Audi has spread its S performance sub-brand across its car lineup, including everything from the full-size S8 luxury sedan down to the subcompact S3. It's a strategy also followed by fellow German luxury brands BMW and Mercedes-Benz. Those brands offer, respectively, the M240i coupe and AMG CLA45 sedan as S3 competitors (see all their specs compared here).
The S3 has standard all-wheel drive and starts at $43,850, including a $950 destination charge, but our test car came to $51,325 with optional features including navigation, blind spot warning with rear cross-traffic alert, a configurable LCD instrument panel, 19-inch wheels with summer tires, a magnetic ride adaptive suspension, manually adjustable S sport seats, and a Bang & Olufsen premium stereo.
How It Drives
The S3's personality is much different from that of the A3 sedan on which it's based, and its hard-edged character comes through in the magnetic ride suspension's tuning. The ride is quite firm, choppy and, on rougher surfaces, sometimes brittle — even in the Drive Select system's Comfort mode, it doesn't deliver anywhere near a comfortable ride. Choosing the Dynamic setting firms up the suspension even more and makes the ride even busier.
A firmly tuned suspension doesn't automatically mean a car will be entertaining to drive, and the S3 proves that. Body roll is well controlled in corners, and quick steering turn-in swings the nose nicely into corners, but the S3 doesn't urge you on when tossed into a turn like the BMW 2 Series does. The S3 is more isolating, and its steering is a big reason why. The steering wheel is highly power-assisted in Comfort mode, which lets you turn the wheel easily but doesn't deliver much feedback. It feels a little heavier in Dynamic, but feedback is still limited.
While the S3 comes up short on the handling front, its 292-horsepower, turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder is quite good. Smooth-revving with strong low-end power, the engine serves up swift acceleration and has ample reserves for high-speed passing.
The only transmission offered is a six-speed, dual-clutch unit. Audi has done a good job tuning it and has mostly eliminated this type of transmission's tendency to lunge forward when letting off the brake from a stop. It did happen to me once or twice, but the transmission otherwise had the same kind of idle-creep as a regular automatic, with the added ability to make impressively quick shifts. A Sport mode is included; it keeps the transmission in lower gears and makes more aggressive downshifts when slowing down. There's some gas-pedal lag when accelerating from a standing start in Comfort, but selecting Dynamic minimizes it.
The S3 doesn't urge you on when tossed into a turn like the BMW 2 Series does.
EPA-estimated gas mileage is 21/28/24 mpg city/highway/combined. The all-wheel-drive M240i and AMG CLA45 both make more power than the S3 but are also more efficient: the M240i gets an estimated 25 mpg combined and the AMG CLA45 is rated at 26 mpg.
The S3's cabin has much of the premium feel that's become a signature of Audi interiors, but the car's roots as an entry-luxury sedan are more evident here than they are in the driving experience. There are upscale cues, like leather upholstery and brushed aluminum trim on the dashboard and doors, but the soft-touch dash and door surfaces have a rubberized finish that doesn't feel particularly luxurious. Plus, the lower part of the door panels is hard plastic.
Other features, however, seem like they're from a more expensive luxury car. The optional Virtual Cockpit digital instrument screen has crisp, bright graphics. It's also configurable, so you can put different types of information front and center, including a Google Earth map view (if you maintain an active Audi Connect subscription). Audi's Multi Media Interface has a rotary knob surrounded by buttons and switches that operate the radio, optional navigation system and other features. MMI isn't as intuitive as BMW's iDrive system, which also uses a console controller to navigate on-screen menus, but I got the hang of it in a few days. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone connectivity is standard.
There's decent room overall in front, but not much extra headroom; a large power moonroof is standard. The optional S sport seats have substantial side bolsters that keep you in place during fast corners, as well as fixed head restraints. The seats have power-adjustable lumbar support, but the rest of the adjustments are manual — unlike the standard sport seats, which are power-adjustable. Manual seats aren't common at this price, and the lack of power adjustments could become quite annoying if you share a car with someone who sits differently from you.
The backseat is passable for taller adults, but there's not much extra space and the seat cushion is a little low. Still, it's more accommodating than a CLA-Class. The S3's standard split, folding backrest includes a trunk pass-through. The seat folds flat with the cargo floor, extending the 10-cubic-foot trunk.
The S3 received a five-star overall rating — the highest possible score — from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for its front- and side-impact crash performance and rollover resistance.
Forward collision warning with automatic emergency braking is standard. Front and rear parking sensors and a backup camera are also standard. Options include blind spot warning with rear cross-traffic alert, adaptive cruise control and lane-keeping assist.
Value in Its Class
The S3's $43,850 starting price may seem steep for a subcompact sedan, but it includes a lot of standard features at that price while still being one of the more affordable models in its class. Still, unless you really crave the extra power of the S3's high-output turbo four-cylinder and the cachet that comes with an S model, Audi's own A4 is a compelling alternative. It's roomier, still feels quick, has a more comfortable ride and is less expensive. That said, if only an S3 will do, you should think long and hard before getting one with the Dynamic Package and the magnetic ride suspension.