The Audi S3 sedan is the smart buyer's performance weapon from the Ingolstadt-based brand and has more than enough performance cred for the buyer in that segment.
The 2017 Audi S3 is – obviously – not quite as potent as it’s hairy-chested big brother, the RS3. However, after seven days and a few hundred kilometres behind the wheel, I’m struggling to find a chink in its armour and perhaps more to the point, struggling to mount a case for stumping up for the extra performance offered by the RS-badged rocketship.
Yes sure, more is always better when it comes to power, but this S3 sedan is a sensational daily driver, with more than enough ability to put a broad grin across your (and in my case, ugly) dial when you find a twisty country road.
And yes, if you have pockets deep enough, go for the bragging rights that come with any RS-badged Audi. However, don’t feel for a second like you’re missing out if your budget can only stretch as far as the S3 we’ve tested here.
Countering that argument though, is the soon to be released Golf R from stable mate Volkswagen. There’s definitely a tangible value to the Audi badge, but if you’re on an even tighter budget, the new Golf R will offer comparable power and performance for nearly nine grand less ($55,490) – with a DSG – or $52,990 with a conventional manual transmission. The caveat though of course, is you’re stuck with a five-door hatchback whether you like it or not.
The starting price for the S3 sedan is $64,500 before the usual on-road costs. Standard equipment highlights include: 12.3-inch Virtual Cockpit, autonomous emergency braking, Apple CarPlay/Android Auto, full LED headlights, dual-zone climate control, blind-spot monitoring, lane-keep warning, Nappa leather sports seats, 7.0-inch MMI navigation plus with live traffic updates, DAB+ digital radio, and a 10-speaker audio system.
Our test S3 only has a few optional extras including metallic paint ($1150), Audi Magnetic Ride ($1600), black high-gloss exterior detailing ($850) and 18-inch alloy wheels ($1350). That brings the price to $69,450 before on-road costs and represents solid value when you take into account the performance potential.
The four-cylinder, turbocharged petrol engine derives some of its precision, not to mention smooth power delivery from direct injection and is mated to a seven-speed S tronic transmission. The 2.0-litre wallops out 213kW between 5400-6500rpm and 380Nm between 1850-5300rpm and uses an ADR-claimed 6.5L/100km, a solid balance between performance and frugality.
In the real world, we used an indicated 11.9L/100km in solid traffic, dropping down into the low eights on the highway. The long-term readout was down to 9.5L/100km when our time came to an end, which is more indicative of the everyday usage you should see if you’re not constantly ploughing through heavy traffic.
I’m sure we’ll tire of it eventually and be less impressed than we are now, but take a look at the cabin of any Audi with Virtual Cockpit and it’s hard not to be impressed with the execution of such clever technology. It immediately makes the interior feel more premium, more up-to-date, and more intelligent than a similar vehicle without the technology.
That’s true of the S3 too, and as we appreciated with the TT we tested not so long ago, you could even mount a case for not needing the central 7.0-inch screen, if you have Virtual Cockpit ahead of you.
I love the enormous satellite navigation display inside the main gauge cluster, but my preference for the best of both worlds is a large speedo ahead of you, the satellite navigation shrunk down a little next to that on the left, and Apple CarPlay displayed on the centre screen. You can retract the centre screen down out of sight if you prefer and as we’ve noted before, the fact it isn’t touchscreen seems a little silly.
Opt for the layout I’ve described above and you get a big digital speedo and all the information you need, displayed clearly and crucially, visible at a glance. The Audi proprietary navigation is so good you won’t often need the mapping from your smartphone anyway.
The steering wheel button design and execution is near perfect and genuinely easy to understand too. Crucially, they never get in the way, so you aren’t hitting buttons accidentally during normal driving.
The interior has an understated elegance and minimalist feel to it, aided by the pared down, and easy-to-operate, menu system fronted by one large rotary dial. Utilising a design like this means the console can be cleaner and much less cluttered than it otherwise would be.
We found Apple CarPlay and indeed the Bluetooth connection to be rock solid and reliable at all times. 12V, twin USB and one auxiliary input (in the console bin) up front ensure charging or connecting devices is well and truly looked after.
In tech terms, the cruise control system is easy to decipher and simple to operate without needing to familiarise yourself with it, and the forward collision alert also works really well. It’s never obtrusive or too eager to intervene as so many are. These are small points to make, but worthy of mention considering how many manufacturers get it wrong and how much that can affect your driving enjoyment.
The second row is catered for by way of air vents and a 12V input with comfortable seats, but here’s the kicker. There really isn’t enough room in the second row for adults if you have taller occupants up front. The S3’s cabin is simply too small to house four tall adults, so think of it as an occasional four-seater.
There’s no doubt the boot is on the large side for the segment and delivers plenty of storage space. It’s more like what you’d expect from a significantly larger sedan than the S3’s somewhat diminutive exterior dimensions. The second row seats fold forward in a 60:40 split, clearing a path for longer items.
Back to the front seats though, and the S3 affords an excellent driving position, which is only enhanced by the tech on offer and de rigeur for a sports sedan of this nature. The seats are beautifully sculpted and the heating function is a bonus in winter. We found the shape of the front seats, the deep squabs, and the side bolsters excellent, and despite my criticism of the second row, the front seats never feel cramped.
Head into the cut-and-thrust of city traffic and the S3 presents as the kind of vehicle straining to be let off its leash, begging to be allowed to find the limits of its redline. You can easily drive the S3 around town, of that there is no doubt, but it rewards the driver willing to work it a little harder.
The S3 retains a ‘go-kart like’ connection between chassis and driver, precise responsive steering, beautiful balance, exceptional brakes and a snappy throttle. Few vehicles in this segment can deliver a connection so attuned and it makes for an engaging and enjoyable driving experience. It’s not all sweetness and light though, with the ride over poor surfaces best described as firm (even in Comfort mode) and the S3 can crash over really ugly roads.
The payoff though, is the daily enjoyment you get from such a sharp car. The AWD system is as exceptional as we’ve always found it to be, and you can dart around town efficiently and effortlessly. A physically small vehicle like the S3 is ideal for around town running, but it’s all the more enjoyable when the car is as balanced and poised as this.
The gearbox can lurch a little from either a standing start or at crawling speed, and it’s a characteristic we’ve noted before from the S tronic platform, but you do get used to it, and in fact learn to drive around it. At speed though, the gearshift is razor sharp no matter how hard you’re teasing the redline.
We love the characteristics of the engine at any speed and the way it generates its peak power and torque is as important as the numbers themselves. You get a nice window between 5400rpm and 6500rpm where the S3 generates peak power, but having peak torque available from 1850rpm is crucial to getting off the mark with gusto. You’ll never feel like the S3 is wanting in power terms around town.
Smart buyers know that too much performance is well, too much for daily duties. The S3 is one of those cars that delivers enough performance to put a smile on your face but is never intimidating or cantankerous in any way.
I love the sedan platform. The styling is understated, but classy, and the drive experience is worth every cent. If you're into quality and clever execution, the S3 sedan is as good as it gets for the money.
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