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I can imagine such a bleak prognosis would be even bleaker for compact sedans. If people are no longer drawn to cars with four doors and a trunk, why would they be drawn to a smaller version of that design? Well, I can think of the following good reasons: price and practicality. Smaller cars costs less than bigger cars (mostly), and given their size, compacts can be easier to live with.
The Audi A3 and S3, though, are neither all that cheap, nor all that practical. And yet these two Audis have convinced me that the compact sedan is not really dead or dying. It’s never been better.
(Full disclosure: Audi invited me to Denver, Colorado to drive its cars over Rocky Mountain roads. The company flew me out, paid for my hotel and fed me. Audi let me drive the A3 and S3 back-to-back, which took the better part of a day with conditions ranging from clear and sunny to cold and overcast.)
The A3 and S3 are now in their fourth generation. They’re built on the MQB Evo platform, which is the same as the Volkswagen Golf. I associate the VW Jetta (as a sedan) more with these two Audis, but since the latest Jetta is on the older platform, the A3 and S3 have more in common with the Golf now.
These new compacts are 1.5 inches longer, 0.8 inches wider, and 0.5 inches taller than the outgoing models. Audi claims the A3 has slowly taken on dimensions that are close to those of early A4s, and that is obvious. I hesitate to call the A3 a true compact. I mean, compared to my 318ti, the A3 and S3 struck me as decently-sized cars. They’re not that small!
But I think they’re the right size. Not too big, not too small. They’ll fit five passengers, but the person riding in the middle of the backseat isn’t going to love it. Four passengers is probably a better fit. Even then, not everyone is blessed with my short legs. Taller passengers may not like riding in the backseat of the A3 and S3 unless those in the front are willing to slide their seats up a bit. And though there could be a lack of legroom, there’s no lack of comfort.
The interiors of the A3 and S3 are very similar, which is fortunate because they’re both good. The materials, like the Nappa leather or Alcantara, feel great. The infotainment is fine, and the smartphone integration is good. There’s a wireless charging pad and USB-C ports in a little cubby right under the climate controls. The shifter is awesome — it’s not a lever anymore, but a switch that cycles through the automatic gears.
Next to the gear shift switch, there’s a music control scroll-wheel. I hate it. It’s like a scroll-wheel on an old iPod, but worse. You use it to skip tracks or play/pause. It’s one way to adjust volume, but it’s not very satisfying. The scroll-wheel’s buttons feel shallow, and there’s no physical feedback when changing volume. I defaulted to using the dial on the steering wheel, but cranking tunes isn’t the same when you use a tiny dial. Why no volume knob?
Other than that, I can’t complain about the interior. Fit and finish inside is excellent. I would expect as much from Audi, but credit where credit is due. The cabins are a quiet and comfortable place to spend hours driving on mountain passes, like those along Golden Gate Canyon or Peak to Peak highway.
The A3 is powered by a 2.0-liter turbocharged inline four-cylinder. The engine makes 201 horsepower and 221 lb-ft of torque. It’s an MHEV, or mild-hybrid, which means that there’s a small 48-volt battery in the car. Its hybrid drivetrain lets it coast with the engine off and gives the car a small boost of about 12 HP. The A3 quattro sends power to all four wheels, and will go from 0 to 60 miles per hour in 6.3 seconds.
The A3 feels slower than its specs would lead you to believe, but that’s not a criticism. It’s very settled on the road. It drives like a bigger car, like a full-size sedan. Its acceleration is entirely linear, its turn-in is predictable, and its braking is gradual but firm. The soundtrack of the inline four is as subtle as its powerful. Unless you pin the throttle, the A3 doesn’t have a loud exhaust note.
I only applied mild pressure on the pedal as I made my way through the passes, enjoying the car’s calm ride. When the road started climbing, I could feel the A3 getting heavier. By the time we got up to about 6-7,000 feet, the A3 needed more throttle. At 9,000 feet I had to put even more weight on the pedal. It wasn’t a case of the small engine just bogging down at altitude. It was more of an adjustment for both the car and driver.
