2015 Audi S3 Sedan First-Drive

Chris Davies - Sep 22, 2014, 11:01 pm CDT
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2015 Audi S3 Sedan First-Drive

You can’t accuse Audi of playing it low-key with the A3 series. From the core sedan, fundamentally designed to tickle American tastes, comes a car family that spans electric-gasoline hybrids through to this, the performance S3 Sedan. Hottest of the range, and certainly the most striking in appearance, the S3 pairs Audi’s legendary Quattro all-wheel-drive with a 292 HP 2.0-liter turbo engine. So, after our time with the A3 and the A3 Sportback e-tron, how does the S3 Sedan compare?

Design

It’s hard to argue against the S3 Sedan being the most cohesively aggressive of the A3 range. If the regular A3 resembles a slightly shrunken A4, then the S3 is a more nimble S4, ticking off the usual S-design flourishes much in the manner of its bigger siblings.

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So, there’s a more aggressive grille at the front, along with a low-slung front splitter with a highlighting blade that’s echoed at the rear with a diffuser around the chromed quad exhausts. The side mirrors get a matte silver finish – no matter the body color – and there’s a rear lip spoiler.

The S3 sits lower, too, dropped 25mm versus the regular car on S-specific sport suspension, on special S-design 18-inch wheels as standard. 19-inch wheels are optional. Either way they look great, smoky and crisp with their five double-bladed spokes.

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It all works well together, though the impact on the road is hugely determined on your choice of color. Opt for the red, and the S3 is an eye-catching rocket, guaranteed to have BMW drivers eyeing you competitively at the lights.

The black is more low-key, still meaty but no longer shouting about it: a simmering brute with subtle chrome. The only slightly off-note is the white, which – to my eyes – disguises the body tweaks a little too well.

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Still, the A3 is a handsome sedan, and the S3 doesn’t disappoint there either. Audi makes a solid-looking car, and the S3 hunkers down nicely, leaving it looking well-planted and stable.

Engine and Performance

This is no simple bodykit exercise, however. Audi takes its 2.0T engine and gives it a thorough revamp for its compact sports sedan: the standard cylinder head is junked in favor of a lightweight aluminum-silicon alloy version that’s stronger and more resilient to temperature, while the exhaust valves, valve seats and springs are new, as are the high-pressure injection valves.

The pistons are swapped, with new bolts and rings, and the connecting rods are reinforced, with new mounts to link up to the crankshaft. That gets a cast iron crankcase with extra reinforcement at the main bearing seats and the main bearing cover.

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Meanwhile, the turbocharger is new as well, with an improved seal between the compression wheel and housing that Audi says makes it more efficient.

The result is 292 HP and 280 lb-ft of torque, versus the 220 and 258 respectively of the standard 2.0T. Audi routes that power through its six speed S tronic dual-clutch transmission; European versions of the S3 will get a manual gearbox, but in North America it’s the automatic or nothing. Thankfully it’s an adept shifter, which enjoys holding the current gear as the turbo spools up; any occasional hesitation to kick down when you plant your foot can be bypassed with the standard paddle shifters.

The S3 Sedan’s electromechanical power steering system has been refined some, and while it’s still speed sensitive, it no longer adjusts midway through a turn. Audi decided that was potentially too distracting for the sort of drivers considering the S3.

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Sure enough the car feels reassuringly clean: point it at a corner and the combination of communicative steering and that all-wheel-drive sees the sedan just shuttle round it. I had the opportunity to take the S3 on a couple of track laps and, though not pushing it to its limits, found there to be plenty of feel through the wheel as well as confidence in how it would turn.

Hauling the car to a halt are ventilated front and rear disc brakes (the regular car has solid discs at the rear), 13.4-inches at the front and 12.2-inches at the back. They’re optionally finished with bright red calipers, too, complete with S3 branding. No matter the color, they haul the car to a halt with alacrity, even after they’d been well tested on the track.

Then there are the electronic aids and fancies, most notably Audi magnetic ride, an optional suspension system. Dubbed electromagnetic damper control, it effectively fills the damper pistons with a synthetic hydrocarbon oil laced with magnetic particles. By adjusting the voltage through a surrounding coil, the firmness of the dampers can be controlled.

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Magnetic ride automatically adjusts exactly how stiff the dampers are set by analyzing the road condition and the current driving style, with three presets styles to choose between: comfort, auto, and dynamic.

While it’s not essential for getting the best out of the S3 Sedan, it’s nonetheless a slick system, keeping the car feeling even and planted. Across a series of sharply rising and falling back roads, the Audi refused to wallow or rock, even taking a surprise hump-back bridge in its stride.

Whether you tick the box or not, you get Drive Select to flip between efficiency, comfort, auto, dynamic, and custom-programmed individual modes. Each has a say in engine, suspension, steering, and exhaust tone, among other factors, though dynamic seems to match the personality of the S3 Sedan the most, keeping the throttle keen, the steering edgy, and the suspension firm. Even when the Texas rainclouds dumped across the asphalt, the S3 Sedan resisted showing the mild understeer that had started to sneak through at the track.

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Standard is Audi pre sense basic, which spots when an emergency might be taking place and automatically tightens up the seatbelts and part-closes the windows. Audi pre sense front, however, is a cost option, using radar sensors to keep track of the road ahead and automatically increase the braking force in the case of a possible collision.

