Ever-greater numbers of drivers want to ride up high and surround themselves with excess sheetmetal. And yet, as enthusiasts know, lower, smaller automobiles are inherently more responsive and rewarding. A good example of that truism is the latest Audi S3. Audi’s smallest and least expensive S model, the S3 skipped the 2021 model year but returns for 2022 boasting more power, sharper looks, and a reworked cabin.
In contrast to the creeping gigantism of today’s fleet, the shrink-to-fit S3 feels tidy and maneuverable—it’s just over an inch longer and less than an inch taller and wider than before. The size and packaging remind us of the well-regarded B5-generation Audi S4—which back in the Y2K era vanquished the BMW M3, the Mercedes-Benz C43 AMG, and the Saab 9-3 Viggen in a comparison test.
Today, the S3 runs with the BMW M235i Gran Coupe, the Mercedes-AMG CLA35 (the A35 has been dropped), and the Cadillac CT4-V. The last time we gathered that crew together, the Audi wasn’t available, and the Cadillac ran away with a victory. But the Caddy has a built-in advantage with its longitudinal engine and rear-wheel-drive architecture. The S3 is more closely matched with the BMW and Mercedes offerings.
We’re fans of the S3’s well-proportioned styling, which stands in contrast to Mercedes and BMW’s slightly awkwardly small sports sedans. Credit, perhaps, Audi’s long experience designing for front-wheel-drive platforms (the S3 rides on the VW Group’s MQB architecture). The Audi’s new look is edgier with boxed fender blisters that are a nod to the original Audi Quattro coupe, 18- or 19-inch wheels, and a widened hex-shaped grille.
Despite being the least expensive Audi to wear an S badge, the S3 is plenty quick. The model now wrings 306 horsepower from its turbocharged 2.0-liter four, an 18-hp improvement over the last S3 and more than 50 percent better than the A3. And 295 pound-feet of torque are on tap from 3000 rpm, another hefty increase over the A3, which has 221. Thus fortified, the S3 rips to 60 mph in 4.3 seconds (down from 4.5 previously). It also dispatches the quarter-mile in 12.9 seconds at 108 mph. Those numbers put the S3 in a virtual dead heat with the BMW, Mercedes, and Cadillac.
All-wheel drive is standard here, which helps put the power down and keep torque steer at bay. Once again, the engine mates with a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic, and it delivers snappy shifts and smooth, lurch-free engagement at low speeds. In Dynamic mode, the engine emits a characterful exhaust note quite unlike the typical bleating of a direct-injected four. This comes courtesy of a “soundaktor,” a firewall-mounted speaker that amplifies the engine’s sound.
The more powerful 2.0-liter also notches better EPA numbers than its predecessor: 23/32 mpg city/highway (matching the segment-leading M235i), up from 22/29 mpg. And in our 75-mph highway fuel-economy test, the S3 hit the mark, returning 32 mpg. Yet another bonus afforded by compact sports sedans.
The S3 comes standard with a sport suspension that has a 0.6-inch-lower ride height than the A3. Our test car added adaptive dampers, part of the $1100 S Sport package. They make for a wide performance band, stiffening up significantly in Dynamic mode and delivering impressive compliance in Comfort. Even on the larger, 19-inch wheels wrapped with low-profile Bridgestone Potenza S005 summer tires, ride quality is far better than the flinty ride found in the BMW and Mercedes offerings—and marginally better than the S3’s platform-mate, the Volkswagen Golf R.
Ah, but the Golf R adds a torque-vectoring rear differential that helps it achieve remarkable balance when cornering—the S3 is missing that trick rear hardware and understeers resolutely at the track. Still, it hangs on for 0.96 g of grip, and driven briskly on public roads, the S3 is responsive and rewarding. Steering effort levels are acceptable no matter the drive mode: neither too heavy in Dynamic nor too light in Comfort. Although not particularly tactile, the helm is reassuringly progressive, and its precision imparts confidence that we found much welcome when passing lane-weaving dawdlers on New York’s narrow and winding Taconic Parkway. The S3 also is fitted with larger brake rotors that hauled the car down from 70 mph in a tidy 151 feet.
The driving position is excellent, and the S3’s high-back bucket seats do a good job of holding you in place without being confining, although the headrests are not adjustable. In back, it’s a fairly snug fit, although a six-footer can squeeze in behind a similar-size driver.
The new S3 interior has lots of gloss-black trim and a fair bit of hard plastic—the visual panache comes from the aggressively angular design theme and the multiple screens. We like the highly configurable 12.3-inch digital instrument cluster, part of the Technology package (a 10.3-inch display is standard). The 10.1-inch central touchscreen is not only larger than the old car’s but is now integrated into the dash rather than propped atop it like a billboard. The home screen can show three functions at once, which is great, but the interaction has some annoyances. The volume knob has been replaced by a console-mounted, iPod-style inset wheel (which also skips tracks). And the lack of a tuning knob has us longing for the old car’s rotary controller.
After gorging itself at the options buffet, our test car’s $46,895 base price swelled to $56,840. That starting figure, though, is about the same as a Golf R. The VW is more powerful, sharper handling, and offers a manual. Maybe, though, you prefer the S3’s upscale styling, superior ride, and less awful driver interface. Either way, good(-driving) things come in small packages.
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