Audi S3 – 2017
When someone hands you the keys to an Audi S3, your heart rate is gonna go up. There’s nothing you can do about it. After all, just look at that blazing Vegas Yellow paint job. Those 19-inch Audi Sport titanium-matte wheels wearing summer performance Pirelli P Zeroes. That black Nappa leather interior with the thickly padded S Sport seats and racy flat-bottom steering wheel. Or check the spec sheet: 292-horsepower turbo four, quattro all-wheel drive, adaptive magnetorheological shocks, 6-speed dual-clutch automatic shifter. Mmmmm. Can we go now?
That’s precisely how I felt when this little beast showed up on my doorstep. Deadlines? Uh, might be a little late this time. I’ve got an S3 calling my name.
I’ve always been a fan of the “S” model cars from the sorcerers of Ingolstadt. “Regular” Audis are appealing enough already, but with an S version you gain an edginess, flashier materials, more dramatic styling elements, and a whole lotta hard-charging pony power. The S3 sedan is no different. You can see the muscle bulging right out of those conventional A3 clothes. Careful, it might bite.
The 2017 edition arrives with mostly minor but welcome updates. The new face is more angular and aggressive, with LED headlights standard (as are LED taillights). Torque is now managed with “RS Strategy,” which biases the distribution far more toward the rear. Reworked front and rear diffs can each manage 100 percent of the torque, as required. Standard quattro all-wheel drive is improved thanks to better integration with the on-board stability-control system.
More significant, though, is the addition of Audi’s Virtual Cockpit instrument display, an optional, multi-function color screen set right in front of the driver where the main gauges usually go. More on that in a moment.
The S3 lights off with an emphatic rumble that leaves no doubt there’s something special under that glowing hood. I got to find out right away as I merged onto LA’s 405 freeway and flattened the gas. Oooooohhhh, sweeeeeet! The direct-injection turbo four is a fiery devil, able to kick the S3 to 60 mph in just 4.7 seconds and on to a governed 155 mph top end. It seems to fall off a bit just before redline, so I found myself shifting early with the paddles, but with max torque available at just 1,900 rpm the mill has plenty of range.
On the highway, the S3 will surge smartly forward in top gear with just a nudge of the gas. The shifter itself delivers quick and efficient gear-changes when summoned manually, and in full-auto mode remains eager to change up or down to keep the turbo on the boil. One complaint: even in manual, the tranny always upshifts automatically at redline. There’s no holding the engine at the top of the tach as you scream through a turn; the box is gonna shift on its own.
Steering is quicker than an A3’s, of course, and selecting Dynamic mode on the Drive Select system adds some heft to the feel. I had a blast hurling the S3 through my favorite Malibu mountain passes, but as with most Audis, grip eventually gives way to understeer. It’s entirely predictable, though, and simply easing off the throttle a tad will bring you right back on course.
The ride, aided by those optional magnetic shocks, is firm without being overly so, and in any case a simple toggle of Drive Select allows tailoring the suspension response (along with the throttle, steering, and exhaust) from Dynamic into Comfort, Individual, or Auto modes. In Individual, you can separately adjust the steering feel, suspension stiffness, throttle response, and exhaust action into a recipe that’s all yours. Dial up your pre-set Individual mode before a good mountain romp, then dial back to Comfort when ferrying the kiddies to school. Everyone wins.
To me, Audi cockpits rank among the most sophisticated and attractive in the auto world, and the S3’s is all that and then some. The optional S Sport seats ($1,450) fit like a tailored suit and cradle you like a friendly bear. The perforated leather wheel is stellar. And the technological systems are as advanced as they are abundant. My tester was outfitted with the optional Prestige package ($5,500), which adds everything from navigation to rear-cross traffic alerts, active lane assist, adaptive cruise control (which can bring the car to a full stop and automatically re-accelerate when able), and an impressive Bang & Olufsen audio system.
The star of the Prestige option, though, is that new Virtual Cockpit. Instead of a conventional speedo, tach, an ancillary gauges, the virtual screen features a single 12.3-inch color display capable of showcasing a combination of engine instruments, navigation maps, phone and media info, and more. Until you’ve seen a foot-wide, high-res, moving Google Earth 3D map with highlighted nav instructions scrolling right alongside your digital tachometer, speedometer, and music-system selection, you haven’t realized how much you’ve always wanted a dash like this. Depending on your whims, using the large MMI controller in the center console or buttons on the wheel, you can call up screens that highlight the moving map, or the infotainment system, or big standard gauges, or a number of other configurations. There’s a lot of data arrayed on that giant pad, but in typical Audi fashion, it’s beautifully laid-out and a joy to use. For sure, you’ll be seeing more and more dash displays like this in the future.
There’s a lot to love about the S3 — speed, build quality, refined rakishness — but no review of the car would be complete without mentioning the elephant in the room. This sleek, high-velocity four-door starts at $43,850 and climbs fast with options. My test car, equipped with the above-mentioned add-ons plus the $2,000 Black Optik package (including the big wheels and tires, mag-ride shocks, and various exterior upgrades), checked in at $52,600.
That’s getting up there, and that brings us to the “elephant:” Volkswagen’s Golf R. It’s got the same powertrain, same all-wheel-drive system, and basically the same architecture underneath. And with a lot of the same equipment (including a dual-clutch shifter) you can get one for $40,195. Mind you, the Veedub is nowhere near as luxe inside as the S3, and it lacks a lot of the Audi’s cutting-edge tech (including that fabulous Virtual Cockpit), but for a driver hungering only for the main go-fast ingredients, the Golf R offers a value proposition that can’t be ignored.
Whatever the bottom line, though, the S3 deserves its admirers. Plenty of Audi fans have proven themselves willing to pay to fly first-class; there’s no question the S3 ups the ante on style and savoir faire over its VW pretender. Ah, that reminds me of yet another monkey wrench I should throw into the discussion: Coming this summer is the new 2017 Audi RS 3—with 400 horsepower and priced around $55-60K. Wow. Maybe what you’re really going to want to do is spend even more.