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2017 Audi S3 first drive

Audi’s S3 is a gateway drug to performance cars, with its own surprising high

If you can live without the space, and crave sports car-rivaling performance in a four-door format, there simply isn’t a better option than the S3.

American automotive enthusiasts (whose company I keep) go to the well pretty often with our new vehicle complaints. If we aren’t bemoaning the absence of a manual transmission option, we’re crying aloud for a wagon or hatchback variant. Meanwhile, Europe and its proliferation of models with both specifications, mocks us from afar.

Forums, social networks, and even the occasional letter teem with bitter language towards the automakers that dare deprive the U.S. of its most engaging or practical cars. Then, finally, a gift from heaven: one brand yields, ignoring years of admonishing sales data, to give us what we demand. Through tears of joy, we praise our hero manufacturer and jibe its holdout competitors.

Audi’s trickle-down approach fortifies the 2017 S3 with the brand’s best gadgetry.

It’s another victory for democracy, right? Wrong. Months later, the “enthusiast special” is collecting dust on dealer lots and the individual(s) responsible for its development are being chastised. This is why we can’t have nice things.

Audi, however, is a bit too smart to fall for our sob story. Its newly refreshed S3 (and upcoming RS3) will only be available in sedan body styles with dual-clutch transmissions. Enthusiasts, then, are left with a choice: we can default to childish rhetoric, or reorient to the latest form of premium performance.

What’s new?

Headlining the roster of changes made for the 2017 model year S3 is its revised Haldex all-wheel drive system.

Audi has consolidated oversight for the electronic multi-plate clutch, stability control, traction control, and ABS within one hub. This shores up response time to driver inputs considerably and aids the negotiation of torque between the front and rear differentials (which can now each take 100 percent of available grunt). Handling is further improved by tweaks to the S3’s suspension and electric steering system.

Related: 2017 Audi A4 Quattro review

Spotting visual distinctions between the 2016 and 2017 S3 is a task for the detail-oriented. The updated front fascia includes a platinum single frame grille, standard “undercut” LED headlights, and a restyled bumper. Fresh 18- and 19-inch wheel designs are available on 235-section performance rubber. At the rear, new dynamic LED taillights, a re-sculpted bumper, and tweaked diffuser sharpen the exterior.

Inside, the latest S3 incorporates some grade-A4 hand-me-downs. Audi’s class-leading Virtual Cockpit is finally on offer as part of a Technology Package. The vivid 12.3-inch display (twice the brightness of a smartphone screen) jazzes up an otherwise conservative cabin and makes the center-mounted infotainment look outdated. Exclusive to the S3, a sport mode configurator puts the digital tachometer front and center, with a boost meter and lap timer sharing display real estate. Audi’s latest MMI Touch interface includes a track pad that can interpret finger-drawn letters and adopts both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto interfaces. Audiophiles can also pump tunes through a Bang & Olufsen 14-speaker, 705-watt sound system.

Audi’s trickle-down approach fortifies the 2017 S3 with the brand’s best gadgetry and contemporary visuals, but the most dynamic improvements are experienced at speed.

Premium muscle

Unlike the euro-spec car, Audi’s 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder carries over unchanged for 2017, meaning 292 horsepower and 280 pound-feet of torque makes its way to all four wheels via a six-speed dual-clutch S-tronic transmission. Sure, Audi could have granted a bit more grunt, but with a quoted 0 to 60 mph run of 4.7 seconds (and an even faster real-world sprint), the S3 has ample motivation.

A fool could climb into the drivers seat, mash the throttle mid-corner, and keep all four tires on tarmac through to the exit.

The ambling roads surrounding Durham, North Carolina couldn’t hope to uncover the S3’s performance limits, but they did afford a practical demonstration of Audi’s AWD modifications. Grip is a given in any modern Audi product, but the latest S3 hugs the road beyond reasonable driver fault. A fool could climb into the drivers seat, mash the throttle mid-corner, and keep all four tires on tarmac through to the exit. “Sure,” you’re thinking, “any traction control system can cut power when things get dicey.” True, but Audi’s torque-vectoring control is so good that traction control hardly ever steps in at all. Further, the automaker now says its Dynamic drive mode will hold the computers at bay to allow oversteer. I’ll save that use-case for a track.

Manufacturers tend to overcompensate for the lack of feel inherent to an electronic steering system with an over-boosted, sensitive rack. As a result, the car feels nervous when cruising or maneuvering anywhere besides tight switchbacks. The S3, by contrast, uses a balanced system that relies on precision rather than artificial weight or cat-like frenzy. Though the S3 is based on the same platform as Volkswagen’s Golf R, it feels more stable and sophisticated. It’s also about 200 pounds heavier, weighed down by convenience features.

Related: 2016 Audi TTS review

Until the RS3 arrives in the summer of 2017, the S3 champions Audi’s more affordable performance lineup. Only those savvy to the brand’s understating tendencies will recognize the wolf in sheep’s clothing.

New luxury

Luxury is changing. A set of plush seats and pillow-soft ride isn’t enough to groom lifelong customers. By the same token, minimalist cabins won’t deter high-end shoppers – provided the right touches of styling.

The 2017 S3 embodies the graduation of consumer appetites perfectly. As Audi’s gateway drug, it uses just enough premium materials and rides with an agreeable level of comfort to make mainstream buyers feel like they’ve moved definitively into the premium segment. A uniquely handsome exterior, artistic cabin design, and the aforementioned host of technology options complete the luxury picture.

Consumers can certainly take their $42,900 elsewhere to find a larger, more comfortable vehicle, but they won’t find performance, design, and refinement to parallel Audi’s spicier A3.

Our take

With a carefully selected list of updates, Audi has given new life to its stellar S3. American enthusiasts won’t stop hollering for a hatchback, or a standard transmission, but the absence of features doesn’t handicap the S3’s success.

The premium four-door is astonishingly quick, agile, and composed, benefitting from a more intuitive drivetrain and refined steering calibration. Its sharp exterior and segment-leading convenience features grant first-time luxury buyers the same pleasures as can be found in far more expensive models. Audi is effectively spreading its design and driving dynamic excellence to every corner of its lineup.

Highs

  • Brilliant all-wheel drive system
  • Natural, progressive steering
  • Handsome, understated design
  • Fierce acceleration

Lows

  • Quick-swelling price tag