Audi came out with the concept car for the S3 a couple years ago. The A3 at the time was a warmed over Golf for more money. It was perhaps the only real player in a premium sub-compact car at the time. Sure BMW had the 1 Series, which was only rear-wheel drive, but it never had the reach and practicality that the FWD-based A3 hatchback had. Unfortunately for Audi, they couldn’t give the A3 away. It just wasn’t far removed from its VW underpinnings to make it special enough to wear the four circles. Luckily, that is no longer the case.
I put in a request for the A3/S3 with my boss seeing as how they’re all new and could potentially be significant players in this booming segment. Angel had the first review of the A3 and loved it! After reading his take on the car, I was eagerly awaiting the S3. The biggest news of all is that the S3 is roughly the same size as the B5 Audi S4. I’m sure it’s not news to anyone that cars have grown larger with each new generation forcing us to settle for what is offered. To me, the S3 was a respectful bow in honor of the B5 S4 because, finally, here is a car that had just about everything that a nostalgic car enthusiast such as myself could ask for.
Since Angel and Vic constantly troll me by testing cars in beautiful, sunny, ever pleasant NorCal, the rest of us who live in places that experience real weather want to know just how useful cars like this are. That is where I came in. The day after the S3 was delivered to my house it started to pour. In fact, it rained for most of the week while also being a bit breezy. The wet leaves where no help either but what better way to test the AWD system in real-world driving? This is perhaps the only time I can applaud New England for its weather.
Take a S4 and shrink it in Photoshop and you have the S3. I apologize if you were looking for an elaborate description of the exterior but it is what it is. I love it. It is everything Audi in a tightly wound package. The large 19-inch wheels, small wheel well gap, the LED treatments and clean lines and creases are well executed just like every new Audi sedan to hit the streets. The quad exhaust is a real treat and gives off a menacing vibe for such a small car.
The interior in the S3 doesn’t follow the rest of the sedan line. It takes more from the Audi TT than anything else which is a very, very good thing. The dashboard is clean and simple with no fuss turbine style vents. The climate controls buttons and text is small but easy to commit to memory and the automatic climate control function is no fuss. Audi’s MMI controls are located around the shifter in the center console like all the other Audis I have driven. It allows for a clutter-free dashboard but the shifter area is a bit tighter than in other Audi cars that I’ve had the pleasure of driving.
I enjoy using the system even though it is a bit more complex than some other systems out in the market but I like a level of complexity in my tech. I’m also the type that likes infotainment systems like the Ford’s Sync with MYFord Touch so take that for what you will. Audi utilizes Google Maps in their navigation systems and allows for different views such as 3D, 2D and even satellite view of the terrain. Despite the complexity, the controls are all within reach and easy to figure out, well the MMI controls will take some getting used to.
The seating position is fantastic with great visibility out the windshield and a clear view of the gauge cluster. The D-shaped steering wheel is a nice touch and is something that every vehicle should have, even the garbage truck. The steering wheel controls are easy to use and control the LCD display in between the two analog gauges. The 12 way adjustable front seats maximize the occupants comfort and even have lumbar support and thigh extenders and also provide for 41.2” of available legroom and 36.5” of headroom. The seats are supportive for any lateral maneuvers yet they don’t wrap around you which is great for anything other than the most aggressive race cars.
The rear seats are comfortable but are very tight for three occupants. With the driver’s seat adjusted, I found that there was a decent amount of space in the back. Getting your feet to fit under the front seat was a little difficult but my knees didn’t dig into the front seatback and I had decent headroom for such a tight car thanks to a taller roofline. The maximum dimensions for legroom in the back is a reasonable for the size 35.1” with the headroom measuring 36.1”. The rear seats are split 60/40 and fold forward when needed. The trunk, without the seats folded is a cozy 10 cubic feet which is very reasonable for a couple gym bags full of clothes, a desktop computer, and two bags of groceries.
The material quality is typical top-notch Audi. Plastic material is relegated to the surfaces that are touched the least; the lower parts of the interior and the center flow through console. The fit and finish is expected from the Audi brand with interior trim pieces properly fitted.
The cabin is considerably quieter than I had expected for a car in this size category. Even the rain pelting against the car on an hour and a half commute never reached annoying levels and you can still carry on a conversation at normal speaking decibels with your neighbors and rear seat occupants. Wind noise is minimal and road noise emanating from the summer tires is rather low as well. The cabin is almost as quiet as the last S5 and the A7 TDI I had tested. Quite comfortable indeed.
I’m not a fan of boosted 4-cylinder cars, even the turbocharged ones, they just leave me desiring more after I drive them. They’re usually coarse and improperly tuned. Audi seems to have gotten the memo. The 2.0L TFSI engine produces a healthy 292 horsepower from 5,400 rpm to 6,200 rpm and 280 lb.-ft. of torque from 1,900 rpm to 5,300 rpm. The numbers look good but the translation is even better. The car pulls strongly and is unrelenting until it reaches the engine’s limits. There is no noticeable drop-off in power unlike many other boosted 4-cylinder engines.
You don’t feel let down once the car is out of its torque band because it has usable power everywhere in the rev range. Every 4-cylinder turbocharged engine should follow Audi’s example in tuning. The low-end torque provides ample grunt to move the 3,450 lb Audi from nil to 60 in a factory estimated 4.7 seconds. Top speed is a limited 155 mph and reaching that speed is done in a calm and collected fashion that is uncharacteristic of cars of this size. Triple digit speeds are easily reached but what the car does best is carve corners on tight back roads.
