- Modern and elegant interior
- Strong engine and fast transmission
- Well-sorted magnetorheological suspension
- Tight rear headroom
- No hatchback
The unofficial slogan of Austin, Texas, is Keep Austin Weird. I don't know how long it's been around, but it's working well so far. The hipster capital of Texas is only a 160-mile drive from Houston, which is virtually next door in Texan terms. The artistic, metropolitan and, well, weird Austin is worlds apart culturally from most of the state. It's fitting that Audi chose this worldly mishmash as the epicenter for the U.S. launch of its new 2015 Audi S3 Quattro. Not only does weirdness fit this super-compact's personality, but one of the best racing facilities in the world is right outside the city.
Based on VW and Audi's new transverse modular platform, dubbed MQB, you might think this car would be a simple continuation of the previous-generation A3/S3/Golf. It does share some commonalities, like a 2.0L direct-injected and turbocharged four-cylinder—now with a thumping 292 hp and 280 lb-ft of torque. It also shares the six-speed S-tronic dual-clutch transmission and Haldex all-wheel-drive system of previous cars. Mechanical similarities aside, though, it feels much different. Granted, there's never been an S3 officially imported to the States, and if there were, it would have been a hatchback. This new car has a spiritual connection with the B5 S4, a car some would say defined the Audi we know today.
The interior feels a like a fresh start, going for a far different feel than some of the standard A3's over-styled Japanese competition. It still says "Ingolstadt," but there's something else going on. In the same way that the original TT found elegance in simplicity, the designers have shaved off a large amount of unnecessary. Is it too cliche to say it feels a bit Apple-esque? The dash surface looks and feels like a large swath of rubber. It isn't even trying to be leather. Poke and prod at it, and it feels like it's 3 inches thick. The turbine-style air vents are more aeronautical than ever, as though you could kick on the afterburners if the weather gets too frigid. A strip of aluminum bisects the dash and houses rocker switches that would otherwise be scattered around the place. Aluminum adorns almost everything: the shifter, pedals, door releases, and even the steering wheel, which—in typical Audi fashion—is one of the best in the business.
The front seats are well-bolstered, comfortable for larger occupants, and even have the model designation embossed below the headrest. The back seats are a decent size and offer good hip and shoulder room. But friends over average height will likely get to experience the anthracite headliner firsthand. Also, you will quickly realize how much space child seats consume. A rear-facing seat in the back will require sliding the front seat almost all the way up to the dash. Kids in booster seats will probably be overjoyed at a back seat that seems built just for them.
The driver will also feel the S3 is tailor-made. Vision is excellent, with the positioning of corners and tires immediately obvious. You can place the S3 with complete confidence. The seating position is near ideal and, as you settle in, the car wraps itself around you. While larger Audis have this same ability, an A8 is still huge and will never feel as tight and contained as the S3.
I was lucky enough to experience the Audi in a variety of conditions, with storm clouds rolling through Texas. The all-wheel-drive system works wonders for putting down power. On wet roads, nothing can beat the ability to distribute power to all four corners. The magnetorheological adjustable dampers don't hurt, either. The suspension can go from subtly soft to sporty stiff in the blink of an eye, or the push of the Audi Drive Select button.
The wet, damp, dry, and back again roads outside Austin lead to the Circuit of the Americas, where I got in a couple of hot laps hopelessly trying to chase Allan McNish in an R8 Plus. At least I think it was a Plus. I saw the taillights for all of 2 seconds. At least he wasn't there to distract me for long. Despite being the entry-level S car, the S3 feels shockingly at home on a track. The RS is going to arrive with giant expectations.
The S3 will gladly rotate into turns, either with or without a bit of trail braking. It seems to like a more delicate touch, dialing in the steering with measured confidence. It will still understeer coming off tight turns, so plan throttle input carefully. Around COTA's faster sweepers, the S3 hangs on to a line with more grip than a 3,500-pound car wearing relatively narrow 235/35 19-inch tires should. Its attitude is neutral, and a careful hand will get the back end out just slightly. It feels planted but open to mid-corner corrections. This would be an ideal car for the beginning to intermediate track enthusiast. And it's fun, which is maybe more important than how well it's set up, from a strictly performance aspect. It inspires confidence and makes me want to keep pushing harder. While this car surprises me a little with its capabilities, it never unnerves me.
In this way, the car is like the B5 S4. That model hit the States roughly 15 years ago and changed the way we thought about performance sedans. The turbocharged engine was great from the factory, but even better with a few wisely chosen modifications. With horsepower north of 500, it was still predictable, easily driveable, and still made you feel like Superman. The S3 touches that same nerve. At just under $42,000, it's relatively affordable, although it feels smaller than the usual offerings from a luxury manufacturer. It doesn't even necessarily feel like the rest of cars surrounding it in Audi showrooms. I'd hate to call the S3 weird, but it's certainly unique—and that's one of the things that makes it so appealing.