- Perfectly tasteful design
- Priced within reach?
- Flat, broad powerband
- LTE connectivity
- RS 3 comes next
- Not a breakthrough look
- Compact rear seat
- No manual at launch
The 2016 Audi S3 continues its small-sport-sedan mission and adds some sharper looks in its second year on sale.
The 2016 Audi S3 is the lawn dart of the A3 family of small cars. It's a cousin to the A3 four-door sedan, the two-door A3 Cabriolet convertible, and the plug-in-hybrid A3 e-tron wagon.
But by far, it's the most engaging member of that clan to drive. It's quick on its heels, stuffed with speedy hardware that vaults over the A3's more pedestrian stuff. That's why the clearest competitor for the S3 is Motor Authority's Best Car To Buy 2014, the Mercedes-Benz CLA45 AMG.
The S3 has a strong streak of mainstream appeal. 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.
Further differentiation from the normal A3s 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 inline-4 spinning out 292 horsepower and 280 pound-feet of torque. The four is 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 limited to 155 mph. Give thanks there for the new four's low torque peak down at about 2,000 rpm, which it maintains through 5,000 rpm with a happy soundtrack and solid thrust.
The only gearbox configured right now for American sales is a 6-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). We've sampled a 6-speed manual S3 on a European first drive, but that transmission 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 a four-link torsion-beam rear end; it sits about an inch lower than the stock A3. Adaptive magnetic-fluid dampers are an option, and electric power steering is standard—both are 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.
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 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.
The A3/S3's compact-class dimensions hide from front-seat passengers, but 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 is marginally wider, though, and in the front seat there's a decent amount of headroom. The VW Group lever controls for the seat are the usual confusion of levers and switches and knobs, but the seats are bolstered nicely 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-folding rear seats that expand the 13.7-cubic-foot trunk.
The S3 brings a slew of new technology to the table, starting with a platter of safety gear. 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. The S3 scores five stars overall in the NHTSA's testing, with four stars in front crash and rollover. The IIHS has not put the S3 through its paces yet, although it scores the very similar A3 sedan with top scores in all categories, qualifying it for Top Safety Pick+ status.
Every S3 comes 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 the system translates them into destinations or other data. The 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 is 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 eight 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.
Changes for the 2016 model are largely aesthetic. The S3 is now offered in a Black Optic Performance package, which includes Audi Sport multi-spoke Titanium matte wheels, the Black Optic exterior kit, and Audi magnetic ride control. Other new options include red brake calipers, an S Sport seat package, and a 19-inch wheel package.
The 2016 Audi S3 is priced from $43,495 for the Premium Plus trim. A Prestige S3 runs from $48,650. The base car represents a good-sized discount over the CLA 45 AMG's $48,000 pricetag, but there's a slight performance difference, too. Audi will try to leapfrog the CLA in 2017 when it unleashes an RS 3.
The EPA rates the Audi S3 at 23 mpg city, 31 highway, 26 combined on premium gasoline.