Now that it's all-new and has a fancy sedan body, Americans are going crazy for the Audi A3. But that's not the best part of the car: that would be the fact that the hotted-up Audi S3 version is finally for sale on our shores. Now is it damn good, or is it a sports sedan poseur? Let's find out.
(Full disclosure: Audi needed me to drive the 2015 S3 so badly they offered to fly me to Austin, Texas for Lone Star Le Mans weekend and even put me up in the tony W hotel. Then I told them not to bother because I already live in Austin, Texas and my wife could just drop me off instead. Audi did, however, pay for dinner at La Condensa and lunch at the Salt Lick. That was nice of them.)
Wanna see something hilarious? Compare the sales figures of the old Audi A3 to the new one. When it was a hatchback, Audi couldn't give them away for free, but now that it's a sedan they're practically flying off dealer lots. Its four-door rebirth should have been on our ultimate list of automotive mulligans.
So for the S version, Audi has done all the stuff you expect: they added power, made the brakes better, enhanced the suspension, and made the car generally more fun and more potent to drive. It also just so happens that they made it arguably the best value in the segment it's in.
The S3 took a long time to get here, but the wait was worth it.
Right out of the gate, the new S3 has an excellent pedigree. It's Audi's first model on the Volkswagen Group's new MQB platform, which also underpins the 2015 Volkswagen Golf, the 2015 GTI, the Golf R, and the Seat Leon, the last of which in Cupra 280 form had the Nürburgring front-wheel drive lap record for a while.
My point is that these are all really good cars, and so it should come as no surprise that the S3 is really good as well. It's also different enough that it stands on its own. A cynical person might write this car off as some kind of overpowered Jetta, and they couldn't be more wrong about it.
Audi is quick to point out that the 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder TFSI engine at play here isn't just a reflashed version of the 220 horsepower one in the A3. The S version gets a raft of upgrades like a new turbocharger, new exhaust valves, reinforced connecting rods, and new cylinder heads, to name a few changes. The result is 292 horsepower and 280 pound-feet of torque.
Remember how we all weren't sure how much power this engine would have? So, yeah. It's 292 horses. Two-ninety-two.
This motor makes the relatively small S3 kind of a riot to drive, especially since it also comes with a six-speed dual clutch gearbox, upgraded brakes, a 25 mm lower sport suspension, and Quattro all-wheel drive. None of that front-wheel drive silliness here, kids!
That last part made me like the S3 even more than I thought I would because something very unusual (for Central Texas, anyway) happened as we bombed our way from Driftwood to Luckenbach — it rained. A lot. And the car's all-wheel drive handled it with ridiculous aplomb, no wheelspin whatsoever, and loads of tossable, corner-eating confidence.
I walked away from the S3 thinking it was kind of a Subaru WRX STI for grown-ups, a respectable sedan you buy when you want the sheriff to stop shooting at you but still crave that delicious all-wheel drive and turbo power.
Exterior - 7/10
I'll admit that when the S3 first came out, I wasn't sold on its looks. In pictures it looked too boring, too generic and sedan-y to me. But after seeing it in person, the design grew on me quite a bit. It's clean, it's understated, and it's very clearly a modern Audi. There are a lot of nice small details, too, like the design of the LEDs in the headlamps.
The three-door hatchback and five-door Sportback look better, but the good news is we Americans are getting the second one, and it will come in diesel form too. That should keep you Euro-snobs happy.
Interior - 6/10
It's nice in here, but it also has a lot of reminders that you didn't buy a nicer Audi. I like the overall design of the dash because it's kind of minimalist and doesn't overload you with buttons, but I hate the gigantic swath of hard textured plastic that stretches across it. Can't you put something a little softer and more premium-feeling there, Audi? Leather? Nice fake leather?
Parts of the inside are kind of plastic-y, but besides that dash they mostly feel high-grade. We did encounter an inordinate amount of rattles underneath one car's driver's seat, though it went away as the day went on.
It's a sedan, so I should say something about rear legroom. It's pretty good, but rear headroom will be tight for the very tall.
Acceleration - 8/10
The Volkswagen Group's ubiquitous 2.0-liter turbo four has never disappointed me in any of its many applications, and this version is the best I've tested yet. The 292 ponies give this small sedan some serious hustle.
Anytime you're above 3,000 RPM or so, you get loads of turbo pull that goes full steam to redline. Audi says 60 mph arrives in 4.7 seconds and that felt accurate to me. The engine always feels larger and more powerful than it is, but its power never overwhelms even in spirited driving.
It's not as psychotic as the motor in that whackjob Mercedes CLA45, but it's in the same ballpark in terms of speed, and it's more balanced. It also doesn't feel like it will explode at some point the way the CLA45's engine does. That's kind of reassuring.
