benchmark in terms of both its high-end graphics and effortless usability.

Example? All encased on the left side of the steering wheel are left and right arrows to flick between nav, trip computer, radio and phone yet below it is a scrollwheel to map-zoom, change function or station, and change contact respectively. Click the wheel for options – it is as simple as that. It makes the display inside a $10,000-cheaper Volkswagen Golf R look more Aldi than Audi.

Meanwhile the leather quilting is gorgeous, although those optional sports buckets forgo the electric adjustment of the standard pews. Even so, headroom and legroom is generous front and back, and rear riders also score air vents.

Even further behind, and the 340-litre boot remains decent, despite losing 40L due to the addition of all-wheel-drive hardware compared with its front-drive siblings.

Engine and transmission

Australia is classified as a ‘hot climate’ market, and so this Audi (and Volkswagen) 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder continues to miss out on the full 228kW and 400Nm outputs available overseas. Instead, we make do with 213kW between 5100rpm and 6500rpm (up 3kW compared with before) and an unchanged 380Nm delivered from 1800rpm until 5100rpm.

Note the above engine speeds, and particularly how peak power starts exactly where maximum torque ends, because this is arguably of greater importance than the difference in outright figures compared with overseas models. The 2.0-litre lathers its outputs across the rev band, and it feels that way on the road.

Combined with all-wheel-drive traction, and the powertrain is a real force.

This smooth, flexible engine teams decently well with the new seven-speed S tronic auto, however the whole dual-clutch design and tuning has not really advanced in recent years with either Audi or Volkswagen models. In normal Drive it slinks to tall gears too quickly, and is still a bit hesitant and jerky at low speeds, yet in the alternate Sport it hangs on to lower gears incessantly.

The result is, for example, Drive selecting seventh gear at 70km/h when you want sixth yet Sport holds fifth.

There is not the same level of intuition you get with a Porsche dual-clutch, and nor is there its Sport Plus mode that is perfect for spirited driving. In this Audi, using the tipshifter or paddleshifter in manual mode is a must.

Claimed combined-cycle fuel consumption of 6.5 litres per 100 kilometres is also a struggle to achieve unless lightly trafficked conditions combine with really flat roads.

Ride and handling

S-badged Audis have long had a sports-luxury personality about them, which can either be seen as demure and boring or classy and alluring depending on the perspective. Beyond subjective aspects of its formal styling, however, the latter assessment proves closer to the mark here.

Even on optional 19s with optional adaptive ‘magnetic’ suspension, the S3 Sportback rides beautifully in each of its Comfort, Auto or Dynamic modes. Even the former softest setting maintains decent control of the body while remaining comfortable, while at the other end of the spectrum the firmest mode is not harsh. If there is a criticism, it is that an even firmer setting would be nice, to match that of the Golf R’s Race mode.

The S3 Sportback seems to deliver more bodyroll in Dynamic than its Volkswagen hot hatch relative does in Race, and it demands its driver massage each contact patch into the surface with more particular deliberation – a trailing brake here, a lift of the throttle to ease understeer there.

Audi’s claim that the variable all-wheel-drive system can now place more torque to the rear wheels is difficult to ascertain, because while the S3 Sportback is enjoyably balanced, that comes from the tight and consistent steering, working the brakes and lifting the throttle – rather than powering on with it, as a driver might do to achieve oversteer with a rear-wheel-drive vehicle. That said, there is grip and traction aplenty, and enough to carve through corners at brisk pace.

Safety and servicing

Seven airbags (including dual front, front-side, curtain and driver’s knee), ABS, electronic stability control (ESC), front and rear parking sensors with rearview camera, blind-spot monitor and autonomous emergency braking (AEB) are all standard.

ANCAP has not tested the Audi S3 Sportback.

Audi includes annual or 15,000km servicing intervals at a total packaged cost of $1680 for the first three dealership check-ups.

Verdict

With higher specification and faster performance than ever before, yet the same quality interior and syrupy smoothness as its predecessor, the lightly facelifted S3 Sportback really is a case of more of the same but slightly better.

That tension between luxury and refinement, and speedy sportiness, continues to elude rivals such as the cheaper Golf R and M140i. Both prioritise more of the latter, racier aspects of the Audi, but without the in-cabin indulgence and technology.

Yes, the S performance and Assistance packages could be standard, on the one hand because items such as adaptive suspension and adaptive cruise control arguably should be included for the price, but especially given that the S3 Sportback now starts $3000 beyond its quicker BMW rival.

The only other disappointing aspect is the S tronic transmission. Most buyers will select it and that is fine, but experience with the delightful manual gearbox indicates that it is the smarter choice. In that specification, the Audi S3 Sportback is uniquely – and brilliantly – its own thing in this class.

Rivals

BMW M140i from $59,900 plus on-road costs
Turbo-six and rear-wheel drive makes for a more dynamic drive, minus the Audi’s cabin class.

Volkswagen Golf R from $52,990 plus on-road costs
A lot cheaper and a bit sharper to drive, but to live with the S3 Sportback is far more indulgent.

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