In the world of Audi, an “S” signifies more performance. In the case of the 2016 Audi S3 sedan—a high output version of the quite nice A3 compact—the S might also stand for sublime. For driving enthusiasts, this is a car that really hits the sweet spot for speed, handling, and comfort.
The S3 is available only with an automatic transmission in the U.S. While this might seem a bit counterintuitive for a car clearly aimed at drivers, Audi soothes the pain with its choice of automatics: a delightful six-speed dual-clutch transmission that pairs exceptionally well with the S3’s 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine.
Paddle shifters behind the steering wheel are waiting for drivers who want to choose their shift points, but for those content to leave that transaction to Audi’s programmers, the automatic seems to unfailingly find the right gear. Over dozens of miles of country roads—alternatively twisting, dipping, straightening, and curving, again and again—the full automatic mode served up as much of the little engine’s 290 horsepower and 280 foot-pounds of torque as needed. It helps, too, that all of the engine’s torque is available almost instantly at 1,800 rpm.
Another key part of the performance equation—the brakes—play their part beautifully. Solid and quick, but not grabby, they inspire the confidence to carry speed into curves.
All-wheel-drive comes standard on the S3. If you want front-wheel drive, opt for the standard-issue A3 sedan or the Volkswagen Golf, which shares the basic underpinnings with both cars. With all season or winter tires, the Quattro system pays dividends in winter weather. When the summer sun kisses the pavement, traction on all four corners means more surefooted performance.
The S3’s adjustable suspension presents an interesting menu for serious drivers (or drivers who want one setting for solo trips and another for outings with passengers). Three of the standard settings—comfort, dynamic, and auto—are as advertised, dialing in more or less steering effort and suspension dampening. Even in “comfort” mode, when passengers are truly mollified, the driver is not unduly denied the joy of road feedback. But like a driver adjusts the seat and mirrors for the perfect fit, adjusting the individual setting lets you find just the right mix of tactile response.
Building a car to hit a certain price point requires some sacrifices here and there. In the case of the S3, those compromises are hardly noticeable. And they detract not at all from the car’s performance. Indeed, one of the only telltale signs of Audi’s need to trim a few dollars from the S3’s budget is the single expanse of plastic covering the top of the dashboard. The material feels somewhat lacking in a luxury car. But in every other regard, the S3 feels at home with its Audi badges.
The S3’s interior and exterior design capture all the best traits of Audi’s bigger cars. The controls are ergonomically pristine, the driver’s visibility is spot on, and the front seats retain their comfort over many hours of driving.
The S3’s diminutive length—about 10 inches less than Audi’s next-biggest sedan, the A4—makes itself known in the back seat. And its relative narrowness sometimes means rubbing elbows with your front seat mate. The trunk, though, is plenty capacious for a weekend trip, and the rear seats fold down for the occasional large load.
The 2016 Audi S3 comes in two trim level. The first—flatteringly called “Premium Plus”—starts at $42,500. Upgrading to “Prestige” moves the base price up to $48,650. Option packages and standalone additions offer many ways to increase your final price tag.Photo courtesy of Audi USA