Thursday
Apr142016

Test Drive: 2016 Audi S3

As their bread and butter sales models have grown larger and more expensive over the last several years, the top three premium European auto manufacturers have introduced new entry-level models to the U.S. market to appeal to more budget-conscious buyers. Audi has the A3, BMW has the 2 Series and Mercedes has the CLA. Thankfully, all three of them have also built high-performance versions of those cars, which combine their smaller proportions and lighter weight with more horsepower, which is almost always a good combination. Audi’s S3, for example, is clearly based on the $30,900 A3 sedan, but it’s a big step up in performance, street presence, and price.

The Audi A3 is a fine car and must be selling well based on the numbers I see on the roads in northern NewJersey, but the S3 is the car to go for if you’re really into performance. While the standard A3 with the 2-liter turbocharged four (a 1.8-liter turbocharged four is also available) makes a respectable 220hp and 258 lb-ft of torque, the S3 is pumped up to a more entertaining 292hp and 280 lb-ft of torque, which cuts the 0-60 time to 4.7 seconds, over a full second faster than the A3. That’s also just a tenth slower than the six-cylinder BMW M235i, which is also more expensive. Speaking of price, the S3 starts at $42,500, which includes standard Quattro all-wheel drive, a quick-shifting six-speed dual-clutch automatic (a manual transmission is not available on the S3) and leather seats.

There’s no mistaking the S3 for anything but an Audi when you see it, and its aggressive front face andmuscular proportions along with the dual exhausts are very eye-catching. It has nice proportions and lines and looks good from every angle, which is not something that can be as easily said for its competitors from BMW and Mercedes. Inside, the S3 is attractive and simple, with relatively few buttons and switches and a slick MMI display that can drop down into the dash when you want it to. The leather-wrapped flat-bottomed steering wheel feels good in the hands and gives a touch of motorsport pizzazz in the cockpit, and it also leaves more room for knees. Our test car had the optional S Sport seat package ($1,450) which had stitching that was overdone, though the seats were comfortable and supportive.

Like the other Audi “S” models I’ve driven like the S4 and S5, the S3 is a great mix of practicality, luxury and performance. It can accelerate to 60 in well under five seconds but can also deliver 31mph on the highway. It’s comfortable to take on long interstate trips but is also adept at tackling twisty back roads and would even be fun to take to a track day. It’s brawny enough to turn heads but not so flashy that it draws the attention of the police. The engine is peppy and accelerates well, though there is a bit of turbo lag when you first get on the throttle. On twisty roads, there’s a bit of understeer on turning in to corners, but overall it’s nicely balanced and the Quattro all-wheel drive helps it power out of corners with authority.

Audi offers three different drive modes for the S3, with Comfort, Auto and Dynamic settings that make adjustments to the engine/transmission response, steering assist and engine sound. I found it best to leave it in Auto mode for just about every driving situation, though I did often put it in Dynamic mode on back roads. There’s also an Individual setting that allows for the driver to choose his own settings for each of those areas. The steering feel is typical of cars with electric power steering assist in that it’s on the light side and tends to feel too artificial in the Dynamic mode that adds a bit of weight to it, but it does have better overall feel in the hands than the BMW 2 Series.  

Overall, I found the S3 to be a very attractive and entertaining car, with enough excitement at the wheel to keep things interesting, and there were few drawbacks. If I had to nitpick, I would like to have a bit less turbo lag and a bit more steering feel, and it would be nice to have the option of a manual transmission. It’s nice to have the practicality of four doors, but there’s not much back seat room in the S3, and the trunk is also on the small side. I could easily live with those minor shortcomings though. As good as it is, Audi is looking to one-up the S3 when the long-rumored RS3 comes to the market in late 2017 as a 2018 model with more power and performance. I can’t wait to drive it.

More info: www.audiusa.com


Base MSRP

$42,500

Engine

Turbocharged four-cylinder, 16-valve DOHC

Power

292hp @ 5,400 – 6,200rpm

Torque

280 lb-ft @ 1,900 – 5,300rpm

0-60mph

4.7 seconds

Transmission

Six-speed dual-clutch transmission

Suspension

MacPherson strut front, four-link rear suspension

Brakes

13.4” front vented discs, 12.2” vented rear discs

Fuel economy

23 city / 31 highway

Curb weight

3,462 lbs.

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