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2015 Audi S3 U.S. Spec First Drive

The Gentleman's STI

Alex Nishimoto
Sep 22, 2014
Photo 2/41   |   2015 Audi S3 Front Three Quarters
A new turbocharged, all-wheel-drive compact with power right around the 300-hp mark has arrived, and it doesn’t sport a park bench-sized wing. The 2015 Audi S3 follows the familiar Audi S model formula, just scaled down to a level that’s fascinatingly close to another performance sedan from a different company.
We were invited to Austin, Texas, to drive the U.S.-spec 2015 Audi S3. The differences between this car and the one we drove in Europe late last year are minimal. Headlights differ slightly for our market, but xenon lamps still come standard, while full LED units are available. A six-speed manual transmission is available overseas, but alas, didn’t make the trip over to our shores. Having a quick-shifting six-speed DSG dual-clutch gearbox as the sole transmission choice isn’t such a bad consolation prize, however.
Our drive coincided with a large storm that made Austin’s roads more than a bit damp. But with Audi’s Quattro all-wheel drive system sorting things out underfoot, the bad weather was no big deal to the S3. Quattro proved its worth in the dry as well, affording tremendous grip through turns. That grip came in handy on our short drive on Austin's newest road course, the Circuit of the Americas. The S3 hugs apexes tightly, and so long as the revs are maintained, the car will explode out of corners, digging its tires into the tarmac as soon as throttle is applied. Despite being built on Volkswagen Group’s transverse-engine, front-drive MQB architecture, the S3 feels surprisingly neutral. Turn-in is quick with hardly any noticeable understeer. The speed-sensitive steering predictably varies the steering ratio depending on your pace, and doesn’t get in the way when hustling through a series of switchbacks. Steering feel is somewhat lacking, but inputs are transmitted quickly and precisely to the front wheels.
Photo 6/41   |   2015 Audi S3 Side In Motion
A turbocharged and direct-injected 2.0-liter TFSI inline-four provides power, and there's plenty of it. The U.S.-spec S3 is advertised to produce 292 hp and 280 lb-ft of torque, but from behind the wheel those numbers seem a tad underrated. There's this rush of power once you hit boost, at which point the car just keeps pulling and pulling. But off boost, the S3 doesn't feel much different from its A3 2.0T cousin. Helping to counter that reduced thrust down low is a launch mode, which allows you to build revs for more lively takeoffs.

Audi estimates the S3 can hit 60 mph from a standstill in 4.7 seconds. We didn't have the equipment to verify that on this trip, but regardless of how fast the S3 actually is, the launch mode experience is well worth the time it takes you to throw the gear selector into “S,” switch off traction control, and hold down both pedals. When you lift your foot off the brake, you're treated to some brief tire squeal before you're hurled forward at a rate quicker than you might expect, all while the throaty bark of the turbo-four reverberates through the cabin. The six-speed DSG almost makes you forget a manual option is available overseas, as it fires off quick shifts and keeps the engine within its sweet spot through turns.
Photo 7/41   |   2015 Audi S3 Front Three Quarter In Motion
Contributing to our S3’s handling ability was an optional $1500 performance package, which includes 19-inch alloy wheels wrapped in 235/35R19 summer tires and Audi’s magnetic ride system -- a segment exclusive, according to the automaker. Like other systems that use magnetic shocks, Audi’s dampers are filled with tiny particles of magnetic material submerged in oil, which change the flow inside the piston when a current is applied. The system constantly adapts to road conditions and driving style, and drivers can switch between three modes: comfort, auto, and dynamic. Comfort mode offered a smooth ride, while dynamic stiffened things up but was still very compliant over uneven surfaces.
Not surprisingly, the S3's interior is lifted almost straight out of the A3, with the same plasticky-but-soft-touch dash material, circular air vents, and the infotainment screen that rises out of the center stack. S3 door panels receive new "3D" inlays, while the pedals get aluminum inserts. The display is wafer-thin, and retracts at the push of a button when not needed -- a feature that proved useful at Circuit of the Americas, where the extra visibility was welcome. Driver's seat ergonomics are very good, with all the important controls placed easily within reach. An optional MMI touchpad that can read handwriting is convenient for inputting your destination into the available navigation system. That is, when it reads your character strokes correctly.
Photo 17/41   |   2015 Audi S3 Rear Three Quarters In Motion
The 2015 Audi S3 starts at $41,995 including destination, but can be loaded to just over $50,000 with options, as many of the cars available at the press launch were. If you just want turbocharged, all-wheel-drive thrills, you could opt for a Subaru WRX STI and save a couple grand. The ride would be harsher and the interior less premium in the STI, but performance would likely be close to the S3 (stay tuned for our instrumented tests on the Audi). But the S3 isn’t just more luxurious than Subaru’s rally-bred special, it feels more grown up, too. Its giant-slaying performance credentials come in addition to its sharp, understated styling and nicely appointed interior with useful tech features, all of which make the S3 a great alternative for the hooligan that has to wear a coat and tie every once in a while.

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