The 2013 Audi S3 hatchback is a car for the connoisseur, a nod and a wink to those in the know. Unlike the overt posturing of the Ford Focus ST, or even the soon-to-be-launched Mercedes CLA45 AMG, this S3 doesn't make big promises with its styling.
Subtlety has always been part of the S3's personality. This, the third iteration of the hatchback, is an obvious evolution of the first two generations, neither of which ever came to the States. In the U.K., it's on sale now, priced from £30,500 ($47,500), or around $5,700 more than the soon-to-be-launched Volkswagen Golf GTI, with which it shares a platform.
We were invited to drive the two-door hatchback version of the S3 in Munich, Germany. This is the first of the S3 family to debut and will be followed by a four-door hatchback and, for the first time, a four-door sedan. It's that sedan that will make its way to the U.S. next year, so consider this an early preview of what to expect.
A Most German Hatchback
Sitting in a parking lot at Munich airport, the 2013 Audi S3 is all but anonymous. Despite being built on a new platform, the styling of the base A3 is only a gentle evolution of its predecessor. The S3 seeks to build on this, but only in the details.
There's an "S"-specific trapezoidal grille with matte gray inserts, aluminum wing mirrors, some great-looking 18-inch alloys, a tailgate spoiler and a rear diffuser incorporating a quartet of tailpipes. The S3 also sits 0.9 inch lower to the ground than the standard car, helping to give it a more assertive stance, but this is still an understated car.
It's a theme that continues inside with a dash layout that will be used across the entire S3 lineup. It's confidently simple and beautifully executed, with attention focusing on a quartet of circular air vents and a multifunction display screen. It feels like a significant step forward, both in design and perceived quality.
The "S" details inside are limited to some impressively comfortable sport seats and a smattering of jewelry. The pedals are aluminum, the chunky steering wheel has a flat-bottomed rim and the rev counter now also boasts a turbo boost gauge. It's unremarkable but it is a nice place to be, for those in the front at least. Those in the rear suffer a paucity of legroom, but Audi's quick to point out that the four-door versions have a longer wheelbase, so their rear seats should offer slightly more legroom.
An Overachieving Four-Cylinder
The Volkswagen empire has not grown rich by overcomplicating matters. Not only does the 2013 Audi S3 ride on the MQB platform that also underpins models from Seat, Skoda and VW, it also employs the company's familiar 2.0-liter turbo engine.
This is the same motor used in various vehicles across both Audi and Volkswagen's lineups. In the new VW Golf GTI, for instance, it develops 217 horsepower. But in this S3 it's been retuned to deliver 296 hp at 5,000 rpm and 280 pound-feet of torque from 1,800-5,500 rpm.
With traction assisted by the standard Quattro four-wheel-drive system, Audi claims a 0-62-mph sprint time of 5.2 seconds for the six-speed manual transmission. When equipped with the S tronic double-clutch transmission, the only gearbox that will be offered in the States, that time drops to 4.8 seconds according to Audi.
On the road, there's no denying the S3 is quick, but its performance is so lacking in drama that it never feels very rapid. The engine emphasizes torque over raw power, relying more on midrange pull than high-rpm zing. And, despite the inclusion of both an electromechanical sound actuator and a sports exhaust system, it simply doesn't match the aural urgency of the 2013 Ford Focus ST.
Composed yet Detached
The S3 places its faith in lightweight technologies and trick electronics to deliver its fun. Extensive use of aluminum has reduced its curb weight by 132 pounds, which puts it at a modest 3,075 pounds. The electronics focuses on Audi's Drive Select system, which allows you to control the steering, throttle, gearbox and even the damping if you opt for the magnetic ride damper control system.
The days when you'd simply jump into a sport compact and drive it appear to be over, but for all its trickery the character of the S3 remains consistent. Regardless of gearbox, this feels like a conventional car with a sporting twist, not a dedicated performance machine.
There's plenty of body control, it rides well and its ultimate ability is not in doubt. Its traction is ever present and the reserves of grip are genuinely impressive, but it fails to offer the level of interactivity that separates the good from the great. The electromechanical variable-ratio steering is the key culprit. As time goes by, manufacturers are getting better at fine-tuning the sensitivity of these systems, but in this Audi you still feel once removed from the action. This undermines what is fundamentally an agile, capable car. You pilot the S3; you don't drive it.
Properly Suited for the States
For all the technological improvements inherent in this car, the base character of the S3 hasn't changed. It is a handsome, fast, refined and comfortable car that's easy to live with.
This may sound like faint praise for an Audi wearing the "S" badge, but it's exactly the kind of personality that will make the 2013 Audi S3 Sedan popular in the U.S. It doesn't need to be the ultimate sport sedan. It simply needs to offer respectable performance to go along with its refined interior and tasteful styling.
There's plenty of room for an even higher-performance "RS" version, while those who don't need such antics will likely find the standard A3 sedan sufficiently sporty and luxurious. It's all part of Audi's plan to conquer the lower end of the luxury market, a segment that the A3 hatchback barely dented in the U.S. Judging from our time in the S3 hatch, Audi's latest salvo should fare much better, even if it's a little less flashy than some of its more extroverted competition.
|Year Make Model:||2013 Audi S3 2.0T Quattro AWD (2.0L 4cyl Turbo 6A)|
|Vehicle type:||Three-door hatchback|
|Configuration:||Transverse, front engine, all-wheel drive|
|Engine type:||Turbocharged, direct-injected inline-4, gasoline|
|Valvetrain:||Double overhead camshaft|
|Compression ratio (x:1):||9.6|
|Horsepower (hp @ rpm):||296 @ 5,000|
|Torque (lb-ft @ rpm):||280 @ 1,800|
|Fuel type:||Premium unleaded (required)|
|Transmission type:||Six-speed auto-double-clutch manual|
|Suspension, front:||MacPherson strut|
|Steering type:||Electric power steering|
|Wheel size:||18-by-7.5 inches front and rear|
|Brakes, front:||13.4-inch ventilated discs|
|0-60 mph, mfr. claim (sec.):||4.8|
|Curb weight, mfr. claim (lbs.):||3,075|
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.