Small luxury is a big deal these days, with ever more high-end brands introducing premium small cars.
Engine: 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder; 292 hp, 280 lb-ft
Transmission: Six-speed dual-clutch automatic
Fuel Economy: 23 miles per gallon city, 31 highway, 26 MPG combined
As-Tested Price: $48,045 including $895 in destination charges
Audi, Acura and even Mercedes-Benz field offerings in this bourgeoning segment. Products like the ILX and CLA-Class provide uplevel amenities in pint-sized packages, but what about performance? Is there room for speed when a vehicle is saddled with a diminutive trunk, abbreviated wheelbase and small back seat?
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Well, the short answer is yes. The folks in Stuttgart are fielding their muscular CLA45 AMG, which is plenty potent courtesy of the turbocharged 355-hp engine residing beneath its low-slung hood. Not to be outdone by their Swabian rivals, team Audi offers a hopped-up version of its formidable A3 sedan.
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Nestled behind its ubiquitous single-frame grille is the S3’s high-performance heart, an engine that’s made largely of cast gray-iron, a metallurgical solution that sounds decidedly Victorian. Is this a steam-powered cotton gin or a modern performance sedan? Fortunately, the figures this force-fed four-pot delivers are anything but old fashioned.
The S3 is propelled to tremendous velocity by a 2.0-liter turbocharged engine. If this powerplant sounds familiar, it ought to; in various flavors, it’s used across the sprawling Volkswagen Group empire. However, in this application, it has received significant attention. With reinforced connecting rods, new piston rings and a redesigned blower, it delivers 292 stallions and 280 lb-ft of torque. A six-speed S tronic dual-clutch automatic is the sole transmission offered. Naturally, Audi’s industry-leading quattro all-wheel-drive system is standard, and much-appreciated.
Despite weighing 3,450 pounds the S3 can hit 60 miles an hour in just 4.7 seconds, a figure that’s pretty damn respectable. The CLA45 AMG, this car’s main rival, is grossly more powerful with 355 horses on tap, yet it scampers to mile-a-minute speed just two-tenths of a second quicker than the S3. How can this be? Well, my money’s on the fact that this little Audi is significantly underrated. Anyone care to strap one to a chassis dyno to find out?
Curiously, the fuel economy of these two competitors is identical. They both stickier at 23 miles per gallon city, 31 highway and 26 combined.
Looking the Part, Playing the Role
Buttoning things up outside, the S3 is separated from mainline A3s by a number of things. Quad exhaust tips embellish its back end and provide a sporty look, the side-view mirrors are dressed up with aluminum-like trim, its trunk gains a tasteful lip spoiler and the car rides on standard 18-inch wheels. Opting for the $1,500 performance package nets you 19s as well as summer tires and adjustable magnetic dampers.
Moving inward, the S3’s cabin is appropriately premium, if not overwhelmingly rich. Material quality is high and fit and finish is perfect. Audi is the king of thoughtful touches and despite this being its smallest offering in America, it still impresses. The way its navigation screen tucks into the dashboard looks incredibly expensive, the air vents feel like they were crafted by a jeweler, even its MMI controls are amazingly premium. Rivals may have caught up in certain areas of interior design and execution, but Audi is still the master.
Every version of the A3 , S or otherwise, comes with leather, a panoramic power sunroof, Bluetooth and dual-zone climate control. Xenon front lamps with LED daytime running lights are included at no extra cost as well.
Up front, this car’s accommodations are acceptably comfortable with 12-way adjustable buckets. Outward visibility is unobstructed, thanks to narrow pillars. Unfortunately, the S3’s rear seats are less commodious. Six-footers will fit, but head room is a little tight as is knee space, though it’s not that bad, considering how small this car is; its wheelbase spans 103.6 inches and its overall length is a curt 175.9 inches. This means the S3 is smaller than a Dodge Dart or even a Ford Focus.
Not surprisingly, this car’s trunk is quite compact, measuring a petite 10 cubic feet, roughly the size of a Dora the Explorer backpack though with fewer rhinestones.
International Flair, Multicultural Flavor
A quick glance at the window sticker reveals that this car was built in Hungary. In fact, 37 percent of its parts content is from this enigmatic Central European country. Perhaps that’s why it smells like paprika inside.
Fifty-six percent of the S3’s remaining components are sourced from good ol’ Germany, but by my calculation, that only adds up to 93 percent. Hmmm, perhaps they just forgot the remaining 7 percent. Is anyone else craving goulash?
While the Monroney is out, it’s a good time to cover pricing. The S3 starts at about $42,000, though the test model we evaluated stickered for a double-take-inducing $48,045, including $895 in delivery charges. Just because this car is small doesn’t mean it’s cheap.
Likewise, don’t think it’s slow simply because it has a four-cylinder engine. The first thing you’ll probably notice while piloting the S3 is just how fleet it is. Power manifests rather high up the tachometer, really kicking off at roughly 3,000 rpm and sticking around until about six grand on the rev counter. The turbocharger takes a little time to hit with full force, but once it’s spooled up, the engine pulls really well. You’re never wanting for power in this car.
Like other Volkswagen/Audi dual-clutch transmissions, this one shifts with crazy speed whether you tap a paddle shifter or let the gearbox do its own thing; it’s just so fast! But I did notice, particularly with the car in dynamic mode, it can judder at times, particularly while taking off from a stop. Occasionally, the transmission can also feel a bit jumpy. Overall it’s not as refined as it could – or perhaps – should be for luxury-car duty.
Despite its small size and VW bones – remember, the S3 rides atop Volkswagen’s MQB architecture – road holding and steering feel are commendable. There’s a lot of grip, especially with the summer rubber and the wheel strikes a great balance between comfort and sport.
While in motion, my complaints are minor. The ride is be a bit harsh in dynamic mode, but if you regularly drive on bombed-out pavement just switch the Audi Drive Select system over to comfort, or adjust its dampers in the individual setting to soften things considerably. Another drawback is the braking system. There’s nothing wrong with the way it functions, but the pedal is a little too touchy, especially at low speeds.
The Verdict: 2015 Audi S3 Review
The 2015 S3 is surprisingly luxurious, quite entertaining and reasonably comfortable for such a small car. But there’s one glaring issue: pricing.
It’s simply too expensive. For the money Audi wants, I’d rather have an entry-level Mustang GT and pocket the 14 grand and change. Of course, the Ford is down two doors and lacks all-wheel drive, but it’s got a stellar V8. If cabin space were mission critical, I’d also spring for a Chevy SS sedan, which, like the ‘Stang, is available with a manual transmission as well, something that’s sadly lacking in the S3.
Sure, it’s an entertaining little car but if you really want performance and value counts there are better options.
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