Braking - 7/10
The brakes are larger than the ones on the A3, as you'd expect. They're solid and strong and have a nice pedal feel. They aren't overwhelmingly powerful, but they're great for street duty. I didn't experience any fade in hard driving.
Ride - 8/10
PROTIP: Get the $1,900 performance pack because it comes with a magnetic ride suspension and that's going to be a thing you'll want. (The S3 is, to my knowledge, one of the cheapest cars you can currently get with that.)
Depending on the setting you select, the ride is either hard and fierce for extreme driving or smooth to the groove like sandwich bread. Magnetic ride is the best. And even at it's firmest, it's not nearly as spine-punishing as, say, the new Subaru WRX STI.
Handling - 8/10
It's an extremely agile car, and even with its compact size it feels smaller than it is because it's so controlled. Body roll is almost non-existent, and the car exhibits total confidence in corners, even with the rain we experienced. There is some predictable understeer at the limit, but the electronic gizmos help sort it out.
The new S3 drives like a true all-wheel drive performance car, not one of these pretend ones that just send power to the back wheels when conditions go south. The S3's handling reminds me of the many WRX-es I've driven, and I mean that as the highest compliment.
Also, the S3 proves that electric steering racks really are getting better. This one is very tight, very direct, and has a surprisingly good amount of road feel.
Gearbox - 9/10
What can I say about the six-speed DSG (called Audi S Tronic here, because branding) that hasn't been said elsewhere? Shifts are lightning quick, it's smooth during normal driving in automatic mode, and the paddles are extremely responsive. It's just great.
The DSG is the only transmission we Americans can get on the S3. That's probably a big bummer to the die-hard stick shift crowd, but while a manual option would be nice, I'm not certain it would make for a better car.
Audio - 7/10
Going hard on the accelerator rewards your ears with a deep, bellowing engine note that sounds more like a six than a four. It also has a nice, throaty exhaust sound. Granted, it's kind of indistinctive, and it doesn't scream like a banshee the way the CLA45 does, but it sounds like a legit performance car. That's just under hard acceleration, though. In normal driving it's pretty quiet, and I have to say I would have liked more noise there.
One of the two cars I tested came with the Bang & Olufsen sound system that comes on the $5,900 Prestige model, and it's quite good too, with a quality sound and strong bass.
Toys - 7/10
Like the A3, the S3 comes with the newest version of Audi's MMI system, and it's much less complicated and easier to use than older Audis I've driven. The menus look good and are organized well. There's that little touch pad so you can dial stuff in by writing with your finger, too, which is kind of neat if not terribly effective.
Other available toys include LED headlights and DRLs, adaptive cruise control, lane assist, a backup camera, and front collision sensing, depending on what you want to pay for. And while the S3's tacked-on infotainment screen remains part of the worst new trend in car design, it disappears down into the dash at the touch of a button.
Do you have any idea how nice it is to drive a high-tech new luxury car without a screen staring you in the face the entire time?
Value - 8/10
The base price on the new S3 is $41,100, and if you're generous with options on the A3 you can get it into the $40K range pretty easily. At that point, just buy the S version instead.
I sampled two S3 models: a well-optioned blue one priced at $46,645, and a red one in the more upscale Prestige trim that stickered in at $52,095. That last one had a lot of stuff you don't really need. Just get the performance package and call it a day.
Priced in the mid-$40,000s, the S3 is a screaming good deal, especially compared to its competitors. The last CLA45 I drive cost $57,000, and this car feels more upscale and handles better.
There's also the BMW M235i, which is faster and more tail-happy and comes with a real manual if you want one, but the one I drove cost about $46,000 and it came with a sunroof and not a whole lot else.
No, in this segment, the Audi is probably the best all-arounder, the best value, the jack of all trades that comes quite well equipped right out of the gate. I'd take it over a lot of performance cars in this price range, and I'd be happy with it every time I drove it.
Welcome to America, Audi S3. We're glad to have you with us. Feel free to bring your big brother the RS3 sometime, too. There's enough room for both of you!
Engine: 2.0-liter turbo four
Power: 292 horsepower at 5400 RPM, 280 lb-ft of torque at 1900 RPM
Transmission: Six-Speed Dual Clutch with Paddle Shifters
0-60 Time: 4.7 seconds
Top Speed: 155 mph (limited)
Drivetrain: All-Wheel Drive
Curb Weight: 3,450 Pounds
Seating: 5 people
MPG: 23 City/31 Highway/26 Combined
MSRP: $41,100 base ($46,645 and $52,095 As Tested)