Audi’s 2015 S3 spices up the A3 subcompact sedan with a healthy dose of performance, but I wanted more thrills and fewer frills for its nearly $50,000 as-tested price.
Along with a smattering of interior and exterior goodies, the S3 is a comprehensive performance upgrade over the A3: A more powerful, 292-horsepower engine, standard quattro all-wheel drive, a specially tuned suspension and larger brakes transform the A3 into the S3. Compare the two here.
For a dedicated performance shopper, the S3 may be too tame, considering the 2015 Mercedes-Benz CLA45 AMG sedan and BMW M235i coupe are closely priced. Compare the S3 to the CLA45 AMG and M235i here. The S3 I drove stickered for $50,345, well above the car’s $41,995 starting price (all prices include destination).
Our S3 test car arrived in January, so it was equipped with winter tires to handle Chicago’s cold-weather road conditions. That’s not the optimal way to test a performance car, given the sacrifice in dry road grip, but it was the safe choice.
Small exterior tweaks give the Audi S3 sedan a mature performance look — it’s not boy racerish at all. Audi is already starting with an attractive small sedan in the Audi A3, and the S3 wears its add-ons very well. The icing on this cake is the optional 19-inch wheels, part of a $1,500 19-Inch Performance Package, which combine with the suspension’s lowered ride height to set the stance perfectly. S3-specific exterior hardware includes a unique grille, a rear lip spoiler, signature Audi S “Alu-optive” aluminum-colored side mirrors, a front splitter and a rear diffuser with quad exhaust pipes.
The S3’s 292-hp, turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder makes 72 hp and 22 pounds-feet of torque more than the A3 2.0T’s engine — certainly enough difference to feel in the seat of your pants. It’s one of the rare fantastic-sounding four-cylinder engines, with a meaty growl emanating from under the hood. There’s no question it’s an upgrade over the A3, but I couldn’t help wanting more, especially given the 355-hp CLA45 AMG is a bite-sized, grin-inducing rocket ship. It’s hard to beat one of those, ya know? The S3 has strong midrange pull but never fully delivers on the promise of the grunt of power it shows off the line.
Unlike the CLA45 AMG, however, the Audi S3’s engine is extremely refined, with minimal lag — something often found in small displacement, high-horsepower turbocharged engines. The BMW M235i’s 320-hp, turbocharged six-cylinder straddles the line between the two in terms of power while matching the S3’s smooth, minimal-lag nature.
Harnessing the S3’s power is one of the most impressive executions of a dual-clutch transmission in this segment: The six-speed shifts unbelievably fast and smoothly — two attributes that don’t often go hand in hand. Still, I’d love to see a manual transmission option in the S3 because I know Audi can knock a manual transmission experience out of the park (as it does with the S4). Sometimes, a manual transmission can make an otherwise mediocre experience more entertaining.
The S3 isn’t straight-laced all the time. Dropping the hammer on its race-start launch control feature is especially entertaining, as all that power is released to the S3’s standard all-wheel drive when launched from a stop at 4,000 rpm. Using launch control is the only time this car will surprise you with a burst of acceleration.
Think of the Audi S3 more as a well-rounded package than as a hot rod like the Mercedes. The S3’s optional magnetic ride suspension with adjustable Comfort, Auto and Dynamic shock absorber firmness modes doesn’t thunder over broken pavement like the CLA45 AMG. The ride is decidedly tight in all three modes, though I suspect the differences may be more apparent during spirited handling, which road conditions and our tester’s winter tires made difficult for me to experience. Dynamic mode seems only slightly more aggressive than Comfort.
Regarding winter driving: The 19-inch wheel package normally comes with summer tires but, as mentioned, ours wore winter tires in the factory size, 235/35R19. The $281 per-tire set struggled to assure confidence even in light snow, which surprised me given winter tires and all-wheel drive are usually a killer combination. Part of my struggle came with the S3’s wimpy, over-boosted steering, which offered very little feedback in any driving mode, making it difficult to gauge when the car was starting to slide. The soft winter tire compound could have exaggerated the numb steering characteristic, as well, as we observed when we switched from summer to winter tires on a Subaru BRZ, our former long-term test car.
