At first the 2017 Audi S3 might just seem like an overpriced Volkswagen Golf R, and it kind of is. But that’s the wrong way to think of it. It’s better viewed as the experience of Audi’s larger, sportier models, distilled into a smaller, more affordable, more modest sedan. It’s a sprightly, luxurious compact car for your sprightly, luxurious, compact life.
(Full Disclosure: Audi wanted us to drive the refreshed 2017 Audi S3 so badly they invited Jason, who couldn’t go because it was his son’s birthday. I skipped three days of classes and went instead. They flew me from Charlotte, North Carolina to Durham, North Carolina, which is a two hour drive or a 40 minute flight that, in hindsight, really isn’t worth the trouble of going through airport security.)
So here’s the weird thing about the S3 launch program. Audi decided to launch the S3 in Durham, North Carolina to help announce its partnership with American Underground to test out an early Audi shared-fleet program. American Underground is a technology incubator working out of the remnant’s of Durham’s old American Tobacco Company complex, housing over 200 companies.
Audi will use its 700 employees as early testers of a car-sharing app that it will be rolling out nationwide next year. North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park is trying to become another Silicon Valley, one designed to attract young college graduates with a lot of techie jobs. Or basically, the image Audi wants for its S3.
What’s weird about that is that we’re driving the Audi S3, but the car-sharing program will be getting A4s. Odd, because the Audi S3 is perfect for the 20 or 30-something techies that only buy things that are expensive, smart and stylish, which is exactly what the S3 is. Sure, that used to be the S4, but now it’s the S3.
What’s even weirder is that among the old industry architecture of Durham, the Red Star fighter jet we passed by on our journey and the barista-training cafe we stopped at which was housed in the bottom of a ten-story concrete brutalist-looking half-destroyed factory tower, it felt more like a journey through the parts of Russia you’re not supposed to hear about.
This is all mostly because Durham has a huge burgeoning foodie, yuppie, hippie and hipster scene, with breweries, cafes, bespoke denim shops, and whatever else you can convince someone to spend a 50 percent premium on because it’s functional but tastes/looks/feels 50 percent more worth it.
Which brings me to the Audi S3. It’s a modest update for 2017, but you can now get it with Audi’s impressive Virtual Cockpit which replaces the instrument cluster with a completely customizable screen. Audi also updated the Quattro all-wheel-drive system to be a little more playful in Dynamic mode. Beyond that, most of the changes are in the bodywork. That’s not a bad thing. The S3 is a great car and Audi didn’t need to mess with it much.
First let’s take a step back and look at it. Updated for 2017, the S3 looks incrementally better than the previous version in almost every way. Where the old car was too sterile in design, and too synonymous with the rest of Audi’s lineup, this new thing is literally and figuratively edgier. The LED headlights and taillights look sharp and the 19 inch 5-double-spoke wheels are nice, but the optional Black Optic V-spoke are the ones to go for.
The S3 somehow blends perfectly into a modern city skyline with concrete and glass and no color, and also works in the alleys between aging factories and smokestacks and “authentic, gourmet” coffee/noodle/pants stores. That’s probably just reflective of the overlap of styles you get from millennials working at tech startups inside former industrial parks.
The S3 is available in fun colors but Audi claimed that its order for the yellow and blue cars didn’t get done in time and it had to scramble to get us the white, grey, primer grey and black cars for our adventure. For the love of all things premium espresso, get this car in Ara Blue, Vegas Yellow, or Navarra Blue.
The S3 still gets 292 horsepower and 280 lb-ft of torque out of an amazing 2.0 liter four-cylinder TFSI engine, which is heavily reworked from its A3 upbringing. It gets 21 mpg in the city, 28 highway, and 24 combined.
Punching the throttle gets a good note in the cabin, which seemingly gets louder in Dynamic mode. Audi swears this isn’t fake or enhanced engine noise. Perhaps they’ve done something clever with packaging to ensure you hear what you want to hear.
What’s unfortunate is that the quad-exhaust note doesn’t sound nearly as good as what you expect from inside the car. Inside the car it doesn’t really matter, because to you it sounds fast. It might bother you if you want everyone else to think it sounds fast. It’s not a particularly bad sound, it just reminded me of that weird hiccup-burp you get sometimes.