Thankfully I didn’t have to test either, though I did try the similarly optional adaptive cruise control. That also relies on radar sensors along with a cyclops eye in the grille to track the traffic in front and automatically adjust the speed accordingly. It works well, though I can’t help but think that in a $41k+ car, at the very least the side assist feature – which flags up blind-spot traffic in adjacent lanes using lights on the side mirrors – should be standard-fit.

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Perhaps S3 Sedan drivers will be more interested in launch control, however, a shortcut to getting as close as you can to the official 4.7 second 0-60mph time as possible in the real world. It’s a neat party trick, but more usable is the lashings of power available pretty much wherever you’ll have the engine going. Audi says peak torque comes at just 1,900 rpm and the result is a surge forward on the road and a pleasingly bubbling, gurgling soundtrack to go along with the extra pace.

Even with the track time under my belt, I preferred the S3 Sedan’s personality on regular roads. Like the A3 it’s a comfortable cruiser: engine noise a pleasing, unintrusive thrum when you’re casually tackling the highways. Take a detour via some more interesting roads, however, and the combination of grip and grunt make for a supple but sure-footed experience.

Interior and Infotainment

The regular A3’s interior wowed us with its simple, sturdy design and clever infotainment system, only earning a few dud points for the number of blank switches on the entry-level spec cars. At $41,100 for the S3 Sedan, versus the sub-$30k starting price for the A3, there are thankfully fewer blanks to be found.

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Controls are corralled into a small area in the central silver strip running the belt-line of the dashboard, as well as a dual-zone climate control section slung underneath. The eyeball vents themselves look if anything too small initially, though over the course of my drive time they won approval by virtue of how readily positioned they are and how premium the metal vent control rings that run their periphery feels.

In fact, the whole cabin is an exercise in premium feel, comfortably competing with the segment above for fit, finish, and materials. Audi has thankfully resisted overloading the chunky, grippy flat-bottomed wheel with too many buttons and switches, while the S3 Sedan’s extras like the digital boost gage have been sensitively integrated into the driver instrument binnacle.

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The standard seats are comfortable and sturdy, if a little on the firm side, but down the line there’ll be special Audi S sport seats with diamond quilting and extra lateral support. In the back, my 5’8 frame managed with the headroom and a similarly sized driver in front, though taller rear seat passengers will probably find themselves wishing they were in at least an A4 or larger. As in the front, I found myself wishing that the bench had a little more give, at least when cruising.

Audi’s clever Multi Media Interface system shows its merits once more, with a pop-up 7-inch LCD – just 11mm thick and magnesium alloy backed, Audi is keen to point out – that curves out and kicks up from the top of the dashboard. It’s controlled by a new MMI wheel, topped with toggle switches for the main functionality – navigation, phone, radio, and media – with an optional touchpad on top.

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That touchpad can be used to trace in letters, numbers, and characters with your fingertip, rather than flicking through an onscreen keyboard. After a little familiarization – stroking your way around the map view can be frustrating at first – it’s clearly an excellent approach, not to mention a flexible one. As well as recognizing the standard alphabet, MMI can handle all manner of accented characters and even things like “@“ and “%” should you ever need to punch them in.

An AT&T 4G LTE SIM in the glove compartment – next to an SD card slot – gets the S3 Sedan online, with Audi Connect opening the door to Facebook and Twitter alerts, over 7,000 streaming internet radio stations, and the option to have personalized headlines and news alerts read out to you as you drive.

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That seems like an unnecessary distraction from your playlist, however, if you’ve sensibly ticked the option for the Bang & Olufsen sound system upgrade. Replacing the ten speaker standard setup with fourteen B&O speakers – one of which being a particularly meaty subwoofer – and 705W of amplification, it’s big, bold, and loud, though still manages to be nuanced when the track demands it.

The 4G is also used to pull in points-of-interest from Google, along with satellite imagery for the navigation. The default 2D/3D mapping felt a little clearer for the most part, however, though the photo previews of each destination and waypoint are excellent and certainly made finding unknown locations a lot simpler.

Wrap-Up

In a way, you can predict exactly what you’re getting with the S3 Sedan before you even grab the keys. The reassuring grip of Quattro all-wheel-drive combined with the heft and quality of German engineering inside and out. Sure enough, I never felt the S3 was fighting me, or competing with me, and – while I wasn’t giving much thought to economy – the 22.3 mpg average over the course of around 160 miles of mixed driving came admirably close to Audi’s own EPA estimate of 26 mpg.

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What I didn’t predict was how playful the S3 Sedan could feel. Stab the throttle and the splash of torque – along with the snarky contribution of the exhaust note – puts a smile on your face each time, not to mention capably thrusting you down the road.

The design tweaks are special enough to be obvious to anybody watching, but without the shouting of, say, a Mercedes-Benz CLA45 AMG (which also starts more than $6k higher than the Audi); meanwhile, though it lacks the supercharged V6 (and the extra power that delivers) of Audi’s own S4, the S3 Sedan encourages the sort of frequent throttle-stamping that a usable sporting four-door should. Add in the above-average cabin and the Audi S3 Sedan starts to feel like a bargain for those who want a daily smile with a little luxury on top.



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