Built from solid stock, the 2016 Audi S3 is a car that illustrates America’s new-found interest in smaller, sportier versions of the vehicles we have all come to know and love. From the youthful Chevy Trax and the GT title-worthy Mazda CX-3 to the sharp-looking Hyundai Sonata Sport and the redesigned Acura RDX, Americans are opting for compact models more and more as we reassess the importance of being able to properly parallel park under pressure.
But don’t let this little German slice of gregariousness fool you into thinking it is just some cheap alternative to the overtly recognized S4, or any of the S5, 6, 7, or 8 models, because while it may be moderately priced, it is by no means interested in fooling you into thinking that, as an enthusiast, you are “settling.” Rocking the same lightweight MQB chassis platform and turbo EA888 2.0-liter four as the Golf GTI we reviewed back in July, the S3 offers a potent alternative for anyone wanting more kick than a basic A3 can offer, with the most recognizable difference being in the numbers department.
OK, so “kick” might be a bit of an understatement, because unlike the 210 horsepower GTI, the S3 bolts out a white-knuckling 292 ponies, throwing it into the grid with another re-tuned EA8888 car we reviewed this year: the Golf R. Sure, we may not get that six-speed manual gearbox we love, but at least the auto version has a six-gear “S-Tronic” dual-clutch automatic that snaps into gear sharply, a gearbox that still has yet to disappoint critics.
Let us be clear though, the S3 is by no means a game changer for the European luxury automaker. It is a car that maintains a physique that is instantly recognizable as an Audi, and when parked alongside an S4 most people would have issue distinguishing one from the other unless they measured overall length or examined the trunklids closely. This is a great little sleeper sedan, as it’s not overly aggressive-looking, sporting subtle add-ons like a mild aero kit, quad exhaust, and those signature silver mirrors that are staples of S and RS versions. Looking at it from any angle, the S3 is quite the attractive car, while retaining just enough flare to let you know that it isn’t just another Audi.
Hit the boost head-on in this thing and you will blast to 60 miles per hour in 4.4 seconds, spanking the far more powerful S4 by half a second (because smaller equals lighter in this game). Having an integrated turbo setup with a clever ECU and direct injection gives the S3 the upper hand here as well, as it is virtually devoid of turbo-lag, offers tons of torque, and makes pretty noises that are completely unexpected from something so small. The branded brakes are supposedly solid as well, and while some feel that the S3 is a bit sterile with its approach, typical buyers will likely enjoy how refined an affordable sports sedan can be when they drive one.
While critics may praise the the S3 for its solid powerplant and succinct shift points, the car’s more simplistic all-wheel drive setup leaves certain reviewers wanting: Reports of disjointed driving characteristics and overly lifeless steering feedback from the electrically-driven system headline the complaints. The system works well, and is grippy enough, but like most modern cars, it lacks a certain level of connectivity in favor of a more refined, precise approach to cornering.
Ride quality is supposedly surprisingly good on this thing too, which is surprising considering that the tires have sidewalls that are about as thick as popsicle sticks. Critics also praised the S3 for its non-constrictive cabin, which is composed and quiet, and features all of the Audi A3 amenities you could ever want. This isn’t some overdone, caged-out interior either, and outside of a throwback boost gauge and some minor S3 upgrades, the cockpit is a refined slice of A3 through and through.
At $42,500, the red-headed runt of the litter is also a surprisingly sound bang for the buck: It costs only seven grand more than the Golf R, and delivering on so many more levels, both in the luxury department and in the styling section as well. Many Americans would still rather have something larger than a Volkswagen hatch. So if you are in the market for a banging European automobile with more bite than an ornery schnauzer, go out and drive a well-equipped S3 — chances are one of two things will occur. Scenario A: You will want it immediately and drive off happy. Scenario B: It isn’t brutish enough, and its big brother the S4 will inspire you to shift to the six-pot model. Either way, there is no loser here. Only winners.