2015 Audi S3 First Drive
If there has been one constant in Audi's products of late, it's consistency. Consistency in design, in engineering, in technology, in handling, and in its approach to building cars. You climb into any modern Audi and know how it will look, how it will drive, and how it will take care of you. The key here, of course, is that it's all been consistently good, and the new S3 is no exception.
The new S3 drives like a smaller S4, and whether from your own experience or from our reviews, you'll know it's good. Obviously, there are some differences. The new S3 is based on front-drive architecture but of course comes with standard Quattro all-wheel drive. It employs a 2.0-liter turbocharged engine that Audi says produces between 290 and 300 horsepower, rather than the S4's supercharged V-6. It's also offered with a six-speed dual-clutch gearbox only, though the Audi people hint that there's a glimmer of hope for a six-speed manual if the market demands one. (Don't get your hopes up.)
Of course, there are differences. Per Audi's specs, the S3 should weigh about 600 pounds less than the last S4 we tested. You'd think that would significantly affect the way the car drives, but lo and behold, it drives like an Audi S model. That is to say it has absolutely tremendous grip and is probably making more than the advertised horsepower. One Audi official let slip that the engine, if so tuned, is easily good for 320 or more horsepower, and it feels like it. The official specs say it'll hit 60 mph in 5.3 seconds, but here again, the Audi people say it'll do better. Under 5 seconds, they tell me. The S4, in case you're wondering, does it in 4.4 seconds.
What this means on the road is that the S3 is super-quick and very, very confident. The DSG dual-clutch gearbox is in peak form, shifting lightning-quick and with almost no perceptible interruption in power, going up or down. The transmission programming, like other Audis, is quickly approaching Porsche's vaunted PDK gearbox in terms of accurately predicting when you'll want an up- or downshift. The only way I could throw it off was climbing some incredibly tight, 180-degree, uphill switchbacks in the mountains outside of Monaco, where it was hesitant to drop all the way to first gear rather than lug itself out in second. The Quattro powertrain made putting the power down an easy exercise, again foiled only by those ridiculous switchbacks, and even then only with the slightest slip of the inside rear wheel, which was quickly dealt with by the stability control.
If there's a drawback in the powertrain, it's in the power delivery. As you might expect with a highly boosted four-cylinder, there's some turbo lag down low. The car doesn't feel slow off-boost, but there's no mistaking when the turbo wakes up. The power comes in a big surge as the revs climb into the midrange and pulls all the way to redline. This means that the S3 is best enjoyed on the boil. If the revs drop too low in the midrange, you'll have to wait half a beat for the boost to fully come up, and if you somehow let the revs drop down to the bottom of the range, there'll be a palpable pause as the turbo finds its way back into the game. Keep the revs high, though, and you'll surf a wave of power from gear to gear that's quite addicting. It almost makes you a little disappointed when you see an extremely tight corner coming up, because you know the revs will come down. Fortunately, there are paddles for that, and they work very well, except for an auto-upshift at redline in manual mode.
If there's a key difference between how the S3 drives and how other Audi S models drive, it's right here. The linearity of power delivery found in other Audis allows them to dig hard out of all corners and take off like a rocket every time, without even thinking about it. The S3 requires just a little more forethought to keep the revs up. Likewise, the S3 doesn't rotate on corner exit like the S4 or S7 with their aggressive rear differentials. The S3 just grips and goes -- no drama, no flash.
While it may not be quite as wild in corner exit as its bigger brothers, the S3 certainly gets the job done. That grip-and-go nature lets you throw the car just about as hard as you like at a corner and come out the other side smelling like a rose. Public mountain roads were no match for its grip and exposed no great flaw in its handling. Sharp turns, quick transitions, and bumpy pavement were all handled with total control and confidence. I was able to induce only the slightest hint of understeer by getting really aggressive with those switchbacks. Even then, it was nothing to write home about. It's very unlikely any owner of this car will ever see a big understeer or oversteer event on public roads without either some extreme weather or some extremely bad driving involved.
The S3's brakes are equally impressive. An hour of punishing braking events ahead of some seriously tight corners worked them hard enough to make them smell, but not enough to get them to fade. Pedal response remained linear and the bite strong no matter how much we exercised it.
The steering, like in every other Audi S model, is very quick and very sharp, but transmits virtually no road feel. The weight is good, and it builds nicely as you turn. The variable-ratio steering rack takes some getting used to, as the steering speed ramps up suddenly when you turn the wheel past a certain point. In some tight corners you'll find that you're suddenly introducing too much steering and need to back out a little.
When you're not driving like you stole it, the S3 will also be a very nice commuter. Set to Comfort mode rather than Dynamic, the steering effort drops considerably, becoming very light and easy to till. The ride, which was quite stiff but never harsh, loosens up and transmits far less movement to the cabin from the road's bumps. The decently gruff engine note quiets down as an exhaust valve closes and the throttle and shift sensitivity back off.
Taken as an everyday car, the S3 is a strong player. The rear seat is large for the class, offering a surprising amount of legroom. Hip and shoulder room are good, too, and while there's a decent amount of headroom, it feels a little claustrophobic, as the roof rail is always sitting right in your peripheral vision, just far enough out of the way that it's not a problem but just near enough to be noticed. The trunk is large and more limited by the opening than its actual dimensions. The lid opens itself smoothly and hides its hinges so as not to crush your luggage.
Up front, the sport seats are plenty comfortable for everyday driving, but they're not particularly aggressive for canyon driving and could use more side bolstering for that. The latest MMI system is a slick as ever, responding quickly while generating crisp, detailed graphics. Its only real fault lies in the touchpad on the MMI wheel, which reads your touch perfectly well but only understands the letter you're drawing correctly about 80 percent of the time.
Audi hasn't announced pricing for the new S3, but we can take a guess based on other S models. The S4 is 40 percent or so more expensive to start than the A4, so given the A3's starting price of just over $30,000, plan on spending in the neighborhood of $40,000 to pick one up when they go on sale in late summer 2014. That's a lot of coin to be sure, but consider that it drives as well as a Mercedes-Benz CLA45 AMG while being only marginally slower in a straight line, and that the Benz starts at more than $48,000. Unlike the Benz, the S3 even has a comfortable back seat and a usable trunk, not to mention a sharper interior. In all, if you're looking for a lot of performance in the compact luxury segment without spending midsize luxury money, the S3 is the car for you.
|2015 Audi S3|
|Base price||$40,000 (MT est)|
|Engine||2.0L/295-hp (est)/280-lb-ft (est) turbocharged DOHC I-4|
|Curb weight||3200 lb (mfr)|
|Length x width x height||175.9 x 70.7 x 54.8 in|
|0-60 MPH||4.9 sec (MT est)|
|EPA city/hwy fuel econ||Not yet rated|
|Energy cons., city/hwy||Not yet rated|
|CO2 emissions||Not yet rated|
|On-sale in U.S.||August 2014|