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"Sport sedan" is a squirrely noun that gives cover to a lot of wannabes. It's been mis-applied to cars with twenty more horsepower and some nicer wheels, all in the name of marketing.
With the 2015 Audi S3, "sport sedan" is a merit badge. The S3 strains with turbocharged acceleration at its four-wheeled leash, and zip-ties itself to the road with elated, elevated road manners. It pulls all the right levers except one--and that oversight has a readily available fix.
The S3 starts swinging for the sub-$40,000 lights this summer, seeking out first-time sport-sedan shoppers generally--and specifically, aiming itself right at Motor Authority's Best Car To Buy 2014, the Mercedes-Benz CLA45 AMG.
2015 Audi S3: the essentials
The 2015 Audi S3 is one of the first members of a new family of Audi small cars, all badged A3 in some way or the other. The family will eventually include the e-tron hatchback wagon, with plug-in hybrid technology; a cute A3 Cabriolet convertible; and the four-door A3 sedan, outfitted with diesel or gasoline engines. While we're at it, we'd throw in the upcoming Q3 crossover, which is as much a part of the A3 family as the Mercedes-Benz GLA-Class is part of the CLA-Class compact family.
Like its cousins, the S3 is a small-ish four-door, but you'll be excused for wondering how much more petite it is. In fact, it's not much different in footprint than the first-generation Audi A4 from two decades ago.
The twist comes from under the S3's crisply stamped hood. There's no hybrid to plug in, no turbodiesel. It's all breathy turbocharging here, with a 2.0-liter direct-injected and forced-induction four-cylinder spinning out about 290 horsepower (it's not been officially rated for the U.S. yet). The four's capable of great things in the compact, lighter-weight A3 architecture: Audi estimates 0-60 mph times of 4.8 seconds, and a top speed of 155 mph. Give thanks there for the new four's low torque peak of 280 pound-feet down at about 2000 rpm, which it maintains through 5000 rpm with a happy soundtrack and solid thrust.
The only gearbox configured right now for American tastes is a six-speed version of Audi's paddle-shifted, dual-clutch transmission, which helps the turbo pull terrifically through its lower gears, doling out torque to all four wheels (quattro all-wheel drive is standard). The missing lever? The six-speed manual shifter we've sampled on a European first drive, which hasn't officially been pegged for U.S.-market S3 sedans. We think it's a credibility must-have, even if we prefer the clean execution of the dual-clutch box.
Dig deeply into the road with the S3, and the other fundamentals feel just as battle-ready. The transverse-engined S3 has a front strut suspension and four-link torsion-beam rear end, and sits about an inch lower than the stock A3. Adaptive magnetic-fluid dampers are an option, and electric power steering is standard--both governed by Audi's Drive Select system, which rules over the usual auto, sport, comfort, auto, and dynamic modes, or in the custom-choice individual mode.
We drove the S3 on some insanely tortured roads in and out of the principality of Monaco, and it's true--some roads are too small even for small cars. But the S3 with adaptive dampers set to automatic response, and its gearbox and throttle and steering set to Dynamic, cuts in with at least as much vigor as the CLA45 AMGs we've hustled around Georgia's raucous mountain byways. The steering's heavy weighting and variable ratio (the rack's teeth are spaced differently across its span) works well on more kinky paths, and the dampers' suppler ride filters out the impact of the upsized 19-inch ContiSport summer tires.
We ventured into the dampers' Dynamic setting, where the stiffness erodes the driving fun--though it may feel different once it's Stateside, as we've found to be the case with Audi's RS 7 and even with the CLA45 AMG. It's easy enough to change your mind, by toggling through Drive Select's modes on the dash-mounted switch.
2015 Audi S3: styling and comfort
The S3 knows mainstream appeal, though. Its tidy styling strays not an inch from Audi's hugely successful formula, without looking small-car blunt or short. The LED eyeshadow it wears gives it the standard Audi signature, but there's a full-LED treatment available to turn their keyhole shape into something instantly identifiable in the rearview mirror. Inside, it's a more spartan affair than you'll find in the outrageously cool A7. The lavish wood is gone, the leather is less prevalent, but there's still a confident hand in the details--especially those big, round vents that bullet through the dash.
The compact-class dimensions hide from front-seat passengers, and leap on back-seaters. At 175.9 inches long, on a 103.4-inch wheelbase, the S3 is almost nine inches shorter than the CLA-Class, with nearly three fewer inches of wheelbase--which the Mercedes uses up with its laid-back profile, leaving lots of usable space under the glass. The Audi's marginally wider, though, and in the front seat there's plenty of headroom--without the sunroof that will be standard in the U.S., at least. The VW Group lever controls for the seat are the usual confusion of levers and switches and knobs, but the seats are bolstered in red and the flat-bottom steering wheel opens up a little more leg space.
Climbing into the back seat doesn't mean folding in half and ducking and compacting one's self, as it does in the CLA, but the S3 doesn't have a lot of adult-sized space, either. The taller doors grant an easier pass into the back-seat bench, but it's made more usable with split/fold seatbacks that expand the 13.7-cubic-foot trunk.
2015 Audi S3: safety and features
The S3 brings a slew of new technology to the table, starting with a platter of safety gear prepped for five-star crash ratings. Airbags and stability control are joined by pre-collision restraint prep and simulated torque vectoring on the front wheels via the S3's anti-lock brakes. The options include adaptive cruise control that maintains a traffic crawl with a tap of the cruise's resume button, and blind-spot monitors.
Every S3 will come with standard power windows, locks, and mirrors; cruise control; leather upholstery; Bluetooth; and a panoramic sunroof. There's also a pop-up screen for the Multi-Media Interface (MMI), which powers up and down out of the way on command, a nice touch compared to the fixed, fragile-looking screens on the latest Benzes and BMWs.
That retractable screen serves as the output destination for the S3's audio and phone systems. MMI now has a wide touch surface on its controller knob, for fingertip text entry--just write out letters, Palm Pilot style, and MMI translates them into destinations or other data. The MMI interface has also been reworked slightly to fit on the S3's console: it now has toggle switches to flip to navigation mode, which conserves space.
Audi Connect will be a key upgrade for the connected class, the ones who want their MMI screen dripping color from Google Earth maps. For a subscription fee, drivers can tap into AT&T's 4G/LTE data network, which delivers those maps and other rich feeds to the car--and can even store photos of destinations for use as favorites. Audi Connect enables service to as many as 8 devices, and can stream music from them via local wireless networks it creates. Just about any audio file can be rendered through a 14-speaker Bang & Olufsen audio system with 705 watts of output.
The 2015 Audi S3 joins the $29,990 Audi A3 sedan in Audi showrooms, priced from $41,100, not including destination charges. That's a massive discount over the CLA 45 AMG's $48,000 pricetag, but there's a slight performance difference, too. At least, until an Audi RS 3 arrives.
- Perfectly tasteful design
- Pricing within reach?
- Flat, broad powerband
- A manual in the mix?
- LTE connectivity
- Not a breakthrough look
- Compact rear seat
- No manual at launch