I think what makes this car for me is the six-speed S tronic dual-clutch transmission. I’m no hater of “flappy paddle” manuals, and the gear changes in manual mode on the S3 are instant. Despite the fact that it will shift for you on red-line no matter what, it’s a very good time—just a second of turbo lag is almost immediately forgotten by just how fast you can get going. Audi claims it will do zero to 60mph in just 4.7 seconds, and it was suggested that it may be even quicker.
I think the S3's biggest selling point for its massive sticker price is the interior. The S3 starts at $42,900 for the Premium Plus, but the car I drove was spec’d out to $51,325, which is a lot of money for an entry level compact sedan.
Again, that’s the wrong way to think about the S3. Yes, the A3 is perhaps the cheapest way to say “I drive an Audi” and that’s probably a big part in why Audi has managed to sell so many of them.
But the S3 is something more than that. It’s the cheapest way to feel like you’re driving something bigger and much more expensive, like and S7 or S8. Perfect for the younger generations that are scared of static money and like nice things.
Included in my car’s kit was the technology package with the pop-up navigation screen and the back-from-the-future customizable Virtual Cockpit, as well as the S Sport seat package which came with some beautiful black quilted-stitched Nappa leather and S3 logos everywhere.
Every surface of the interior is covered in something nice; either a soft-touch foam-like surface on the upper-dash, leather wrapped steering wheel, brushed aluminum on the lower console and everything else was the softest, matte-finished coating I’ve ever put my hands on. The buttons have satisfying weight and texture to them, and the layout is one of the simplest and most straightforward in the business.
The navigation knob is daunting at first, but you get used to its finicky touches relatively quickly. The key is to realize that the navigation controls are almost entirely handled with a separate button.
I didn’t love the placement of the volume control, which is on the passenger side of the gear selector and thus relatively hard to get to for the driver. When I asked an Audi person about this they rather abruptly informed me that the driver is only meant to use the steering-wheel controls. Sure, I guess.
Overall the interior feels expensive and is definitely a nice place to be, as long as you don’t plan on sitting any adults in the back seat. I like to think of this car as a glorified coupe, focused around the driver who might have to give someone a hopefully-short ride sometime, but without all the hassle of forcing your co-workers or friends to climb under over the front seat and lose some of their dignity.
It’s good that the interior was a good place to be because the suburban roads we got to take the S3 on between Durham, Raleigh and Chapel Hill weren’t exactly ideal for testing out whether the new Dynamic mode, which doesn’t limit power to the back wheels in oversteer situations like it used to, would actually be any fun.
On the rare sections of road we ran earlier in the morning that weren’t fiercely populated with driveways or dump trucks, the Audi felt quick and the transmission impressively cut through the gears. Downshifts were immediate and once you got going there was virtually no detectable turbo lag.
The sportier seats (which frustratingly had three or four different manual levers to adjust) weren’t as heavily bolstered as you might expect, but they were actually comfortable and it wasn’t necessary as the car was incredibly flat and stable at higher speeds through the bends. The Audi magnetic ride that came with the Dynamic package firms things up in the sportiest mode, and all you’re really left to think about is how quick you’re going. It’s somewhat tired, but Audi really does sell these cars based on their confidence-inspiring performance.
Of course, if you’re looking to get the tail end out, Audi’s Quattro shouldn’t be where you’re looking. As I reported last week, Audi isn’t really interested in offering a “Drift Mode” any time soon, and you’re not going to have much luck getting play out of the front-wheel-drive biased Quattro all-wheel-drive system. Drifting isn’t something Audi wants people doing in its luxury sedans meant for highways, and rightfully so. The S3 is for showing off with your wallet, not your mad skids.
The S3 can be had cheaper as the Golf R with a manual, and if you’re in it for the driving and perhaps the Cars and Coffee notoriety, that’s what you should be looking at. You can also consider the manual option on the BMW M240i. It’s at the same price point and similar performance, just without two doors.
Looking at it the other way, you’re going to get a premium Audi experience with a soft-touch interior and leather everything, that goes fast and matches your $300 jeans, and a car that looks good in Instagram photos of your Yorkshire Terrier with its paws on the steering wheel and in the background of selfies with your app development crew out for a night on the town. It will totally match your iPhone.
I’m not sure you have to spend the $51,000 my car was delivered for, but if the A3 isn’t enough you should skip the options on that and jump straight into a S3. It’s going to be a soft, quick and good time. If you’re serious about spending a questionable amount of money on a small Audi, though, remember that the RS3 is coming.
For the love of God, please buy this car in a real color.