The A3's suspension isn’t soft or firm; it’s well-balanced. Coasting through the passes was fun, but accelerating through was better. At some point, I switched “gear” from Drive to Sport, and the A3 woke up. The (digital) tach needle jumped, and the throttle responded more rapidly. The A3 held onto gear for longer stretches, giving it a slight urgency that it lacked in Drive.
The A3 is a refined and comfortable compact, but it’ll still cut loose if you let it. In a word, the A3 is uneventful. It’s not the event when you go on a road trip. The A3 is happy to do what it’s told on the road, and it does it well.
The S3 bumps up the specs by a little bit. OK, by a lot. It keeps the 2.0-liter inline four-cylinder, but power goes way up to 301 HP and 295 lb-ft of torque. The S3 is a quattro (AWD) no matter the spec, and it goes from 0 to 60 in 4.5 seconds. And I have to ask, when did four-cylinder cars get this fast?
In a word, the S3 is angry. It’s a burbling, banging, popping sports sedan first, a compact sedan second. Sure, it’s both of these, but it’s more one than the other. That’s in contrast to its twin, which takes the opposite approach. The A3 is a small comfortable sedan. The S3 is a sports car pretending to be a compact.
The S3's exhaust note is exceptional. Its chassis is taut through corners. Its engine is perfectly tuned. Its steering is firm and focused. The S3 is fun, but you have to commit to driving it. It’s close to being an exhausting car to pilot, but barely misses that mark. Meaning, its performance goes high enough to provide an exhilarating drive without overdoing it. It’s fucking fun.
The S3 takes a beat when you pin the gas pedal, like it’s taking a breath, and then it growls. It blasts ahead; the scenery rushes past, and you have to let up or otherwise risk a traffic fine, or worse. So you lift your foot off the gas and the RPMs plummet but they hang just enough. Just in case.
The tension of the engine and the sound from the pipes made me literally fix my foot at a 90-degree angle, hovering just above the accelerator pedal. The part of my lower leg just in front of my ankle was sore the next day! My core muscles, too. The S3 is a tense but rewarding machine. It wants to go fast and makes you want to drive fast. I’ve never been an Audi fan, but now I have seen the light.
But the light is blinding. You see, the S3 is expensive. In keeping with its style of coming up to a threshold of comfort, the S3 is right at the limit of being comfortably priced. The S3 Prestige I drove starts at $51,500. That’s a big price for a small car! Suddenly, the A3 seemed much more appealing.
Then again, the A3 Prestige (with AWD) is also priced pretty high, starting at $43,200. The absolute base price of the new A3 is $33,900, and a base S3 is $44,900. The base price of the A3 makes me think it will appeal to buyers who want something small- to medium-sized from Volkswagen, but who also want a nicer car.
The A3 makes perfect sense for them. I’m admittedly a Honda stan, but if I had to pick, I’d probably take an A3 before an ILX. Or even before a 2-Series sedan, because unless the BMW is a coupe, what’s the point?
Well, what about the S3? Is it really worth $11,000 more than the A3? Yes. It is.
You could probably get a similar experience in the S3 as that of driving an A3. You could set the driving mode to a milder setting, or refrain from driving fast. But you can’t force an A3 to drive like an S3. Not easily, anyway.
Other weak points are the wheels. I didn’t like the wheels on any of the cars I saw or drove. I like a simpler design. Give me a clean five-spoke any day. Of course, I get that this is just the state of wheels now. I just wish someone would, you know, reinvent the wheel.
Strangely enough, the seats in the A3 were more comfortable and better-looking than in the S3. The quilted Nappa of the S3 looked cheaper than the Alcantara in the A3, and the headrest was more supportive in the down-spec car.
High price and small complaints aside, these compact sedans are good. The A3 makes for a comfortable and smooth daily driver. For those who don’t care about performance, the A3 is a small sedan that can do a good impression of a sporty car. The S3 is an excellent sports car, period. Maybe it’s not the last of the great ICE cars, but the S3 shows how far the four-cylinder engine has come.