The all-new VW Golf R was revealed a few weeks back to much fanfare. It has a fancy all-wheel drive system, seemingly the same one fitted to the Arteon R, which has ‘R Performance Torque Vectoring’. This can send up to 100 per cent of torque to a single wheel, and yes, as you’ll have no doubt heard, the setup includes a ‘drift’ profile.
Why am I opening a review of the S3 by talking about its VW cousin? Because the Audi gets none of that stuff. Yes, there’s a new six-plate Haldex clutch to direct torque as the car’s brain sees necessary, and yes, it can theoretically send up to 100 per cent to the rear, but IRL, the S3 seems to have no interest in doing so.
Since neither VW nor Audi has - to the best of my knowledge - explained why the Golf R gets the drifty fun times and the S3 doesn’t, I’m going to have to speculate that it’s all to do with the Quattro badge. The S3 may not be a ‘true’ Quattro with a Torsen centre diff, but it still has to stand up to those same ideals of security and dependability. Making it deliberately worse with forced oversteer doesn’t really fit with that mantra. A few years ago when he was still Audi Sport’s engineering boss, Stephan Reil said he had no interest in adding a ‘drift mode’ to its RS products, and that sentiment surely carried over to the S cars too.
Audi has boxed itself into a corner with marketing, but perhaps that’s not such a bad thing. As we’ve seen from the ‘45 AMGs and the Ford Focus RS, these trick systems can feel pretty odd when the back does step out.
And so, with another all-wheel drive system that mostly seems to favour the front axle over the rear and the usual EA888 inline-four turbo engine (albeit the revised ‘Evo’ version), the S3 feels much the same as it did before. Apart from the way it sounds - from the inside, you now get some fake, inline-five-esque warbling pumped into the cabin, which gets louder in dynamic mode.
This doesn’t seem necessary when the EA888 already makes a reasonable din for an inline-four, but I found myself liking it. And hating myself a little for liking it. In dynamic, it’s accompanied by a smattering of subtle-ish pops and bangs from the exhaust.
The revised version of the 2.0-litre TSI has all those EA888 attributes we’ve grown to appreciate from the unit of the years. There’s a smoothness to its delivery, and an eagerness to rev. Its 306bhp and 295lb ft outputs may sound underwhelming when the next tier up of hot hatches like the Mercedes-AMG A45 produce around 100bhp more (as will the next RS3), but the S3 still feels awfully quick. In terms of the raw numbers, it’ll do 0-62mph in 4.8 seconds, topping out at an electronically-limited 155mph.
Changing gear is done using a seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox, which swaps cogs with reasonable speed but little drama since Audi has opted not to go for any upshift ‘farts’ here. It’s also a gearbox you’ll be wanting to take control of yourself on a spirited drive to prevent getting frustrated over the sub-optimal ratios it picks.
I’ll have to insert my usual annoyance over the gearshift paddles, too, since they’re the usual nasty little bits of plastic on the back of the steering wheel. Also, the ‘manual’ mode is something of a myth - reach the top end, and instead of hitting a hard limiter, the ‘box merely does the swap for you. Boo and indeed hiss.
Increase the cornering speeds, and the S3 delivers an impressive amount of traction, whether it’s bone dry or horribly greasy. Once it reaches the limit, safe and predictable understeer follows. Just like the old one, in other words, and it’s the same story with the light, fast and feedback bereft steering.
The passive suspension setup of our test car (adaptive dampers are a cost option) verges on being too firm. The low-speed ride is choppy, but things do calm down enough when speeds rise, at least. In any case, the S3 gets away with this lack of give because it’s so damn refined. It’s quiet and relaxing, and the cabin feels mostly solid. The classy understatement of the old A3 is gone though, now it’s all about aggressive angles and pointy edges, and I’m not sure this is an improvement.
Nor do I think it’s a good idea chucking all the climate controls in a sub-par touchscreen infotainment system, but no doubt by now you’re bored of us moaning about this setup which is found across all VW Group’s MQB-Evo cars. What Audi has done for the A3 in terms of the user interface is slightly different from the treatments of VW, Audi and Skoda, but it’s no better or worse, merely another form of mild annoyance.
Despite these minor misgivings, the S3 does all it needs to. It’s more exciting than BMW’s weirdly underwhelming M135i, and although it’d do well to match the aggression of the Mercedes-AMG A35, it’s hard to argue with its blend of straight-line performance and all-weather capability.
The S3’s core fanbase will love it - of that, I have no doubt. It’s just unlikely to win over any new converts.