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2022 Audi A3, S3 Quick Spin: Transmission Travails

audi-a3-s3-2022-02-badge-exterior-front-grille-headlights-red-sedan-white 2022 Audi A3 (left) and S3 | Cars.com photo by Kelsey Mays

Entry-level luxury sedans don’t make the splash they once did — think Mercedes-Benz’s 2013 Super Bowl ad, which touted a sub-$30,000 CLA-Class — as shoppers see SUVs increasingly become the entry point to luxury brands. Some have now pulled the plug entirely, but others remain: The CLA and related A-Class are alive and well, as is BMW’s 2 Series Gran Coupe. Acura, meanwhile, will resurrect the Integra in a likely successor to the ILX.

So it goes with Audi, which redesigned the A3 and related S3 sedans for 2022 (originally expected as 2021s) with slightly more power, size and weight. Is the new A3 or S3 worth attention? To find out, Cars.com Executive Editor Joe Wiesenfelder and I sampled Audi’s contenders in southeast Michigan as jurors for the North American Car, Truck and Utility of the Year awards. (Audi will also sell a redesigned RS 3 for 2022, but full specs remain pending as of this writing; we didn’t test it.)

Related: Audi A4 and A5: Which Should You Buy, 2021 or 2022?

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Our quick take: The 2022 A3/S3 boasts strong power and good handling, but its cramped interior has more than a few signs of cost-cutting. Some of that’s expected in the entry-luxury class. What’s less forgivable is the A3/S3’s hesitant transmission.

We Got Shift to Deal With

I’ll cut to the chase: The seven-speed, dual-clutch automatic transmission used in both cars has disconcerting kickdown lag. Coupled with front- or Quattro all-wheel drive (the S3 is exclusively AWD), the seven-speed upshifts fine even under hard throttle. But in the driver-selectable Comfort or Auto driving modes, it requires far too long to downshift if you go for more gas while already in motion. On several efforts in the A3, I clocked two full seconds for multiple-gear downshifts at 50 mph between accelerator application and any meaningful thrust, complete with momentary bogging down — engine spinning but output yet to come — in between. Given that some drivetrains can deliver passing power in as little as half that time, this is unacceptable. Consistent accelerator lag, a problem in some Audi models, doesn’t seem the culprit: Press the gas from a stop, and the A3 leaps to attention. I suspect this belongs mostly at the transmission’s feet.

Audi’s selectable Dynamic mode cuts a much-needed half-second off the kickdown maneuvers, if only because its tendency not to upshift so aggressively means fewer gears to walk back down. If you catch it in 6th or 7th gear, Dynamic still takes as long as Comfort and Auto modes to downshift. (Typical of Audi, the A3/S3 also gives an Individual mode to mix and match response of various drive systems.) The S3 downshifts appreciably sooner in similar exercises regardless of drive mode, but you’ll need to put the accelerator nearly to the floor to induce that in Comfort or Auto modes. Push it less, and the S3’s drivetrain prefers to deny any downshift, tacking on speed by way of low-rpm torque alone.

If there’s any grace afforded, it’s that Audi isn’t alone. We’ve also bemoaned tentative acceleration in the 2 Series Gran Coupe. The A-Class is a little more responsive in this regard, though lower-powered examples feel slower from a stop than the A3.

Fun Otherwise

Both cars have power aplenty, with a turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder making 201 hp in the A3 or 306 hp in the S3. The S3’s extra wallop comes on late, with power building fiercely past 3,000 rpm and a bit of old-school turbo lag leading up to that. The A3’s powertrain trades zingy peakiness for balanced power across the rpm range, though overall acceleration is milder (a still-quick 6.3 to 6.6 seconds to 60 mph, according to Audi, versus the S3’s 4.5 seconds).

Both sedans exhibit minimal body roll and gratifying, medium-effort steering, with palpably sharper turn-in for the S3 courtesy of a quicker ratio. In either case, Audi’s Quattro AWD can send enough power to the rear wheels to quell some initial understeer if you feed more acceleration through a corner. As front-drive-based cars go, dynamics are pleasantly neutral.

Neither test car was spec’d for maximum ride comfort. Our A3 had an optional sport suspension and 18-inch wheels, while the S3 rode 19s with adaptive shock absorbers; both cars start with smaller wheels, higher-profile tires and, in the A3’s case, regular suspension tuning. As such, ride quality was polished but firm in both sedans — perhaps too disruptive for some in the S3’s case. Even with the adaptive shocks dialed in their maximum comfort setting, interstate frost heaves and other high-speed bumps made for turbulent times.

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The Paradox of Entry-Level Luxury

Potential notwithstanding, the A3 and S3 tread familiar ground for entry-level luxury cars. Hit-and-miss cabin quality, with too many low-rent plastics in prominent areas — ribbons of cheap shiny plastic or minimally padded stuff — plus a tight cabin in both rows, question the justification of a luxury badge.

None of that is unique to Audi. Entry-luxury sedans have universally struggled with cost-cutting and roominess, leaving the question of whether to spend similar cash on a roomier (and, in many cases, plusher) non-luxury car — and that’s before SUVs entered the picture. The market seems to have answered already, with popularity for these sedans falling even before the COVID-19 pandemic. By Automotive News’ tally, sales for entry-level sedans from Acura, Audi and Mercedes-Benz fell 23% between 2016 and 2019.

Still, the A3 and S3 live on — though for whom, I’m not quite sure. We’ll see about spending more time with the pair back at Cars.com HQ, so stay tuned for a full review down the road.

audi-s3-a3-2022-03-exterior-rear-angle-red-sedan-white 2022 Audi S3 (left) and A3 | Cars.com photo by Kelsey Mays

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