Audi Drive Select allows you to change the car’s settings between Dynamic, Comfort, Individual and Auto. For the roads in my area, the ideal settings were selecting your own options in Individual; dampers in comfort as well as steering and set everything else to Dynamic. It provided the best all-round package that is a happy medium between comfort and sport. Dynamic is a bit too harsh for suspension stiffness and the steering effort is too heavy without having an impact on feel. The suspension set to Comfort allows you to maintain a nice ride since Dynamic tends to make it too stiff, especially on the roads in my vicinity.
Setting everything else in Dynamic allows for faster shifts and a wonderful imitation of an engine much larger than the 2.0 TFSI would lead you to believe. Pushing the shift lever over to the right puts the S3 in manual mode and the shifting can be controlled by the steering wheel mounted paddles or pushing the shifter up for upshifts, down for downshifts. A tug of either paddle doesn’t feel substantial. It feels more like a soft keyboard stroke when you pull at either one. I have an issue with the transmission. Yes, it shifts smoothly and imperceptibly and is always in the right gear and will blip the throttle on downshifts and even provides a slight burp on an upshift. The one thorn in the side is that the S-tronic transmission will not hold gears and will shift for you at redline.
When you launch the S3 and go to shift up via the paddles, it shifted for me before I shifted which then put me in third gear instead of second. Even going from a second gear corner exit to second gear corner entry, instead of staying in second, it shifted to third for me a few times before making me have to down shift to keep it in the right gear. This even occurs in Sport Mode (Turning off the traction control puts the car entirely at your mercy) and in Dynamic simultaneously. A reprogram that allows you to hold gears would increase the excitement greatly.
The S3 was surprisingly neutral which is very uncharacteristic of an Audi product. Understeer will make itself noticeable but once the rear end makes itself known, it will rotate the car nicely to keep everything in line. The best fun can be had with late deep braking and powering out with full throttle and late apex. It minimized whatever understeer was there and was great for tight country roads. A longer sweeper is best attacked as you would in any other car. The car feels very stable even in the wet with minimal wheel slip as the AWD system fights for every ounce of grip. Steering feel as we know it is absent but turn in is precise.
The main downside to the lack of steering feel is that you don’t know when the car is at the limits of its adhesion in slippery conditions until it just gives out. Steering feel would allow you to “feel” when the car is about to lose contact with the road and thus correct your heading. That can all be overlooked because the S3’s small size really allows you to place the car anywhere on the road and much like the Fiesta ST I drove, it is hard to out drive the roads you are on. However, unlike the ST, this thing will accelerate with the best of them and it is easy to go well over the speed limit. The oversized 13.6” front and 12.2” rear brakes are strong and grab quickly near the top of the pedal travel.
They bring the 3,450-pound sedan to a standstill abruptly yet show no signs of fade after repeated hard stops and heavy braking associated with windy hilly roads. The S3 sports a fancy magnetic suspension which does a great job keeping the car stable regardless or the road irregularities present. The chassis never feels upset and is always willing to play when you want it. It is also just at home as a commuter car on the highway. On my trip from the Litchfield Hills down to Stamford, CT and back, I was able to average 29.4 mpg on the highway. In town, my fuel economy dropped to 26.4. Despite having six gears and two final drive ratios, yes, two final drive ratios; 4.769:1 in 1st-4th gears and 3.444:1 in 5th and 6th, the S3 likes to be around or less than 70 mph to give you the best fuel economy.
While hustling the car around town, I saw as low as 24 miles per gallon which is still quite good for a car with this power. The EPA rates the S3 at 23 mpg city/31 mpg highway and a combined rating of 26 mpg. Based on my driving, I was quite pleased with the fuel economy that I experienced, however, the car does need to be driven more conservatively than I had hoped. To many of you, this should not be an issue as this car does deliver on its estimates (regardless how flawed and outdated the EPA tests are) and it is fun to drive around as well.
I love it. I like everything about it, especially how practical it is and how easy and comfortable it is to just get in and go anywhere. But? There is a but….the MSRP of my test vehicle is $47,045. This includes optional equipment like the Mythos Black metallic paint that costs an additional $550, Audi MMI Navigation plus package for $2,600, the Performance Package for $1,500 that adds the nice 19-inch wheels, summer tires, and the magnetic shocks, the red brake calipers adds on an extra $400 as well. Add those options to the base price of $41,100 and you have a hard time convincing yourself that a car this size is worth that coin. After posing this question to a friend, I was convinced that it is worth the money. Obviously, your financial standpoint, your upbringing, etc. all play a factor on whether or not you find this to be a bargain.
Let’s be honest, I’m sure many of you are thinking that you can get a STI or a WRX or even one of the last Lancer Evolutions which will run alongside with this S3 and save yourselves some money or put the difference in mods that will make those cars knock on doors of the likes of the S5 or even the S6. While all those are very valid points, those cars do not offer the luxury that is bequeathed on the S3 from its more mature siblings. The aforementioned pocket rockets do not have the level of quality nor the attention to detail that the little Audi has nor do they have the brand cache. Also, the mod argument is a very slippery slope. Again, that is if you care about such things. This is the car I have been begging someone to build for some time and I cannot afford it. Audi trolled me hard on this one by teasing me with the S3. I must have this though.
Photo Credit: Copyright 2015 Garry Gulledge / Car Fanatics Blog