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2018 Audi S3

2018 Audi S3

The Basics:

The Audi S3 may start out as the relatively pedestrian Audi A3 sedan, but it has some performance upgrades that bring spice to the party. Offered in both Premium Plus and Prestige trim levels, it shares its engine with the Volkswagen Golf R, and can be looked at as a more luxurious sedan counterpart to that hot hatch. That’s either a blessing or a curse, because the S3 costs about $10,000 more than its VW counterpart, but U.S. buyers prefer sedans over hatchbacks.

The 2018 Audi S3 is a blast to drive, but it suffers from a tiny rear seat and the Volkswagen Golf R offers the same performance with more room for less.

Standard all-wheel drive helps the S3 put the power down and its compact footprint teams with some relatively simple mechanicals to create a corner-carving character. The interior boasts some cool tech, but back seat space is tight and the materials aren’t as premium as you get in other Audis. Given these strengths and weaknesses, we rate the 2018 Audi S3 a 7.2 overall. (Read more about how we rate cars.)

Changes for 2018 are equipment related. Two USB ports are now standard, as are heated front seats. A new S Sport package combines red brake calipers and Audi magnetic ride dampers.

The S3 is a rival for the Mercedes-AMG CLA45 and BMW M2, though it doesn’t make quite as much power as either. Its turbocharged 2.0-liter 4-cylinder spins out 292 horsepower and 280 pound-feet of torque. That’s enough to motivate the S3 from 0-60 mph in 4.7 seconds. The S3’s 6-speed dual-clutch transmission is quick to react and a blast to operate through the standard steering wheel shift paddles, but we wish the S3 also offered a manual transmission in the United States like it does in Europe.

The S3 shares the Golf R’s platform and both cars use all-wheel drive. But the S3 benefits not only from Audi’s brand cachet, but also some handling and interior technology. Available magnetic-fluid filled shocks improve the handling of what is already an agile compact car while making the ride quality with even the optional 19-inch tires more livable than you get in the Golf R.

Inside, the S3 is certainly a cut above VW levels of quality, but is less opulent than most Audis. Still, it comes with the brand’s excellent MMI infotainment system, and is offered with the slick new Audi virtual cockpit, which consists of a highly configurable 12.3-inch digital instrument panel screen. The back seat is tight on space, as it is in the Golf R, which benefits from greater head room.

Every S3 is well-equipped. Standard features include power adjustable leather seats, dual-zone automatic climate control, a panoramic sunroof, and Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility.

The safety story is a good one, too. The S3 comes with a nice spate of safety features and it has performed well in most crash tests.

It’s even thrifty for the power it offers, delivering 25 mpg combined, according to the EPA.

The S3’s tidy exterior dimensions don’t stray too far from Audi’s successful formula, without looking small-car blunt or too over the top. In fact, the S3 combines subtle performance cues on the outside with an interior that marries somewhat spartan appointments with high-tech elements in an an appealing way. Those strengths earn the S3 a 7 out of 10 for styling. (Read more about how we rate cars.)

The S3 is something of a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Offered only as a sedan, it doesn’t stray too far from the look of the A3 upon which it is based. It combines the tidy lines of a compact with tried and true Audi cues. The familiar Audi singleframe grille resides up front, mixing with the LED headlights to provide the brand’s signature face. Audi also offers a full LED treatment to give the S3 an instantly recognizable and quite menacing look in the rearview mirror.

The S3’s flanks are highlighted by a pair character lines, one up high and another down low that rises toward the rear. The coupe-like roofline resolves into the trunklid, and rear of the car ends with the kick up of a rear spoiler. Substantial 18- or 19-inch wheels fill out the wheel wells to give away the car’s sporty character.

Inside, the S3 is more spartan than you’ll get with most of the brand, but the materials are substantial and the details still show a confident hand, especially the big, round vents that jut out of the dash. Audi’s available virtual cockpit features a highly configurable digital instrument cluster that can show everything from gauges to trip computer information to Google Maps images. It combines with the MMI control interface to add a high-tech flair.

The 2018 Audi S3 shares its 2.0-liter direct-injected and turbocharged inline-4 with only one other car, the Volkswagen Golf R. Its combination of turbocharged horsepower, all-wheel-drive traction, and relatively light weight make for a thrilling combination that merits an 8 out of 10 rating for performance. (Read more about how we rate cars.)

The turbo-4 spins out 292 hp and 280 lb-ft of torque, and is capable of great things in the compact S3. Audi estimates a 0-60 mph time of 4.7 seconds, and a top speed limited to 155 mph. Peak torque comes on at about 2,000 rpm and stays on boil through 5,000, delivering ample thrust and a snarling soundtrack.

The lone transmission is a 6-speed dual-clutch automatic that helps the turbo pull terrifically through its lower gears. It shifts quickly, and the engine emits a cool blatting sound between gears. Unfortunately, Americans don’t get a manual transmission, while Europeans do.

The hardware isn’t advanced, but the S3 works as a sporty sedan. It has a transverse, front-engine layout, with a front strut suspension and a relatively simple four-link torsion-beam rear suspension, plus lowering springs that set it about an inch lower than other A3s. It’s basic, but it’s honed. Electric power-assist steering is standard and adaptive magnetic-fluid dampers are option. Both of these systems, as well as the engine and transmission, are governed by Audi's Drive Select system with Auto, Comfort, Dynamic, and the user-configurable Individual modes.

