It seems appropriate that not long before yours truly drove this Audi S3 sedan — a car that has been out for about half a year now — the long-awaited (and expected) confirmation that the company was to launch a rougher-edged new RS3 found its way online.
Of course, that car is a year away from local launch, but it serves as a good entry point to this review, because the S3 now seems to have proper context, given its tenure as the A3 range-topper is coming to a close.
See, the S3 is no hardcore bruiser like that car will be, but rather a fun and fast, as well as luxurious, miniature executive express. The car you swap into from your Subaru WRX STI or Volkswagen Golf R once you’ve grown up a little and scored that promotion.
Of course, the STI is a sedan only, and the Golf R a hatch (though a wagon launches soon). But Audi offers both body styles on the S3, with the three-box sedan commanding a $2300 premium over its Sportback hatch sibling in return for nicer proportions and 85L more boot space. The two don't share panels.
And yes, while the RS3 was premiered as a Sportback (hatch) model, surely a sedan version like this concept will appear as well, so the point made as the opener (hopefully) stands.
In any guise it looks the business from the outside, with spot-on proportions. The three-box silhouette is more conventional than the swoopy Mercedes-Benz CLA, but that kind of classical understatement is Audi in a nutshell.
Also, Audi in a nutshell is a nice cabin. The S3 interior is a classy design with levels of tactility that make it feel like a proper little luxury car. The leathers, plastics and metals inside all feel suitably high-end.
Start the car up and the dashtop screen slides almost silently out of its hidden compartment like a Phoenix rising from the ashes. Every switch or dial feels expensive to touch and operate, and the toggle-operated multimedia system is up there with BMW’s iDrive. The flat-bottomed three-spoke leather steering wheel with paddle shifters is also about the nicest tiller on a car priced south of $100K that we can think of.
The digital instrumentation screen that sits between the grey and white dials is also a good vein of information, and offers a digital speedo, navigation instructions, and can identify what multimedia you’re listening to and lists your phone contacts. The infotainment case is weakened though by the lack of a standard USB plug, a weird decision from Audi, but one that requires you to shell out extra for an Audi cable connector.
Standard features include 18-inch alloy wheels, bi-xenon headlights with LED DRLs, semi-automatic parking with front and rear sensors and a reversing camera, dual-zone climate control, automatic headlights and wipers, electrically adjustable and heated front seats with full Nappa leather throughout and a 7.0-inch colour screen with Audi MMI sat-nav and a 20Gb hard drive.
Our test car had the optional S performance package that costs $4990. You get lovely diamond-stitched racing-style bucket sets with manual adjustment, LED headlights, a 705-watt Bang and Olufsen sound system, red brake calipers and special 19-inch alloy wheels.
Oh, and you also get the fantastic Audi magnetic ride system with three different damper settings (that you control via the toggle and screen). Tick the box, trust us. That said, charging $1150 for the bright red metallic paint on our test car is a bit rich, isn’t it?
All told, our test car with the options listed would set you back $68,340, which seems like rather a lot for a small car. Especially one as pokey in the back as the S3, though rear passenger do get vents and more headroom than in the chopped-roof Mercedes-Benz CLA.
At base $62,200 level it’s about $3000 cheaper than a BMW M135i hatchback that has similar performance figures but a rear-drive package, though the S performance package tips the Audi over. Even with the options kit, the S3 is still more than $20K cheaper than the faster and more powerful, but dimensionally close, all-wheel-drive Mercedes-Benz CLA45 AMG.
Of course, the forthcoming RS3 will be the real AMG rival, but the discrepancy still shows Audi’s aggression. At entry level it's also $7000 more expensive than a Subaru WRX STI Premium, a car packed with thrills but missing the Audi’s cache — unless you roll in very specific circles.
That said, spec sheets aside, it doesn’t take you very long behind the wheel to work out that the S3 is a rather different beast than the AMG or Subaru. It’s not as visceral or theatrical — some may find it too subdued — but it’s feels much nicer to live with.
Under the bonnet is the very 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder engine from the Sportback and $54,490 Volkswagen Golf R, itself worth a look if the badge on the bonnet is unimportant. You don’t notice the sedan’s 15kg weight penalty (at 1460kg) over the Sportback, as we noted on our launch review.
It may have a detuned 206kW due to the Aussie sun (rather than 221kW as it gets in Europe), but it also has 380Nm of torque available across an extremely great percentage of the rev band. You have all of it from 1800 to 5100rpm, meaning the six-speed S tronic dual clutch gearbox never has to do any hunting to tap into instant and sustained shove. In fact, it could get away with being downright lazy, though on our dynamic route it never put a proverbial foot wrong.
The 0-100km/h sprint time of 5.0 seconds is swift, but the engine’s rather relaxed nature for a small turbo — no perceptible lag, a muted note and rounded rather than rough edges — makes it feel unhurried. Audi's claim of 6.9L/100km is matchable with subdued driving, though our drive leg yielded low 8s.
The exhaust blips on upshift in sports mode adds a little welcome gruffness, though we’d like a little more mongrel. Of course, the RS3 will get a manic take on the offbeat 2.5-litre five-pot that has served as an Audi staple for years, and the S3 can’t very well be allowed to pre-empt its thunder…
We mentioned those magnetic dampers before. Comfort mode gives you a noticeably more pliant and comfortable ride quality compared to Dynamic, which in turn kept the car laudably flat when the straight roads turned winding.
Better still is the Individual setting, where you can for example set the steering to the lighter middle setting and the dampers to firm, or set the dampers to be softer for the city while retaining the Dynamic setting’s gruffer gearshift pops and snarls for some look-at-me charm.
Meanwhile the electric-assisted steering is fast and responsive almost immediately from centre. This is complemented by excellent chassis balance that means some mid-corner lift yields you welcome weight transfer and helps the rear end drift ever so subtly.
This level of adjustability, as well as the subtle ESC that gives you some free reign before applying the reins, is welcome, given the front-biased quattro drivetrain doesn’t quite give you the rear-biased, tail-happy and slide-friendly chops that a M135i does.
But this lack of angry engine snarl and any real propensity to get out of shape on command kind of suits the understated nature of the S3, hence our relief to know a bonkers RS3 awaits. That said, the overt road roar on the 19s in the S3 undoes some of the good work.
It’s not enough to take away my opinion that the S3 is a highly recommended way to spend $60K-ish on a new set of wheels at the moment, if you want to strike a balance between outright manic fun and everyday liveability. It remains an absolute ripper.