At the W Hotel in Austin, Texas, we journalists gathered in front of a big flat-screen TV flashing bright images of the 2015 Audi S3.
Just as the Audi product planner began her spiel about the brand’s all new, entry-level sports sedan, most of the cell phones in the room began to chime, ding, buzz, and chirp. The National Weather Service had just put out a flash-flood warning for the Austin area, which caused a clamoring racket in the small room.
Looking outside, we saw what the telephony commotion was about. The ever-darkening sky had opened up. The street outside the hotel, which moments before had been, well, a street, had been quickly converted into a small but ferocious river. Passersby still dressed in t-shirts and shorts from the warm weather of the evening covered their hair with their hands and ran for cover.
Though the heavy rain put most Texans on their heads, as a native Portlander I was unfazed. Not only did I know how to drive in rain, the little sports sedan I’d be piloting the following day came standard with world-class all-wheel drive.
The next morning, though the rain had subsided, the air was thick with moisture. Dropping behind the wheel of the S3, I turned up the A/C not because it was especially hot, but because I wanted to get the stickiness of Texas off my skin.
The little sports sedan I’d be piloting the following day came standard with world-class all-wheel drive.
Once my co-pilot loaded into the car, I hit the Navigation button on the center console, which brought the S3’s infotainment screen rising out of the dash. The pre-loaded Google Earth-based directions kicked on, directing me out of the city and into the backcountry outside Austin.
Before long, I needed to make a quick pass on the freeway, in order to make my off-ramp. Punching the throttle, the quiet cabin – and the conversation with my copilot – was overwhelmed with the sounds of a menacing sport exhaust. Though powered by a 292-horspower, 280-pound-foot 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine, the S3 sounded not like a sophisticated compact sports sedan but rather like a highly tuned V6 racecar.
This delightful sound invasion took my attention to the car itself, which, up to this point, I had sort of ignored. Getting off the freeway and onto a backcountry highway, I had a moment to revel in the car’s charms.
When I drove the standard A3 earlier in the year, I eagerly anticipated driving the S3. I knew if the regular A model pleased me, the S would make me weak in the knees. And unlike virtually every other long-awaited experience, the S3 didn’t let me down.
I found the new MQB platform, which underpins everything from the 2015 Volkswagen GTI to the 2016 TT, to be in peak form underneath the S3. Where the other cars suffered from acute aloofness, the S3 felt grounded. Rather than feeling close to but detached from the road, from the driver’s seat of the S3, I felt very much a part of the driving experience.
And what an experience it was.
Just like the A3, the S3 has very grabby brakes. Touch the pedal even just slightly and the car begins a quick deceleration. Where the eager braking power of the A3 is incongruent with its going power, the S3 is perfectly matched. Gleefully, the S3 goes as well as it stops.
However, since most of the areas outside Austin were still well flooded, I didn’t get a chance to give the car the full beans. Out on the open road, though, I was tickled with its exhaust note, communicative steering and chassis, and the serenity of its cabin. My real appreciation for the car’s charisma didn’t come until the following day.
Chasing a legend
Not only did Audi invite journalists to Austin to drive the S3, we were also there to spectate at the latest World Endurance Championship race at the Circuit of the Americas (COTA). And we had been promised a single lap on the F1 track in the S3.
When our Teutonic power procession of S3s arrived on the track, we found a brown R8 V10 waiting on the for us … then an even more delightful but nerve-wrenching surprise.
The S3 sounded not like a sophisticated compact sports sedan but rather like a highly tuned V6 racecar.
The door of the R8 swung open and out popped infamous Le Mans champion Allan McNish. My eyes widened, my jaw tightened. Leaving the door of the R8 open, McNish cheerfully trotted over to my car, in the lead position behind his, told me to ready myself, then continued down the line behind me.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw an Audi rep jump into the passenger seat of McNish’s R8, just as another Audi rep jumped into my S3. The Audi representative riding shotgun cheerfully turned to me and asked if he can put on some tunes. “Sure,” I replied, not really paying attention to the request.
Suddenly, the small S3 cabin is flooded – by way of the seriously powerful 14-speaker Bang & Olufen sound system – with the angry sounds Rage Against The Machine’s “Killing in the Name.” The Audi rep quickly turned the stereo up to full blast, looked at me, and shouted, “Is this OK?”
Before I could respond, in front of me, McNish jumped into his R8, punched the throttle, and roared off toward the first corner. Feeling the eager eyes of the other 10-ish journalists behind me, I, too, buried the throttle in the floor. The S3 hunkered down and ripped away.
I know that the Audi rep onboard the leading R8 was reining in McNish. Mine, however, was egging me on, as I came fast into corner one, a sharp uphill left-hander.
“This is awesome!” my co-pilot shouted. And he was right. Rather than being overwhelmed with the moment I was living, however, chasing a racing luminary around the track, I was focused on simply keeping up without wrecking the car.
To my amazement, the car did a far better job keeping up with the supercar than I had anticipated. With a six-speed dual-clutch transmission pushing power out to all four wheels through Audi’s infamous quattro all-wheel drive system, the S3 can hit 60 from a dead standstill in 4.7 seconds and top speed of 155 mph. How close I got to that top speed on the track, I do not know.
So the S3 stands without comparison … both technically and metaphorically.
What I do know, however, is how terrifically the car performed on the racing tarmac.
In Sport mode, the transmission shifts late and hard – but in a very pleasing way. American buyers, who, unlike the Europeans, are not privy to a six-speed manual, will not miss it; the DCT is just as pleasing.
Having just driven the 2014 Audi S4 back home in Portland, I expected the legendary all-wheel drive sport sedan’s new little brother, the S3, to mimic its handling characteristics. And it does – but it’s even better.
Audis have been notorious for being understeer prone. The S3 simply isn’t. Going through the COTA S curves, I was able to kick the backend of the S3 out a bit. The steering, though electronic, still gives great feedback on what the wheels are doing at the tarmac.
This, to me, proved that the S3 simply isn’t a rebadged and uprated A3 (it’s actually a different engine) but rather a serious compact sports sedan ready for primetime and hair-raising Sunday drives.
If you’re wondering: no, I never caught up with McNish. I felt like I got pretty close, though. That was until he stopped mucking about and actually drove. Then he was just a blur in the distance.
Ignoring my driving inadequacies, however, let’s look at the S3 as it stands in the marketplace.
Some might wrongly think that the Audi S3 competes with the likes of the BMW M235i or the Mercedes-Benz CLA45 AMG. They’d be wrong. The M235i is an inline-six-powered, rear-drive coupe, so is not in the same realm. And the AMG would compete with an RS 3, should something like that ever come to the States.
So the S3 stands without comparison … both technically and metaphorically.
However, if forced to compare, and I am going to force myself, I dare say that the S3 is far more well rounded than the other two Germanic offerings.
The S3, unlike the M235i, is far more comfortable – and affordable, when held side-by-side and dollar-for-dollar. Also, the S3 is far more fashionable and gentlemanly than the AMG any day of the week. Sure, the S3 has carbon fiber accents, but it doesn’t rub it in your face.
For $41,000, buyers get a car that can – kind of – keep up with Allan McNish on an F1 track and keep occupants comfortable for hours on end. Yeah, I’d say that’s pretty incomparable.
- Sporty and sophisticated exterior styling
- Powerful and shout-y four-cylinder
- Crisp-shifting DCT transmission
- All-wheel drive traction with a touch of rear-drive fun
- Awesome, optional sport seats
- Spartan cabin