But let’s not kid ourselves. The 2015 Audi S3 is awfully close to being pretty freaking perfect.
THE GOOD • So much power • Impressive interior • Grip for days • Handsome exterior • Audi Drive Select is key
• No manual-trans available
• Steering could be slightly quicker • Ride quality is jarring • Bit of low-end DSG and/or turbo lag • Golf R, anyone?
If you think the A3 on which it’s based, the smallest Audi sedan, is just a little too cutesy, the S3’s menacing bodywork and wheel-hugging stance add just the right aura of aggression.
Those who believe the BMW M235i’s coupe bodystyle is too impractical find in the S3 a proper cabin for a small family. Others may feel the Mercedes-Benz CLA45 AMG simply doesn’t feel sufficiently classy inside, but the S3’s interior makes it feel like a $65,000 car for a $55,000 price.
But you’re right, it isn’t perfect.
2015 AUDI S3 TECHNIK Base Price: $47,495 As-Tested Price: $54,845 Drive Type: all-wheel-drive
Transmission:6-speed direct-shift gearbox
NRCAN OEE City: 10.1 L/100km NRCAN OEE Hwy: 7.7 L/100km Observed: 24.2 mpg Observed: 9.7 L/100km
Canadian dollar price includes $2095 in fees.
The manual transmission you can select in its architectural sibling, the Volkswagen Golf R, is not an option on the Audi’s spec sheet.
The steering, though operable in Audi Drive Select’s three different modes, never quite feels adequately pointy and direct, though to what degree that can be blamed on the brutally noisy winter tires we do not yet know.
The rear seat and trunk are fine for a family with children, but my five-foot-seven-inch mother didn’t want to be back there for any length of time.
As always in a premium German car, some of the features you expect in a much less costly volume car from Kia or Toyota aren’t even on the options sheet: cooled front seats, for example, or heated rear seats.
Finally, the ride quality can be downright jarring, and even in Comfort mode, the S3 thwacks at potholes and jiggles about over an imperfectly paved bridge. With coastal roads in Nova Scotia being what they are, which is to say mostly brutal, the dampers’ middle Auto and stiffest Dynamic settings were rarely selected after initial forays.
From there on out, however, it’s a love fest. Audi engineers struck a balance between making this third-generation S3 (the first S3 in North America) a clinical beast and a tactile delight. As a result, the Audi S3 provides its driver with enough interactivity to be driven and not just experienced, but not so much responsiveness that the S3 can’t be considered refined.
If there’s a particular aspect of the 2015 Audi S3 with which you’ll wish to interact, it’ll be the 292-horsepower 2.0L turbocharged four-cylinder known in VW Group speak as the EA888. One prod of the throttle is all it takes to forget the 250-horsepower 3.2L V6 of the last A3.
All-wheel-drive means traction is of no concern. Pin the throttle and accelerate to 100 km/h in less than five seconds. No fuss, no muss. The S3 is propelled forward seemingly without effort; with none of the heavy breathing of a former athlete lacking proper conditioning; springing out of the starting block like a track star of the moment.
With maximum torque achieved at such low rpm and prodigious power available across the rev range, the kind of acceleration you experienced from rest is the kind of acceleration you can experience at cruising altitude on the highway. Where conditions, laws, and traffic permit, of course.
Yet that engine, like the transmission, exhaust noise, steering, and suspension, can take on a whole new personality at the press of a button just above the driver’s climate control knob; just under the air vent. Audi Drive Select is a wonderful thing because it provides such consequential alterations.
In Comfort, the steering is lighter, the engine less antsy, the transmission less aggressive, the noise more muted, the suspension more tolerable.
Drive Select’s Auto setting increases steering weight, upgrades engine responsiveness, doesn’t slur a shift, bumps up the volume, and stiffens the suspension.
Dynamic is where the S3 truly shines as a performance car; as a true back road barn burner. Throttle response becomes more urgent, the steering becomes rather heavy, the 6-speed dual-clutch automatic is now snapping off shifts, the exhaust burbles compellingly, the suspension is too stiff for roads that aren’t smooth.
Better yet, there’s an Individual setting accessible through Audi’s MMI (more about which in a moment) that enables you to select Comfort, Auto, or Dynamic for any one of Drive Select’s features, including the adaptive cruise control. This is ideal, because with the dampers/suspension in Comfort, the steering in Auto, and everything else in Dynamic, the S3’s owner can create a better Dynamic mode than the full-on Dynamic mode configured by Audi.
Althougb there’s a quick access button for Audi Drive Select, the functions can also be operated through Audi’s Multi Media Interface. The buttons and rotary knob are located between the front seats. The screen pops up out of the dash when the car is turned on. (The screen isn’t isn’t perched like it is in the Mercedes-Benz CLA and can be told to go away with a button located near the passenger climate control knob.) MMI may not be the fastest infotainment unit you’ll use in a new car, but it’s among the most intuitive and elegant systems marketed today.
The MMI controls, like every other piece of fabric, stitching, and plastic, are perfectly assembled and are clearly sourced from a supplier focussed on high quality materials. That’s an Audi hallmark, but it’s especially vital in a car like an upper-trim, heavily optioned S3. In so many vehicles of this type – by which we mean luxxed up, performance versions of lesser cars – there are constant reminders of the donor vehicle’s lower status.
The S3 Technik with $5150 in options costs is more than $20,000 more expensive, 67% more expensive, than a basic A3. But the S3 does not feel like a $55,000 version of a $33,000 car. It feels like a $55,000 car. Sure, a Hyundai Genesis V6 AWD offers more space and stuff for the money, of that there is no doubt. But the Audi S3, a smaller car with far greater performance, doesn’t feel out of its league in comparison with luxury cars that always do their punching in this weight class.
There is one car that does stand out as the ideal S3 alternative. No, not the two-door-only BMW M235i, not the mighty-engined but disappointingly appointed Mercedes-Benz CLA45 AMG, and not the more affordable mechanical twin of the S3, Volkswagen’s hatchback Golf. (An Audi sedan buyer wants an Audi sedan, right, not a VW hatch?) Rather, consider the aging Audi S4.
It offers a better back seat for humans, a significantly larger trunk for the stuff belonging to humans, an arguably superior 7-speed DSG and an available manual shifter, a soul-stirring supercharged V6, and superior exterior proportions. The S4’s interior is dated in comparison to the S3, but the car rides better overall and may better suit the mature performance car buyer. Free from options – Ha! A German luxury car with no options? – the S4 costs right around $55,000. Observed fuel economy? Last summer, we saw 10 L/100km in the S4. This year in the 2015 S3, we averaged 9.7 L/100km.
Yet if the S4 is somewhat more mature, the S3 is more fun, more agile, more spirited, more obviously interested in letting its hair down. And the S3 is also configurable with these optional $800 19-inch wheels, which are pretty freaking perfect.
Timothy Cain is the founder of GoodCarBadCar.net, which obsesses over the free and frequent publication of U.S. and Canadian auto sales figures. Follow on Twitter @goodcarbadcar and on Facebook.