The 2015 Audi A3 didn't take long to become a popular choice among buyers when it went on sale this summer, helping to push the German manufacturer’s August sales past the 17,000-vehicle mark -- its best-ever month in North America. The top-of-the-line Audi S3 is now on sale and offers plenty of reasons to think it will do nothing but further Audi’s upward swing.
Let’s be clear up front, because Audi’s S badge still seems to confuse a sliver of cardom, if not the most dedicated enthusiasts: Audi does not intend for its S models to deliver the same sharp-edged focus as do vehicles carrying, for example, BMW’s M or Mercedes-Benz’s AMG logos. Ingolstadt reserves such hardcore levels of driving dynamics for RS models, but this doesn’t mean the S3 won’t put a devilish smirk on drivers’ faces.
Beneath the quattro all-wheel-drive sedan’s hood is a new 2.0-liter TFSI direct-injected, turbocharged four-cylinder producing 292 hp at 5,400-6,200 rpm and 280 lb-ft of torque between 1,900 and 5,300 rpm. Aside from some tuning and calibration differences, this is the same engine used in Volkswagen’s new Golf R. (However, since the Golf R arrives in the U.S. sometime in Q2 2015, the S3 is your first opportunity to experience it unless you hop over to Europe.)
The 2.0-liter is based on the standard A3’s I4, but even the most innocuous of good-natured jokes about it perhaps simply being a “chipped” version of the same will have you ducking for cover from the nearest fuming Audi rep. (Or reps. Ask us how we know.) In fact, it receives various upgrades, including pistons with new bolts and rings, stronger connecting rods, a new aluminum-silicon alloy cylinder head, different injection valves and a different turbocharger. Running on 17.4 psi of boost, Audi says the S3 will squirt from 0-60 mph in 4.7 seconds, with top speed limited to 155 mph.
S3-specific trim gives the car a more aggressive appearance than the standard A3.
PHOTO BY AUDI
Like all S models, the Audi S3 also receives larger brakes (13.4 inches in front, 12.2 rear; unlike other A3s, the rear discs are ventilated, as are the fronts) and sportier suspension tuning. It rides on standard 18-inch wheels and summer performance tires (all-seasons are a no-cost option), with 19s available as part of a performance package also including summer rubber and Audi’s magnetic-ride adjustable suspension. The latter is, as Audi boasts, “exclusive to its segment”; in other words, you won’t find such a suspension on the Mercedes AMG CLA45 or BMW M235i.
Unique trim includes a platinum gray and chrome grille, open front intakes to feed more air to the radiators (necessitated by a larger intercooler), S3 logos on the brake calipers, S3-specific side-rocker blades, aluminum-trimmed mirrors, a decklid-mounted lip spoiler and platinum gray rear diffuser. The package does an impressive job of toughening up the car’s appearance compared to the somewhat pedestrian A3, with an approximately 1-inch lower ride height contributing significantly to its much-improved and more aggressive stance.
Very well. As mentioned, you won’t mistake the Audi S3 for a loosely disguised, street-legal DTM racer. Perhaps the biggest compliment we can pay it is this: Whereas the CLA45 feels, frankly, like a lesser AMG to drivers familiar with the rest of Mercedes’ tuned offerings, the S3 feels like an Audi S car in every way. Or put another way, the S3 is definitely more “S” than the CLA45 is “AMG.” Swap your S4 for an S3, and you won’t feel as though you’re losing anywhere near as much, if anything, compared to the perception you get when switching from a C63 AMG to a CLA45. The CLA45 might very well vanquish the S3 on a road course, or any type of course, but we’ll never pontificate on how the S3 might be diluting the line’s authenticity.
Without an opportunity to run official numbers testing, Audi’s claimed 4.7-second 0-60 time (using launch control) feels legitimate, and the new engine is a highlight. Torque, torque and more torque are familiar refrains if you’ve read our early impressions of the Euro-spec Golf R, and the story is of course the same here. Turbo lag is a non-issue unless you do something silly, like coasting down to about 10-15 mph in second gear and expecting instant response when you step back on the throttle. Otherwise, the boost gauge on the instrument cluster is nothing but a boy-racer gimmick, in the sense that it is unnecessary: You’re almost always on-boost.
The cockpit environment is outstandingly simple, with few buttons and switches cluttering the dash and center console. Retract the thin display screen into the dash, and the design is stunningly clean. Materials are all top-notch, per Audi’s specialty, and S3-specific trim includes contrasting stitching, an S3 logo embossed on the seatbacks, brushed aluminum inlays and a chunky, flat-bottomed, S3-logo-adorned sport steering wheel.
Starting with the steering wheel, the S3 just -- and here’s that word again -- feels right. There’s a small dead zone on-center, but otherwise the steering makes hitting your marks an easy proposition.
Larger wheels and tires, and Audi's magnetic-ride suspension, help the S3 raise its game.
PHOTO BY AUDI
The cars we sampled all featured magnetic-ride suspension, which offers three settings: comfort, auto and dynamic. There is almost certainly a group of buyers out there who will prefer comfort mode, but we are not among it. In comfort, the S3’s body control is just a wee bit too floaty for our taste, though it does a good job of preventing bumps from transferring into the cabin. Auto mode is where most will land for a majority of driving scenarios; it offers a noticeable reduction in untoward body motion without transferring much secondary ride frequency to your backside. Dynamic mode tightens up and ties down everything further, but with more harshness making itself known, though it remains plenty comfortable on all but worse-than-average roads.
Want to play? Switch everything -- steering, suspension, engine/gearbox mapping and engine sound (a “sound actuator” behind the firewall adds to the effect, but at least it is “real” noise and not synthetic) -- to dynamic mode. It makes stringing together a series of corners quite satisfying. The sound actuator, along with valves in the exhaust, gives the 2.0 a nice, deep voice. The throttle is aggressive in this mode, so some might prefer the auto setting if smooth inputs are not their strong suit.
Audi’s dual-clutch transmission snaps off gear changes as quick as ever, and left-foot braking -- if you’re into that sort of thing -- is a snap thanks to a well-placed pedal. (Editor’s Note: Do we even need to say that no manual transmission is available? Probably, because like many of our readers we remain naively optimistic whenever a sporty new car appears. But welcome to 2014. At least BMW remains loyal to the cause, so give a point to the 235i.) The S3 carries plenty of speed into corners with well-controlled poise; understeer is always waiting for you at the limit, but we were pleased with how hard we could push the chassis before encountering much of it. Likewise, you can pilot the S3 sedately and comfortably for both long and short stretches, which is how most of these cars will live their lives (see below).
Audi’s 2015 S3 doesn’t boast any one characteristic -- well, there’s the engine, but you’ll be able to get your hands on it cheaper in the Golf R -- alone that makes you want to rush out and drive for driving’s sake; another example of the difference between a sporty sedan and a full-on sports sedan a la BMW or Mercedes. But the sum of its parts, the package’s cohesiveness and trueness to its Audi S nomenclature is undeniably its strongest selling point.
At $41,995, the S3 is not the cheapest ticket in the daily driver, all-’rounder park, but it’s one of the best in terms of compact sedan new-car driving satisfaction, build quality and duality of purpose. After experiencing it again firsthand, we don’t doubt Audi reps when they say the company is not yet sure exactly what type of buyer the S3 will attract. The reason for their apparent caginess? This car, like the regular A3, has potential to satisfy an enormously wide demographic swath, perhaps more than any in the company’s present lineup.
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