The 2015 Audi S3 is a significantly sportier version of the standard A3 sedan. Although not as aggressively tuned as one of Audi's RS models, the S3's suspension delivers a stiffer ride, while its more powerful engine assures plenty of additional on-demand thrust. It's a significant step up in performance that doesn't make it any less useful as a daily driver.
What Is It?
The 2015 Audi S3 is a high-performance version of the A3 subcompact sport sedan. It's available only as a sedan and comes standard with Audi's Quattro all-wheel drive.
There's only one engine available for the S3, which is just fine because it's a dang good one. Displacing 2.0 liters, the turbocharged four-cylinder generates 292 horsepower and 280 pound-feet of torque from 1,900-5,300 rpm.
Although in the past Audi has made manual transmissions readily available in its smaller and/or sportier cars, the 2015 S3 is outfitted only with a six-speed dual-clutch transmission with paddle shifters. Audi calls it S tronic, but not to worry, because despite the fancy name it operates much like a traditional automatic transmission. If you move the console shift lever to "Drive" it will take care of all the shifting for you.
Pricing for the S3 begins at $41,995 for the Premium Plus model. It features leather seats, a sunroof, dual-zone climate control, a 10-speaker audio system, 18-inch wheels and Audi Drive Select, a system that allows the driver to adjust the engine and transmission, steering and even the engine's sound.
The S3 Prestige model adds navigation with voice control, a rearview camera, front and rear parking sensors, Audi Side Assist (blind-spot warning) and a 705-watt Bang & Olufsen sound system with 14 speakers at a price of $47,895. The $1,500 19-inch Performance package adds the obvious 19-inch wheels along with Audi's three-mode adjustable magnetic dampers, which brought the as-tested price of our S3 to $49,945.
How Does It Drive?
The first thing you'll notice about the S3 is that it feels lighter than its 3,449-pound curb weight suggests. This is partially due to the car's light steering, and the ease and quickness with which it changes directions. It's sharp without ever feeling darty.
Despite that light feel, the steering delivers a surprising and welcome level of feedback to your hands via a thick-rimmed leather steering wheel. Also contributing to the car's nimble-yet-perfectly-planted sensation is the stiffer suspension settings versus a standard A3 sedan. Our test driver referred to the S3's handling as "stunning and incredibly capable."
Our test car was outfitted with the 19-inch Performance package, which not only includes 19-inch wheels with 235/35R19 Continental ContiSportContact 5P performance tires but, more importantly, Audi's magnetic suspension system. The continuously adaptive dampers can be switched among Comfort, Auto or Dynamic to suit your tastes.
In Dynamic mode the suspension firms up the ride, but in return it delivers more precise handling that allows you to go from corner to corner with almost nonexistent body sway. It feels glued to the road. Aggressive drivers may consider it a fault, however, as it's nearly impossible to coerce the tail into stepping out.
There's a penalty in terms of ride quality, though. The most comfortable suspension setting isn't what we'd ever refer to as cushy. On the other hand, the stiffest mode never gets so unruly that you're looking to swap into the nearest luxury cruiser.
How Much Better Is the Engine?
The S3's 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder is based on the 220-hp version of the same engine found in the A3. In order to cope with and deliver the S3's extra 72 hp Audi made significant changes, including a new turbocharger and exhaust valves, reinforced connecting rods and crankcase, and a new cylinder head. In the A3 this engine has a reputation for delivering smooth, silky power, and the only thing that changes in S3 form is that there's more of it to go around.
The S3's acceleration was impressive at our test track, going from zero to 60 mph in just 4.6 seconds thanks in part to a standard launch control system. The system sweeps the tachometer up to 3,800 rpm at the line before you release the brake, and then the car launches forward with just a bit of front wheelspin, in spite of the all-wheel drive. In this mode the transmission also performs blazingly quick (and ultra-abrupt) upshifts. This puts the S3 on par with the more powerful 2015 Mercedes-Benz CLA45 AMG, which delivered a similar number in Edmunds testing.
On public roads the S3 doesn't feel quite as quick taking off from a stoplight as its numbers indicate, in part due to some delay from the dual-clutch transmission and a bit of turbo lag. But once moving you'll be thrilled by the S3's ample midrange torque and willingness to rev. It's also buttery-smooth no matter how large of a number the tachometer needle is pointing at.
Thanks to an intake sound generator and a quad-outlet exhaust, full-throttle operation gives a throaty snarl, sounding almost like a five-cylinder with its slightly odd (yet cool) note. Enthusiasts will enjoy the satisfying "burp" from the exhaust on upshifts.
The six-speed dual-clutch S tronic transmission gives smooth, split-second upshifts in Drive mode, and does a nice job of staying in its current gear rather than kicking down when you only want a bit more power. In other words, it puts the engine's plentiful torque to good use. Using the paddle shifters in Manual mode gives stirring throttle blips on downshifts.
How Does It Rate in Terms of Interior Comfort?
The leather sport seats that come standard in the S3 have very firm cushions. They're comfortable enough for long drives, but they're far from what we'd call cushy. The seats are wider and roomier than many sport seats, although the lateral support still holds you in place during aggressive cornering. The side bolsters aren't so large that they make entry and exit difficult, although the wide door sills require a conscious effort to extend your foot so you don't rub your leg. The door armrests have excellent elbow padding as well.