The S3 often slid out from under me before I could feel what was going on through the steering wheel, and overall it squirmed uncomfortably on top of lightly packed snow. An Audi S5 coupe we tested with a different brand of winter tires maintained its summer-tire dynamics considerably better.
Perhaps a different wheel and tire package would improve the Audi S3’s winter performance, though any winter wheels would have to clear the S3’s larger 13.4/12.2-inch front/rear brake rotors, a big upgrade from the regular A3’s 12.3/10.7-inch rotors. The brakes are overly sensitive; just a slight touch of the pedal will send anything not attached to the floor flying forward.
The S3 is a bit wimpy compared with similar performance cars, but it boasts better usability as an everyday driver among those same rivals. The S3’s four doors are an advantage over the two-door M235i, and it has a more usable backseat than the CLA45 AMG’s sardine-can-sized rear.
S3-specific appointments include a three-spoke, flat-bottom steering wheel with paddle shifters; pedals with aluminum inserts; and front sport seats bearing the S3 logo — all fairly standard stuff for an Audi S performance package. The front seats are comfortable like the A3’s, with added side bolstering that keeps you snug in your seat.
Otherwise, the S3’s interior is very similar to the regular A3, which you can read Cars.com’s review of here.
The Audi S3 may be the most expensive Audi A3 variant, but it isn’t equipped with many more multimedia features than a base A3. An iPod/iPhone interface is added in addition to the A3’s multimedia system, which includes standard Bluetooth with streaming audio. Our S3 Prestige model featured an upgraded Bang & Olufsen stereo, plus navigation and Audi’s MMI Plus for an additional $5,900.
The kitted-out multimedia system with a multifunction knob controller and quadrant-based layout isn’t the easiest to jump into — at least not without a few dry runs while parked to get an idea of where the buttons rest. Shortcut switches for navigation, phone, radio and media help you get back to a key function if you get lost in the depths of the system’s customization, which also includes vehicle systems.
The Audi S3’s standard quattro all-wheel drive takes away 2.3 cubic feet of cargo space. A front-wheel-drive A3 has 12.3 cubic feet while the S3 has 10 cubic feet, though both styles use a 60/40-split folding backseat. We could only get one bag of golf clubs in the trunk without folding the backseat.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety says the S3 shares its rating with the A3, which earned the agency’s highest accolade of Top Safety Pick+ for scoring the highest rating of good in all tests. A “plus” designation is added to Top Safety Picks that offer advanced front crash prevention, which is an optional feature on the S3. In National Highway Traffic Safety Administration crash tests, the Audi S3 received an overall rating of five out of five stars.
Optional safety features include a backup camera, blind spot monitoring, lane departure warning and “Audi pre sense front,” which pairs with the available adaptive cruise control to offer forward collision warning with autonomous braking. A $1,400 Driver Assistance Package available on base models includes parking assist plus the blind spot monitor, backup camera and lane departure warning; all that is standard on the Prestige Package, which starts at $47,895.
See all the S3’s safety features listed here.
See how well child-safety seats fit in the A3’s backseat, here.
Audi’s base Audi A3 is no slouch in the standard equipment department, with leather seats, a panoramic moonroof, dual-zone climate control and more. Those carry over to the S3 — and you won’t find standard leather in the Mercedes CLA45 AMG or BMW M235i. Over the A3, the S3 includes a smart keyless access system with push-button start, a color driver-information system display between the gauges, and Audi’s Drive Select for changing various driving characteristics (like the degree of power steering assistance, throttle progression and transmission behavior) on the fly.
Prepare to open your wallet if you want more. As mentioned earlier, the Prestige trim level adds $5,900 to the base model and includes a backup camera, power-folding mirrors, LED headlights, daytime running lights and much more. Our test car’s $50,000 price tag set off a mental warning light given the car’s small size and moderately powerful driving experience.
The Audi S3’s $41,995 staring price is a classic case of you get what you pay for, considering the S3 runs a bit short on performance chops compared with the $44,050 BMW M235i and the $49,425 CLA45 AMG. Buyers shopping purely for performance can likely cross the S3 off their list — but that’s not to say the S3 is a bad car. Stick around its base price, and the sport-tuned Audi S3 delivers a good amount of driving fun over the base Audi A3 2.0T, with the same usability and good looks.