The Audi S3 is fast and well built, but lacks the character or outright handling brilliance so many in this class portray

The Audi S3 was arguably the first of its type back in 1999 – it was a posh, capable, all-wheel drive hot hatchback that appealed on image as much as the driving experience. In 2019, 20 years since the original S3 arrived with that unique combination of attributes, the all-wheel drive hot hatch with around 223kW and a premium badge is now one of the most hotly-contested micro-segments – and one that on first sight still seems to suit the S3 rather well.

But peer behind the S3’s perfectly-formed interior, sleek design and quad exhaust pipes the car underneath has always struggled to appeal in these pages. All the ingredients are there, but somehow, its rigid personality never quite grabbed our attention.

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The 2019 Audi S3 has been given an update to comply with new emissions regulations, which has resulted in a loss of 7kW, thanks in part to the inclusion of new particulate filters in the exhaust system. But there is still much to like about the S3, namely its GT-in-miniature aspirations, and the way it democratises performance, and a premium German badge like few others.

Performance and 0-100 time

Measured against any reasonable benchmark, the Audi S3 is a very quick car. Now featuring a standard dual-clutch transmission, 100kmh is reached in 4.7sec. The eagle-eyed among you might notice this is a 0.1sec drop over last year’s model, and for that we can thank new WLTP regulations, and the changes Audi made to meet them.

Still, this may sound like an increasingly average time, especially when the era of a sub-four second to 100kmh hot hatchback is more common than you might expect. However, the Audi’s prodigious Quattro system and reliably fast transmission make that figure achievable in nearly all conditions. Saloon models share the same performance figures, but the heavier S3 Cabriolet has to concede a further half-second due to that extra bulk.

And while the S-tronic transmission is as slick and fast as you could ask for – it will even oblige with multiple downshifts – the steering wheel paddles feel a little lightweight. It does add some theatre to the action, blink-fast full throttle upshifts being accompanied by a racy ‘thrrapp’ from the exhaust, but it’s less natural than it should be, with an augmented soundtrack that some will like, but we’re less fond of.

As well as the variable cam timing mentioned before the S3’s 2-litre TFSI engine features a ‘dual injection’ induction system that combines the strengths of direct and indirect injection for greater efficiency.

With a long stroke and twin balancer shafts, Audi claims the S3’s motor delivers its torque in a very linear fashion, reaching a hefty 379Nm (or 399Nm when equipped with the S-tronic transmission) at just 1800rpm and sustaining it all the way through to 5500rpm. Power is sent predominantly to the front wheels, with a Haldex clutch on the rear axle transferring torque rearwards when necessary.

Ride and handling

Unimpeachable, that’s how we’d describe the S3. It’s fast, yet completely trustworthy as there’s so much grip and traction. The initial feeling is that the S3 has been engineered to be so dependable that no matter how communicative the car might be, it’d never have to feed back where the limits of grip were because you’d never actually reach them. However, the S3 doesn’t completely defy physics and once you’ve bullied it beyond its grip threshold you realise there still isn’t anything particularly useful being fed to you through the steering.

But there’s still loads of grip – more than enough for the road – and that means you can use all of the 228kW to reach quite alarming speeds. The new wet, double clutch gearbox still delivers sharp, quick shifts. Apart from the R8’s telepathic-like transmission, the S3’s gearbox is one of the better paddle shift ‘boxes available in any car.

The S3, unlike Audis of old, rides with a lot of class. The well-padded seats take up a lot of the bumps, but still very few knocks or thuds enter the cabin thanks to being absorbed by the suspension. With Dynamic mode selected the ride becomes a little more nervous, but with that comes tighter body control and, most noticeably, less roll. The stiffness of the dampers changes depending on which driving mode the car is in, but they also adapt to the driver’s style and road conditions to retain as much ride quality as possible.

You can have the S3 with Audi’s optional magnetic ride suspension (standard on the Saloon). The oil in each damper has small magnetic particles circulating within it. When a voltage is applied through the oil, the particles orient themselves perpendicular to the flow and cause the oil to move through the valves in the damper at a slower rate. Switching the Drive Select system to its ‘Dynamic’ mode firms up the adjustable dampers – again fair enough if you can find a suitably smooth playground – but, in this mode, the S3 really struggles to make sense of typical public roads. ‘Dynamic’ mode also adds extra weight to the steering, but does nothing to increase feel.

Turn-in always feels strong, and the S3 will change direction almost instantly. The small amounts of roll mean the Audi reacts immediately to any steering input. With such strong turn-in grip, the S3 encourages even faster corner entry and deals with anything but the most aggressive movements without any drama.

After you’ve shot into a fast corner, and you’ve started to apply some throttle as you’re exiting, the Audi’s nose begins to push wide. The new S3 supposedly sends more torque to the rear axle than before. However, in long fast corners especially, it certainly doesn’t feel that way; you’re only ever trying to minimise understeer when you apply the throttle rather than manage any oversteer.

The S3 isn’t completely inert, though. On tighter corners with the traction in its loosest setting (it can’t be fully turned off), the S3 can feel quite playful. If you’re aggressive with both the brakes and steering on corner entry, you’ll initially you feel a touch of understeer. However, stay committed and the rear will start to slide wide. It can be immediately gathered up with some throttle, and the lack of body roll helps keep everything easily controllable.

The S3 isn’t the most dramatic of cars; it goes very quickly in an almost faultless, hassle-free manner. The hints of frivolity it does show are, sadly, fleeting. Ultimately its lack of adjustability most of the time, and predisposition to understeer, deny the driver much fun.