First Drive

Audi S3 Saloon 2020 UK review

It’s clear from reeling off those facts that the development priority here was in software and fine-tuning rather than big changes in hardware. But is that so surprising, given the vast technological abilities of even modest modern metal these days?

It follows, then, that this S3 offers substantially more computing power, connected features and advanced driver assist functions than the model it replaces. But whereas its VW Group siblings fully embrace the digital revolution with a largely button-free, minimalist cabin, Audi has tread a slightly more traditional path by retaining some physical switchgear. 

This, in our view, is a correct decision. The screen is bright, clear and responsive (and no longer rises electrically from the dashboard in a way that some may consider dated) but functions that are operated more simply on the move by a button – such as the climate controls – are. General quality is respectable and the design is attractive enough, but we reckon the old S3’s cabin was more outstanding on both fronts. Maybe rivals have just caught up, or maybe the VW Group’s extensive post-Dieselgate cost-cutting regime is biting a bit. 

Regardless, it’s a roomy, comfortable and refined place to while away the hours at the wheel, and for three passengers. In fact, this remains the S3’s defining trait.

Our test route began with some town and motorway work, where – even without the optional adaptive dampers, which weren’t fitted to our car – the S3 behaves for all intents and purposes like an S line A3. Sure, there’s a touch more vertical movement and a fraction more low-speed crashiness (mainly suspension noise rather than physical feel) to remind you you’re in a performance model, but by and large, this is exceptionally livable for a 300bhp-plus hatch-based saloon.

And that’s even on the larger 19in wheel option: we can only imagine that on 18s, this is broadly as comfortable as a standard A3. Which is a very good thing. Perhaps the smaller wheel would also reduce road noise, which is noticeable rather than intrusive. 

But Audi was hardly likely to abandon the S3’s everyday civility in favour of aggressive spring and damper rates. Mainly because the hotter RS3 exists, but also because the S3’s formidable popularity is acutely linked to its usability. 

Does that mean it’s lukewarm when you finally free yourself from average speed cameras and up the ante? Not really. Granted, you’d be smiling more at the wheel of more playful and rearwardly mobile front-driven alternatives with manual gearboxes, but you have to respect the extraordinary dynamic range this car offers.

The first surprise is the steering. It was a bit of a weak point on the old model, but Audi has instilled a little more positivity and even a modest amount of feedback into what was previously a detached and aloof rack. It turns in sharply, allowing you to place the car exactly where you want to before confidently getting on the power on corner exit. Back off the power on entry and, unlike fast Audis of old, it’ll even pivot the rear around in a controlled manner.

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