Want Power in a Small Package? Drive the Audi S3

The brand new Audi S3 is a tech-focused backroad monster with modern refinements.

When Audi first brought the A3 to the American market in 2005, it was pretty much a bust. The design was appealing — especially the hatchback/wagon version — but the drive was underwhelming. 10 years later, the 2015 A3 is worlds beyond its predecessor. I drove this new tech-focused A3 last year and thought it was a good addition to the varied (though similar-looking) Audi lineup. But still, something was missing. Thankfully, the S trim adds that missing bit. With an upgraded engine, more aggressive looks and tuned-up driving dynamics, the S3 brings the A3 into its own.

The S3 looks better in person than in photographs, and while that sounds like a caveat at the bottom of a Tinder profile, this time it’s true. The short trunk and rounded hood give a bit of a stunted look, but standing next to the car the sharp belt line, rising lower profile line, LEDs lights, exaggerated wheel arches and quad exhaust pipes combine to create a handsome car. The S line brings bigger brakes, larger air intakes, side rockers, silver mirrors, an integrated trunk spoiler, a diffusor and it drops the car about one inch lower than the A3. In an explosive Misano red, the S3 I drove looked good.

Under the Hood

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Engine: 2.0-Liter Four-Cylinder Turbo
Transmission: 6-Speed S-tronic Dual-Clutch Automatic
Horsepower: 292
Torque: 280 lb-ft
0-60 mph: 4.4 seconds
MPG: 23 / 31 (city/highway)
Top Speed: 155 mph
MSRP: $41,100 (base)

The interior is a space where Audi shines. The S3’s cabin styling is like the kind of house you wish you could afford — smart, sophisticated and modern, but still comfortable. The minimal design incorporates the same MMI that debuted in the A3, offering a 7-inch color screen and integrated touch into the scroll wheel. Another carry-over from the A3 is the computing power under the hood — or rather, behind the glovebox. They have made the processing power, an NVIDIA and Qualcomm chip replaceable. That means that the current 4G LTE connection, in-car wi-fi and Google Maps will be able to be upgraded as new technology comes out. Just as we upgrade our cell phones, Audi makes it possible to upgrade our car’s technology. This is the kind of thinking the entire industry needs to adopt.

The S3’s cabin stylings is like the kind of house you wish you could afford — smart, sophisticated and modern but still comfortable.

That said, no one spends $41,100 on Google Maps. This car was intended to be driven and driven hard. Thankfully, it doesn’t disappoint. Push the start button, grab the flat-bottomed steering wheel (which I love), and shift to drive. The S3 is only available as a six-speed automatic, but it is combined with Audi’s S-tronic dual clutch and it’s one of those rare instances in which I don’t mind at all. Upon acceleration, especially hard, clicking through the gears, the 2.0-liter four-cylinder turbo manages to sound like a full-throated V6, with very little turbo lag. It gets to 60 mph in 4.7 seconds. With the embrace of the sport seats, the car’s low profile and the trustworthy Quattro all-wheel-drive, I was taking corners willy nilly, laughing all the way.

The S3 is youthful, aimed at the tech-savvy urban-dwelling crowd, for whom finding a parking spot is a bigger concern than how much they pay for a car. It reminds me of my beloved and now gone 1999 Audi A4 — the B5 generation — in dimensions and interior space. The well-equipped version Audi I drove, featuring a magnetic ride suspension, 19-inch wheels and a Bang & Olufsen sound system put the car near the $50,000 mark, which drops it into a highly competitive price point, but it has a fling-able quality that most of those other rides don’t. It has a lot to offer, without feeling arrogant or showy. It has “sleeper” sensibilities, which is why they had to pry the keys from my grip at the end of the loan — ‘course, if the RS3 ever came stateside, they’d never get the keys back!

Buy Now: $41,100

Prefer Efficiency over Power? Try the A3 TDI
I helmed the Audi A3 TDI ($33,495) through the roads and streets of the greater Chicago area to see if their new diesel made a difference from the already good naturally aspirated A3. Audi fit the A3 sedan with a diesel mill to increase the mileage and long-haul utility, hoping customers will gravitate toward the engine because it’s the environmentally conscious and fuel-efficient way to go. Plus, diesel torque is appealing. It’s a hair less efficient than the BMW 328i (45 mpg) on the highway, but boasts a 567-mile range on the 13.2-gallon tank, which is impressive in its own right.

Unlike the A4, A6 and A8 TDIs, the A3 sounds like a diesel from the moment you press the start button, and driving picks things up even more. The 236 lb-ft of torque won’t roast the tires, but it will get the A3 TDI to 60 in a respectable 8.2 seconds. At higher speeds, the A3 TDI is smooth and potent under hard acceleration, and it performs with enough grunt to pass when needed. It’s the urban driving experience that’s a bit skittish. The car’s a bit harsh over pavement undulations, but the steering helps to make up for some of that — it’s sharp and responsive, making the A3 TDI feel sporty.

With the diesel, the A3 draws in customers who want a fuel-efficient car that happens to have a bit of prestige. You won’t crush anyone at the stoplight, but you will get excellent urban and highway mileage in a handsome package. – Amos Kwon

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