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2022 Audi S3 Road Test Review: Cute-sized performance

The Audi S3 has long been an enthusiast’s luxury sedan alternative to the Volkswagen Golf R. These two have shared chassis, powertrains and driving dynamics, but always varied widely when it came to pricing. No longer is the Golf R its sole comparison, though, as others like the Mercedes-AMG CLA 35 and BMW M235i Gran Coupe are now here to challenge it. And despite its more natural luxury competition being in the fold, that Golf R comparison is more valid than ever, as the freshly redesigned S3, starting at $46,925 with destination, is priced nearly identically to a Golf R.

With competitors knocking on the door from every which way, it’s a good thing that the S3 is still a small storm of a sedan to drive. The 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder makes a strong 306 horsepower and 295 pound-feet of torque, which is good enough to crack off 4.5-second 0-60-mph times using the car’s launch control function. This little bugger is quick, and it’s happy to shout about it with the active exhaust system. Put it in “Present” mode — yes, Audi is being polite about its exhaust mode setting names — and it crackles, pops and bangs on shifts like every other performance car out of Germany tends to do these days. There’s nothing unique or particularly special about the noise, but it’s indeed present. Onlookers will never mistake it for an A3, and we’re going to count that as a point in the S3’s favor.

In the realm of less positive news, Audi’s recent downward trend in terms of interior luxury hits the A3/S3 models, too. The design is sure to catch your attention upon first glance, but spend more time with the materials used throughout the cabin, and you’ll quickly conclude that this S3 is of a lower quality than the outgoing one. If you’re one who favors a Blade Runner-esque look to your interior, though, this S3 is for you. It’s all sharp edges and brutalism in style. Functionality is shockingly good, with the exception of the perplexing touch volume scroller that operates like an old iPod Nano. The old little knob was better. Besides that, Audi provides physical, easily read controls for the climate and radio. It’s the direct opposite of a Golf R in this respect, which is one reason why the S3 is so tempting. Trying to operate the Golf R’s frustrating climate/multimedia interface at night might be all that’s needed to win you over to Audi’s side.

Start hustling an S3 down a twisty road, though, and favor quickly returns to the Golf R. That’s because Audi doesn’t equip the S3 with the new torque-vectoring rear differential found on the Golf R. At Audi, this awesome handling (and drifting) tech is reserved for the five-cylinder RS 3 — a shame, seeing that this new rear differential genuinely made the new Golf R far more fun to drive than the previous one.

Instead, the Quattro all-wheel-drive system does its job of quelling any hint of on-power understeer in corners, and accelerating you through them with loads of momentum. Dial the adaptive dampers up to their most aggressive setting, and the ride is still rather agreeable. It’s best left in that setting if you want the most reactive and stable handling feel down a meandering road. 

The S3’s small size works in the car’s favor when it comes to agility and ease of use, but the 3,538-pound curb weight is too much to make it feel small and tossable. This sedan’s weight is noticeable through corners, and it unfortunately comes with a dab of front-heaviness, not neutrality. The tire setup on the S3 isn’t enormous, with 235-section-width rubber at all four corners when you spec the optional 19-inch wheels, but these summer tires help bail the car out in some cases. Even when you think the chassis is a little overburdened, the S3 is still tenaciously gripping to the pavement.

Like many Audi products of the “S” variety, the S3 shines in daily driving duty. The added performance you get doesn’t seem to hinder ride comfort in the least bit, as the car plods over poor pavement with the ease and isolation you’d expect from an A3. We cannot say the same for the CLA 35, as AMG takes performance a bit more seriously than Audi in this case. Even the loud exhaust can be switched to a whisper, transforming the S3 into an ideal commuter.

Overall utility is solid, with 35.2 inches of rear legroom, though the fairly large S Sport seats do cut into and crowd the space in the back. It’s close to what you’d find in a Golf R, but without the tall roof overhead. Of course, the S3 trunk can’t compete with the Golf’s hatchback. It’s right about now that we wish Audi sold its Sportback version of the S3 and RS 3 here, as a capacious hatchback is almost always preferable over a small sedan in our eyes (though there can be some caveats).

But alas, we’re stuck with the sedan, and despite moaning over the body shape, the S3 looks shockingly good. This tester’s Daytona Gray Pearl isn’t our preferred color option, but the generous application of red S3 accents and bi-color wheels bring some intrigue to the package. It’s a small, scrappy car, and the aggressiveness is ramped up another notch with the Black Optic Package that chops all the silver trim away to be replaced with shiny black trim, a definite upgrade.

Unfortunately, all of these options steeply increase the price beyond that tempting base level mentioned above. At the absolute minimum, you’ll want the $1,100 S Sport Package that includes the adaptive dampers and the 19-inch wheel/summer tire package that forces you into the $1,950 Black Optic Package. This ramps the price up to $48,995, which is still within sight of a Golf R that comes fully loaded as standard. The price also compares well to competitors like the AMG CLA 35 and M235i Gran Coupe that both get even more expensive with similar equipment. 

As it stands in an essentially loaded state at $55,890, the S3 is a legit do-it-all performer with nearly every bit of tech you might want or expect from an Audi. You can have fun and smack through the gears on the seven-speed dual-clutch transmission, make all the silly noise you want and still have a refined daily driver once you’re done being a hooligan. It’s more fun than the BMW option, and won’t rattle your brains out like the AMG. This S3 is a sweet spot you can lean into if you’re not trying to step into something as serious as the RS 3, but still want a car that can plant a grin on your face each time you drive it.

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