THE WEATHER that passes for summer in Tassie — three degrees C and snowing — provided the perfect opportunity to discover the qualities (or otherwise) of Audi’s new S3 on some of the Targa Tasmania’s best and most challenging roads. Nothing phased the hot hatch and, believe me, we tried everything. Not even full noise out of slippery second and third gear corners, right foot buried to the firewall, could induce the stability system. No flashing warning light or reduced power or braking an outside wheel, just a little more understeer on exit as the S3 fired out of the corner.

The secret is in Audi’s Quattro system. A third-generation Haldex multi-plate clutch and electronic limited slip differential, that’s shared with the VW Golf R (where it’s called 4Motion), it delivers exceptional traction at level that leaves rear drive cars floundering. Two decades ago it took a supercar to achieve 100km/h in 5.0seconds: now a $60k premium hatch back dispatches the time so effortlessly the fierce performance seems muted, detached, as if the relaxed Audi cocoon was impervious to the outside world.

The S3’s conservative styling – you’re hard picked to distinguish new from old – disguises the VW Group’s new MBQ architecture (shared with the Golf and A3 and, most precisely the soon-to-arrive Golf R). Effectively, this is an all-new car: the EA2888 engine shares the same capacity as the old engine, but has been so thoroughly revised Audi claims it’s been redesigned from scratch. The wheelbase is pushed 53mm to 2631mm, it’s 22mm longer and, by moving the front axle 52mm forward, the weight distribution is now a more encouraging 59 percent front, 41 percent rear. Not perfect, but better.

Bigger, yet also 70kg lighter, the new S3 benefits from a massive $11,300 price reduction. Now $59,900 — for both the six-speed manual and six-speed S tronic dual-clutch gearbox (DSG in VW-speak) — the S3’s only significant option is a $4,990 performance pack that brings, still 18-inch, 5-twin spoke alloys, sports seats, LED headlights and, to appreciably benefit the ride, magnetic dampers (also available as a standalone $1650 option).

Audi blames Australia’s extreme hot weather climate for the S3’s power loss compared to European cars: they get 221kW at 5500rpm and 380Nm from 1800 to 5500rpm. For Australia, the engineers reduce output to 206kW, while maintaining the same peak torque, but to a maximum of 5100rpm. The penalty is an extra 0.1sec in the dash to 100km/h: 5.0secs rather than the doesn’t-it-sound-so-much-quicker 4.9secs. Audi is vague on the engineering detail involved in the change. We know our cars retain the same 9.3:1 compression ratio and require 98RON fuel.

To achieve the headline time, the driver needs to tap into the S Tronic gearbox’s launch control. Manuals, expected to take a mere five percent of sales in Australia, are 0.4secs slower and bog down on take-off. Even with launch activated, the S3 hesitates momentarily before blasting away. A sometimes snaggy manual shift, especially when pushing quickly in to fourth, drives us to favouring the superbly fluent paddle-shift S tronic gearbox, despite its inability to hold the gears, even in manual mode.

On paper, a full complement of the torque from 1800rpm suggests turbo-lag is non-existent. Not quite, tap in hard in third or fourth cog from around 2000rpm and there is a discernible delay before the engine spoils to the boil. It’s another reason to choose the S tronic with its assured kickdown into higher revs.

The S3 shares its variable steering rack with the Golf GTI: same 2.1 turns, same fluency, especially in the lighter ‘comfort’ setting. The ‘sport’ mode introduces an artificial weighting, still without any real feedback, that detracts from the car’s inherent agility. The steering is quick — 10.9m turning circle — but never nervous at high speed and relaxed in its turn-in behaviour. Free of kick-back, yet also free of real feedback, it aligns perfectly with the S3’s tranquil manners.

Audi reduced the suspension ride height by 25mm and firmed up the springs and dampers. Even without the magnetic dampers the ride is comfortable, with them it is superb. Set to comfort, the low speed ride is supple and compliant, yet still with excellent body control up to nine-tenths.

Hit the starter button — still awkwardly positioned on the left side of the console — and the S3 burst into life. From a low-pitched idle to a purposeful note at the 6800rpm limiter, the four-pot engine sounds determined, yet also unobtrusive. Despite its potency, the S3 is not a hard-focused performance instrument: refinement and balance come before blatant thrills. Abundant traction and acceleration are taken for granted, but also its civilised manners and a high level of standard equipment that includes two electrically adjustable front bucket seats and Audi’s latest and highly legible navigation system. Interior quality is to Audi’s high standards; hushed, beautifully detailed and (mostly) ergonomically sound. Likewise the driving position.

Hot hatches are rarely as understated as Audi’s new Audi S3 Sportback. Where rivals, like BMW’s M135i and Mercedes’ A45 AMG flaunt their performance credentials, the S3’s subtle qualities are only obvious to those who really know. You’ll buy the S3 for its useability, refinement, comfort (especially with the adaptive damping) quality, practicality and performance. If it’s too cossetting, too isolating, to be an utterly inspired drive, Audi customers wouldn’t have it any other way.

Audi S3 Specifications

Engine  1984cc in-line 4, dohc, 16v, turbo

Max power  206kW @ 5100-6500rpm

Max torque   380Nm @ 1800-5100rpm

Transmission  6-speed manual or dual-clutch

Weight  1425kg (1445 S tronic)

0-100km/h  5.4sec (m)/5.0sec (S tronic)

Price  $59,900

On sale  Now

Click here to read the full range review of the Audi A3 and S3

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