The S3 can carve a corner with at least as much vigor as the CLA45. The steering's heavy weighting and variable ratio (the teeth on its rack are spaced differently across its span compared to the A3) works well on curved roads, and the dampers smooth out the impact of the 18- or 19-inch summer tires (all-season tires are optional). The magnetic dampers only help the formula, improving handling as well as ride quality.

The 2018 Audi S3 has comfortable and spacious front seats, and substantial interior materials, but its back seat leaves much to be desired. Given those traits, we rate it a 6 out of 10 for comfort and quality. (Read more about how we rate cars.)

At 175.9 inches long and riding a 103.4-inch wheelbase, the 2018 Audi S3 is almost nine inches shorter than the Mercedes-AMG CLA 45. However, that car makes poor use of its space given its footprint, and both models have tiny rear seats. The S3 has 3 fewer inches of wheelbase, but its rear seat really isn’t much worse. In fact, getting in is easier due to a bit taller roofline.

Compared to that Mercedes, however, the Audi is wider, and that gives front seat occupants more shoulder and elbow room. Head room will be good for all but the tallest passengers and the sport seats are nicely bolstered to keep their occupants planted during spirited maneuvers.

The trunk offers a rather small 10 cubic feet of space, but at least that is made more useful thanks to a standard split-folding rear seat.

Like other Audis, the S3 features high-quality interior materials, though some of them are a bit more pedestrian than you’ll get in other models. The virtual cockpit and MMI control interfaces are also pluses, but we recognize those high-tech bits in the features section.

Crash-test data isn't complete for the S3, but what's in so far is mostly good.

Federal testers give the sedan a five star overall rating, including four stars for front and rollover crash protection. The IIHS hasn't rated the S3 at all, which means we're withholding our scores. (Read more about how we rate cars.)

While the S3 hasn’t been crash tested by the IIHS, the structurally similar A3 sedan has and it posted top scores in all tests, earning it the Top Safety Pick award.

Standard safety features on every S3 include the usual spate of airbags, plus forward collision warnings with automatic emergency braking, pre-collision restraint prep, a rearview camera, and front and rear parking sensors. Safety options include adaptive cruise control with stop and go, active lane assist, and blind-spot monitors.

Audi offers the 2018 S3 in Premium Plus and Prestige trim levels, and both are well-equipped. A nice spate of options is also available, and for those reasons we rate the S3 a 7 out of 10 for features. (Read more about how we rate cars.)

Standard equipment on the Premium Plus trim includes leather seats that are newly heated for 2018, eight-way power front seats with four-way lumbar adjustment, dual-zone automatic climate control, a panoramic sunroof, heated power mirrors, LED headlights, a 10-speaker audio system, Bluetooth, HD radio, satellite radio, a pop-up screen for the infotainment system, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility, a rearview camera, front and rear parking sensors, split-folding rear seats, and 18-inch alloy wheels.

The Prestige model adds LED rear fog lights, a 14-speaker Bang & Olufsen audio system rated at 705 watts, ambient interior lighting, Audi’s Multi-Media Interface Touch infotainment system that has a rotary dial with a touchpad built into it that can recognize handwritten inputs, navigation, the Audi virtual cockpit digital instrument cluster, Audi Connect, SiriusXM real-time traffic, adaptive cruise control with stop and go, active lane assist, and blind-spot monitors.

For a subscription fee, Audi Connect provides a 4G LTE data link, which delivers Google Earth view maps and other data-driven information.

Options include a Dynamic package with 19-inch wheels, front sport seats, and rear side airbags. New for 2018 is an S Sport package that combines red brake calipers and the magnetic ride dampers.

The EPA rates the Audi S3 at 22 mpg city, 28 highway, 25 combined on premium gasoline. That makes it quite thrifty for its combination of power and quickness. Those are the benefits of a relatively light, small car with a turbocharged 2.0-liter 4-cylinder and a 7-speed dual-clutch transmission.

It earns a 6 out of 10 on our efficiency scale. (Read more about how we rate cars.)

Buying Tips:

The S3 is a more refined version of the Volkswagen Golf R, but without the space. If you want to save some money, go for the VW. If you want more performance, wait for the 400-hp RS 3.

Other Choices:

  • 2018 Mercedes-Benz CLA Class
  • 2018 BMW 2-Series
  • 2018 Acura ILX
  • 2018 Volkswagen Golf R

Reason Why:

When it comes to compact performance cars, each of the three German luxury brands brings its own flavor to the table. The BMW M is positively sublime. Offered only as a coupe with turbocharged inline-6 power, it has a front-engine, rear drive layout and returns to the brand’s ultimate driving machine roots. Opt for the shapely Mercedes-AMG CLA45, and you'll get manic turbocharged 4-cylinder power delivery and a raucous personality. No other luxury brand can compete, but the Volkswagen Golf R is a virtual hatchback sibling to the S3 sedan. It has the same engine and comes with all-wheel drive, rides harder and isn’t as refined, but has more useful space. The Acura ILX is more a competitor for the A3, but it teeters on the line between mainstream and entry luxury.

The Bottom Line:

The 2018 Audi S3 is a blast to drive, but it suffers from a tiny rear seat and the Volkswagen Golf R offers the same performance with more room for less.

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