Audi S3 prototype drive

2 months, 1 week ago - 13 February 2024, autocar
Audi S3 prototype drive
Major update is intended to boost the fun side of Audi hot hatch’s all-rounder appeal

Audi describes this latest S3 Sportback as “more than a mere product upgrade”, which has the distinct whiff of marketing hype – until you run through the list of the changes that the firm has wrought beneath the fetching camouflage wrap of our prototype test car.

The formula for a great S3 – blending premium feel, strong performance and everyday usability – is well established, and when we road tested the initial version of this 8Y generation in 2020, we found an accomplished and engaging performer let down by its ride quality and interior feel.

We suggested that the S3 felt like the “forgotten hot hatch” of the Volkswagen Group – but clearly Audi’s engineers haven’t forgotten it, judging by the tinkering they have done in the time since then.

The new S3 will arrive in a few months as part of a wider refresh for the full Audi A3 range. Because this is a prototype, we are not allowed to talk about the exterior or interior styling of the revised S3 (the latter was covered up anyway, bar the infotainment touchscreen and the digital driver display), so judgement on how much that crucial interior has been upgraded (or downgraded) must wait. For now, then, let’s focus on the grubby mechanical bits.

New Audi S3 technical details
Under the bonnet, we still find the Volkswagen Group’s EA888 2.0-litre turbo petrol four, but its output has been raised by 25bhp to 329bhp and 15lb ft to 310lb ft (now available from 2100-5500rpm).

Audi has also adjusted the engine tuning so that the turbocharger is preloaded under low to medium acceleration, allowing its power to be delivered faster when called on.

The seven-speed dual-clutch automatic gearbox has a higher starting torque, achieved by compressing the clutch pack more strongly, while shift times under full load have been halved. Engine speeds are also increased under partial load when the transmission is in D mode.

Most notably, Audi has added the torque-splitter system from the Audi RS3 mega-hatch. It features a clutch on each driveshaft, allowing for torque to be distributed between the two rear wheels in a variety of ways, depending on the driving mode.

Then there’s a new mode, named Dynamic Plus, which gives a faster idle speed (1300rpm, compared with 1100rpm), shorter shifts and a more direct throttle response. It also sends as much drive torque as physics allows to the rear axle and from there to the outside rear wheel in cornering.

The sports suspension features a new pivot bearing on the front MacPherson strut, allowing for more negative wheel camber (it is now just under 1.5deg) in a bid to improve the steering response, along with stiffer wishbones. There are also stiffer bearings and retuned adaptive dampers.

There are two new 235/35 tyre types for the 19in wheels, including a Falken sports set that is claimed to significantly improve handling and braking. Stopping power now comes from bigger front brakes, which feature 357mm steel discs. The progressive steering system has been tweaked too.

Full performance details aren’t public yet, but the 0-62mph sprint now passes 0.1sec quicker, at 4.7sec. But the litany of changes and adjustments mentioned above aren’t really about improving the times: it’s about better meeting that all-rounder brief.

What's the new Audi S3 like to drive?
In urban traffic on the bumpy, dusty roads of the coastal Omani city of Salalah, the S3 rode with an ease and pliancy lacking in some hot hatches. It’s still a touch stiff, like so many hot hatches are, but not so much that you wince approaching every speed bump.

Audi didn’t bring a fleet of S3 prototypes to showcase them on city streets, though: we’re here because of the Omani Alps. Okay, that’s not an actual thing but the moniker given by Audi engineers to a particularly tortuous series of switchbacks on the fantastic roads up in the Dhofar mountains.

Those switchbacks provide an ideal canvas to experience the S3’s new torque splitter. Jump up into Dynamic or Dynamic Plus mode and attack a hairpin with gusto, and its influence can be felt in how well the car maintains grip and composure. The torque being shoved to the outside wheel makes you feel a bit like a rally driver ditch-hooking to get a sharper turn-in. Although without having to actually shove your car in a ditch and risk damaging the underside, obviously.

It inspires considerable confidence and allows you to play with the throttle on corner exit. It’s easy to get the rear sliding when you want to - before the stability control quickly gathers things up. It’s very Audi: it's very enjoyable, but you always sense the amount of fun you will have has been very thoroughly calculated.

The steering is nicely responsive in the Dynamic modes as well, although it could stand to be a touch more involving. It certainly makes direction changes easy, though.

This new S3 isn’t a ground-up remake, and we will need to drive a finished version on more familiar roads to judge if the ride quality has been improved and if the interior now offers more premium sheen, but the signs are positive.

This generation of S3 might not have lived up to its lofty ambitions on first release, but it didn’t exactly need a total reinvention. And by focusing on the details, Audi has seemingly found plenty to add to the overall package.

Audi S3 Sportback prototype

Price £45,000 (est)

Engine 4 cyls in line, 1984cc, turbocharged, petrol

Power 329bhp

Torque 310lb ft at 2100-5500rpm

Gearbox 7-spd dual-clutch auto, 4WD

Kerb weight 1500kg (est)

0-62mph 4.7sec

Top speed 155mph

Economy na

CO2, tax band na

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