Audi S3: The Machine in the Middle

If you have a taste for lively small cars, you might find the A3 lineup appealing. It’s a lot like salsa—it comes in mild, medium, and now with the debut of the RS 3, hot. The RS 3 definitely brings the heat. But how well does the S3 occupy the middle ground—not so eye-watering as the RS 3 (especially price-wise), but spicy enough to set it apart from the mild-mannered A3? Since Audi served up a 2017 S3, let’s dip in and  find out.

An evolutionary update

Audi refreshed the A3/S3’s appearance for 2017, and the front-end updates sculpt a more assertive look. Full LED headlights feature a sharper, lighting bolt-like “undercut,” and the outboard air inlets/grilles on the lower fascia flare out more prominently. The rear fascia and exhaust diffuser have been similarly toughened up. Although still clad in relatively conservative sheet metal, the A3/S3 remains an attractive, proportionate small sedan that will likely age well. New exterior colors like Vegas Yellow and Navarra blue metallic add visual pop, but don’t expect to see too many on dealer lots amid a sea of traditional gray, black and silver Audis. Our vehicle was painted in Nano gray metallic, a pretty, fine-grained metallic finish that takes subtlety to a new level of stealth.

In the interior, the major change is the availability of Audi’s beautifully rendered virtual cockpit (included, along with navigation and Audi side assist, in the $3000 Technology package). On S models, it can be configured to display a large central tach with a digital speed reading inside, which is how we kept our test car almost the entire time. The S3 instrument panel also incorporates a boost gauge, but it’s a graphical indicator and not a true numerical gauge, meant more for entertainment value. Audi’s MMI has become the standard-bearer for intuitive operation, and this latest S3 has a touch-pad controller for inputting navigation information. We found something as simple as scrolling between radio presets and the selected station requiring one too many steps, however. Other new Audis include a separate touchpad for the presets, a preferred setup.

Our test car was optioned with the sumptuous quilted leather seat coverings, which present an odd more-is-less proposition. It’s a $1450 upgrade, yet sacrifices the 12-way power control of the standard sport seats for manual adjustment of everything but lumbar support. The head-scratching contradiction probably results from the exacting calculus Audi performs to deliver luxe high performance at a so-called “entry level.” A compromise or two is inevitable.

Overall the A3/S3 interior maintains its minimalistic, almost stark, design. Audi doles out the luxury touches with reserve, and you have to step up to Prestige level trim to get a Homelink transmitter and interior ambient lighting. Still, if you’re about the business of spirited driving, the S3 offers an accommodating, distraction-free environment for concentrating on the work at hand.

Near sports car league

The first task, of course, with a car like the S3 is to answer the question, “How fast does that thing go?” Audi states a 0-60 time of 4.7, and that may be conservative. On our only day to test launch control, a freak cold front with rain suddenly dropped temperatures to below 40 degrees. The conditions were marginal for the summer tires which struggled for grip—even with quattro—and the best we could manage was 5.4 (though that number also includes reaction time). Once the S3 commits—after an initial pause—it feels plenty quick, the six-speed S tronic snapping off shifts with a little push back in the seat that reminds you you’re in a sports sedan.

To put the S3’s 0-60 time in perspective, Audi quotes 3.9 seconds for the RS 3, and 4.4 seconds for the S4. And a 500 hp Porsche 911 GT3 is 3.8. This is a remarkable era, when sport sedans deliver acceleration numbers not far off the mark from a purebred sports car. That doesn’t stop us from wanting more, though, and we wish the S3 (and the TTS and the VW Golf R) were equipped with the Euro-spec version of the 2.0 turbo, and its 300+ hp vs. 292.

Power to the pavement

To get that power to the pavement, the S3 receives standard quattro and upgraded suspension tuning. Our S3 was fitted with Audi magnetic ride as part of a $1500 package that included 19” wheels. Surprisingly, the suspension was noisy, and fairly harsh even in the comfort setting. The S3 drummed over urban pavement like a tympani section, audibly transmitting seemingly every movement of its shocks and linkages. We thought maybe this was an anomaly with our test car, but a brief ride in another S3 at the dealership sounded the same. Things quiet down on the highway, but the S3 definitely could benefit from better suspension isolation on city streets.

This latest iteration of the mag ride system offers three levels of suspension tuning. Though the differences were perceptible, the overall range was not very broad and the comfort setting still felt overly firm on moderate pavement irregularities. At speed, on smooth highway or country road, you do appreciate the flat cornering, well-controlled body movements and overall feeling of being firmly in with the pavement. But it’s puzzling that Audi does not program the mag ride to adjust for a wider variety of road surfaces.