Not only does the S3 drive small, but it is small. There isn't an abundance of front headroom, and there's even less space in the rear-seat area. On the plus side, the rear seats fold down and there's a good-size pass-through from the 10-cubic-foot trunk.
The S3's interior is an amped-up version of the A3, with sporty touches throughout. The large, S3-specific instruments are easily legible and include a boost gauge that, to be honest, is more gimmicky than necessary. We're especially fond of the S3's shapely, small-diameter steering wheel, a tactile delight for your hands. The most glaring fault is the tiny gear indicator in the center of the instrument panel. It's hard to find quickly during spirited driving, or even non-spirited driving for that matter.
The interior follows Audi's latest design theme, with precious few buttons on the center stack other than the climate controls. We particularly like the ease with which the circular dash air vents swivel in any direction.
The storage bins are on the small side, with just a tiny shelf ahead of the console cupholders, a small center armrest bin but roomy door pockets. Materials aren't quite as upmarket as most Audis, but considering the price point here, we think the majority of owners will feel they got a well-made car for the money.
Could It Be Too Sporty for You?
A fair amount of road noise creeps into the cabin over most surfaces, although wind noise is well controlled. We've only driven S3s with the optional 19-inch summer performance tires versus the standard 18s, and it's safe to say the latter would likely make less noise.
Even with our test car's optional magnetic dampers set to full Comfort mode, the S3's ride is on the stiff side. On most roads the firm ride quality won't be blatantly obvious, until you get on a stretch with potholes or other road ripples. It's never bone-jarring, mind you, but if you're expecting full plush with your sport, you might be buying the wrong car.
What Kind of Mileage Does It Deliver?
The 2015 Audi S3 comes with a 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder and a six-speed dual-clutch transmission with paddle-shifting ability. The EPA rates it at 26 mpg in combined driving (23 city/31 highway). We averaged 24.1 mpg on our highway-heavy evaluation loop along with a notably lower 20.5 mpg overall during the 725 miles the S3 was with us, partially owing to the car's fun-to-drive, get-on-the-gas nature.
For comparison, the 2015 Mercedes-Benz CLA45 AMG, with 355 hp, is rated identically by the EPA, at 26 mpg combined (23 city/31 highway). The 2015 BMW 328i xDrive with its 240-hp turbo four-cylinder gets an EPA-rated 26 mpg combined (22 city/33 highway).
How Safe Is It?
The U.S. government gave the 2015 Audi S3 its top five-star overall rating, including five stars in the side crash test and four stars in the front crash and rollover tests.
The S3 comes standard with Audi's Pre-Sense Basic system which evaluates stability control information to determine if the car is going into a skid. If it thinks it is, it can turn on the hazard lights, close side windows and the sunroof, and pretension the front seatbelts. Audi's Pre-Sense Front is optional, this system monitoring front traffic for possible collisions. If it senses something detrimental, it could provide a warning signal, a brief braking pulse/jolt or, if the driver still hasn't reacted, give partial braking.
Optional safety features on the S3 include a blind-spot monitoring system, a lane-keeping system and adaptive cruise control, the last automatically keeping a set distance from the car ahead. A back-up camera and front and rear parking sensors are available.
Audi outfitted the S3 with a suitably higher-performing, larger brake system than what's found on the A3. The brake pedal gives a powerful, reassuring feel, especially when driving with vigor on twisty back roads. But they can also feel a bit overly touchy when coming to a stop from low speeds. In our 60-0 mph panic braking test, the 2015 S3 stopped in 107 feet with zero pedal fade and perfect stability. Our test driver called its performance "impressive."
What Are Its Closest Competitors?
The 2015 Mercedes-Benz CLA45 AMG is similar in size to the Audi S3, and also comes with all-wheel drive and a turbo four-cylinder. But this full-zoot AMG model has considerably more power than the Audi, to the tune of 355 hp, and a seven-speed transmission. However, the Merc's ride quality is on the stiff side, the rear seat is cramped, and it's several thousand dollars more expensive than the S3.
The 2015 BMW 328i is slightly larger than the Audi S3, but with a nearly $4,000 cheaper base price it's worth a look. Even though the 328i's turbo four-cylinder doesn't make quite as much power (just 240 hp), it should be able to keep a reasonable pace versus the S3 thanks to its superb driving dynamics. All-wheel drive is also available.
If size is less of an issue, the two-door 2015 BMW M235i is also worth a look. In terms of sporting intentions, it delivers the goods enthusiasts crave. Pricing for the M235i starts a couple thousand dollars higher, but its turbo six-cylinder engine pumps out 320 hp and its handling is fantastic.
Why Should You Consider This Car?
If you need more stimulation than merely a cup of coffee on your morning commute, the S3 could be the boost you crave. Sharp, extremely capable handling and a willing and aurally enjoyable turbo four-cylinder make this thing a hoot to drive. The interior looks and feels good, fuel mileage is reasonable and the entry price is competitive given the available performance.
Why Should You Think Twice About This Car?
Sure, its seats are comfortable enough and the interior looks upmarket, but this is a pretty serious sports machine. While the ride is far from truly objectionable, rough roads will quickly remind you this isn't a cushy cruiser. It's a true sport sedan.
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.