In the quattro department, the S3 aims to separate itself from its Golf R relative. Audi has integrated management of the Haldex differential in the S3 with traction control, stability control and ABS for seamless responses. Also, taking a cue from the TTS, the quattro system is configured to allow increased rearward torque bias in Dynamic mode for more sporty handling. Though you won’t mistake the S3 for a rear-wheel-drive car, it keeps plow to an absolute minimum, and under the right circumstances, might even allow the rear to slide sideways. Otherwise, like a champion gymnast concluding a routine, the S3 sticks it, and presents a convincing argument for the benefits of all-wheel-drive in any climate.

Cornering, the S3 doesn’t so much steer as rotate with the precision of a CNC machine. The ratio is quick and the rear wheels feel like they’re active participants in the cornering, not just trailering along. And there’s even a bit of road feel from the steering rack, hallelujah, with none of the slackness or on-center numbness present in some other electric systems. As is usual with Audi, though, cycling through the drive select settings only changes steering weight, not feel.

Shifting priorities

The six-speed S tronic functions capably enough, but it’s no longer a novelty and one wonders about its future in passenger cars when conventional automatics have become so good at mimicking its best features. In Drive mode, upshifts come too low on the rpm band under part throttle, and, frankly, ultra-fast shifting in ordinary driving produces little advantage. On the other hand, shifting the S3 manually overcomes the slight pause on accelerating from a stop and makes the car feel more alive and responsive from the get-go.

Pulling the shift lever down into Sport mode also sharpens the edge, but it’s a setting best reserved for slicing up country roads and not slogging around city streets. It holds revs too high when all you’re doing is running to the store for kitty litter, and even lifting off the throttle won’t induce an upshift until about 45 mph. It will be interesting to see if the 2018 S3, which comes with a seven-speed S tronic, makes Sport mode more useful in everyday driving, or if the seventh cog merely improves gas mileage.

No matter how you drive it, the S3 is a car you look forward to taking just about anywhere. From previous time in an A3, we know that it will comfortably seat four adults on at least a short trip. A couple or small family will find it roomy enough for a weekend away. And individual drivers who perhaps don’t need a four-door will not find their style crimped at all by the extra set of doors. They’re more likely to be complimented for their good taste because the S3 oozes class.

From a fuel efficiency standpoint, the S3 is EPA rated at 21/28 mpg, 24 combined, and our mileage during a week of mixed highway/city driving was 23-24. It’s hard to use a light foot with the S3.

As is customary, Audi calibrates the prices of trim levels and options with the fineness of a Vernier caliper. The MSRP of our test vehicle, a Premium Plus model with the aforementioned packages Bang & Olufsen sound, was $51,325. A Prestige model (which includes the Technology package, Bang & Olufsen, ambient LED interior lighting, Homelink, active lane assist, adaptive cruise control, and high-beam assistant), with the 19” wheel package and the S sport seat option, would be only $1000 more.

For 2018, Audi has adjusted the packages and pricing some. Premium Plus models now include ambient interior lighting, and the Bang & Olufsen is part of an upgraded Technology package. An S3 identical to our 2017 test vehicle actually costs less, with an MSRP of $50,775. An identical 2018 Prestige model is also slightly less expensive, at $52,875. And, both come equipped with the seven-speed S tronic.

Medium but not middling

No one likes bland salsa, that’s what ketchup is for. Does the S3 pack just the right amount of pepper, enough to pop a few beads of sweat on your brow but also to be palatable as an everyday staple? The answer is a qualified yes. Audi’s S cars possess a dual personality. Drive them with a light touch and you might never stir the beast within. Push deeper, and you awaken a whole other animal. Our qualification with the S3 is that it does not go to that other side quite so eagerly. It would certainly be unfair to expect a small turbo to produce the explosive rush of a supercharged V6. But a little more visceral excitement would be welcome.

All in all, it’s a minor quibble, one that a more raucous sounding exhaust or the additional horsepower and torque of the European version of the S3’s engine might well remedy. As it is, the S3 is right-sized for the young family or driver who want “entry level” (so to speak) high performance in a versatile, sporty-looking compact sedan. And if you don’t care about making the style statement of the TTS, the S3 offers comparable levels of performance for about $7,500 less.

At a time when the auto industry as a whole is retrenching on sedans in favor of anything and everything “utility,” Audi is keeping the shelves stocked with traditional four-doors, in a variety of flavors. The S3 may be the medium sauce, but don’t underestimate it. Like a good salsa it can start subtle, sneak up on you, and keep you coming back for more.

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