by Adam Lynton
As Audi adds the finishing touches to the all-new S3 sedan, the current generation of this premium subcompact sedan continues to be a compelling entry point into the Audi range. As is often the case with a model at the end of its life cycle, the S3 has been finely fettled through the years and now gets even more equipment to complement the powerful, 288-horsepower 2.0-liter powerplant. Coupled with Audi's grippy quattro all-wheel-drive system, the S3 will hit 60 mph in only 4.6 seconds. Although the traditional three-box sedan shape may promise more practicality than in the BMW 2 Series, the S3 doesn't offer much trunk space, and the rear seat is rather cramped. However, the cabin is otherwise a study in logical controls and premium materials. If the S4 sedan is just out of reach and you don't require the extra space it offers, the S3 is a swift and supremely engineered product that feels anything but entry-level.
There have been a few changes to the available trims for the S3 sedan. Falling away is the Prestige trim, with the 2020 range comprising the Premium and the more upscale Premium Plus models. For the Premium Plus, standard features now include a Bang & Olufsen sound system, high-beam assist, an interior storage package with a USB port in the rear, and side mirrors, which are auto-dimming, power-folding, and heated. The newly introduced Premium trim is available with an optional Side and Rear Cross Traffic Assist package; this includes Audi side assist, rear cross-traffic assist, and Audi's parking system with both front and rear sensors. Quantum Gray has additionally been added to the existing color palette.
Other than the addition of the new color option, Quantum Gray, the S3 goes into 2020 with few exterior changes. Of course, being an S-model, this remains a sportier-looking machine than the regular A3. Unique S3 badging, a panoramic sunroof, a sporty 18-inch wheel design as standard, aluminum door sills, and LED headlights on the Premium Plus model set the S3 apart.
The S3 sedan measures 175.8 inches in length, 54.8 inches in height, and 70.7 inches wide. The wheelbase stretches to 103.6 inches. These dimensions are close to those of the Mercedes-Benz A-Class sedan. At the time of writing, curb weight wasn't available for the revised S3 sedan trims, but we expect the sedan to weigh in around 3,500 lbs again.
With Quantum Gray a newly added color, there are now nine shades available for the S3, though more than half of them are either gray or black. Standard exterior colors are Brilliant Black or Quantum Gray, while optionally available shades are Ara Blue Crystal Effect, Daytona Gray Pearl Effect, Glacier White Metallic, Mythos Black Metallic, Nano Gray Metallic, Navarra Blue Metallic, and Tango Red Metallic.
Both S3 trims are equipped with the same turbocharged four-pot. From its 2.0-liter capacity, the engine produces a solid 288 horsepower and 280 lb-ft of torque. Thanks to the standard seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission and all-wheel-drive system, the S3 is capable of delivering a scorching turn of pace that comfortably positions it alongside the best of its immediate rivals. Anything faster comes at a significant price premium. The 0-60 mph run comes up in only 4.6-seconds on the way to an electronically limited top speed of 155 mph. These acceleration runs are easily repeatable thanks to the grippy quattro system, the S3 being utterly clinical in blasting off the line. Although not as emotive as the RS3's five-cylinder, the S3 does elicit a pleasingly sporty growl when pushed.
Sharing the same engine with the Volkswagen Golf R, the 2.0-liter TFSI inline-four is as effective here as it is in VW's potent hatchback. Key outputs are 288 hp and 280-lb-ft, which is plenty in the fairly lithe S3's body. The turbo-four is paired with a seven-speed S tronic dual-clutch transmission. Shifts are smooth and fast, whether at leisurely town speeds or when executing aggressive acceleration runs from a standstill. There is a surfeit of passing power available, with midrange torque a highlight of this engine. However, it's also happy being revved to its red line and sounds good while doing so. Although there is a touch of turbo lag when pulling away from a standing start, once the S3 gets moving, it flies. But, it must be said that the BMW M240i - with its turbocharged six-pot - has the edge for overall power delivery and engine note.
If going around a corner as quickly as possible is your thing, there are few competitors to match the drama-free S3. Sticky tires, a stiffly sprung suspension, and power channeled to all four wheels make it possible to drive the S3 very quickly - and effortlessly so. The steering responds eagerly to the slightest of inputs and, despite electric assistance, there is a reasonable degree of feedback to keep the driver involved.
Ride comfort is average, the S3's firm setup preventing it from cushioning occupants from sharp surface imperfections. However, it's far from intolerable and generally in keeping with the S3's sporting bent. High levels of refinement and insulation also ensure that the S3 isn't a chore when covering longer distances. Audi's magnetic ride/adaptive suspension is available, and allows drivers to choose between comfort or sport modes - the system provides an extra layer of adjustability and control over the S3's dynamics. Powerful brakes provide the same secure feel as the suspension and the system is able to slow down the Audi rapidly from high speeds. It's really only at lower speeds that the firm, sensitive brake pedal can prove a bit tougher to modulate.
Overall, although not as fun as a Golf R or BMW 2 Series, the S3 acquits itself incredibly well dynamically and, in the real world - where one has to contend with unpredictable weather conditions and speed limits - the Audi has few peers.
With EPA-rated fuel economy estimates of 22/29/25 mpg city/highway/combined, the Audi S3 offers admirable efficiency considering the performance on offer. It is marginally more fuel-efficient than the BMW M240i, although the Golf R can manage an extra mile-per-gallon. A 14.5-gallon gas tank size is enough for a combined driving range of 362 miles, with premium unleaded fuel being required.
Climb inside the S3, and you'd be hard-pressed to say that the fundamental interior architecture first made an appearance back in 2013. Yes, the new A-Class sedan's cabin makes more of a visual statement at first glance, but the Audi still does so much, so well. The minimalist design and pleasingly low button count never detract from the driving experience. All major touch points are well-padded and trimmed in smart materials, and the knobs and switches feel rock-solid. While the central screen atop the dashboard looks a bit outdated when the trend is to move towards more integrated displays, the available virtual cockpit still looks as fantastic as it did when first introduced. Outward visibility is generally good; however, a smallish rear window and bulky side pillars do prevent a clear view out the back.
While there is technically seating for five, the S3's relatively tight dimensions limit the amount of interior space that can realistically be freed up. So, while the front passengers will enjoy the amount of room on offer, rear-seat passengers will be less pleased with the limited legroom available. Rear headroom is also an issue - a result of the sedan's sloping roofline - and occupants over six-feet tall will certainly feel the pinch. The middle rear seat passenger gets the rawest deal, as a raised seating position further impinges on headroom.
Interior space aside, the S3's actual seats are great. Not only do they look appropriately sporty, but they provide excellent side support, too. For the driver, a comfortable seating position is easy to find thanks to eight-way power seats with four-way power lumbar adjustment.
An appealing assortment of brushed aluminum inlays tie in nicely with the S3's positioning as a sportier, racier A3. Both trims have leather-upholstered seats in either Black with Rock Gray contrast stitching or Magma Red with Anthracite contrast stitching. Nappa leather is optional, and available colors are Black Nappa leather with Rock Gray contrast stitching, and Rotor Gray Nappa Leather with Anthracite contrast stitching. An available S Sport Seat Package includes door armrests and kneepads trimmed in leatherette.
Although the presence of a traditional trunk promises decent cargo capacity, the S3's trunk is even smaller than the regular A3's due to the quattro system - there's a miserly ten cubic feet of space back there and the opening isn't the biggest. This figure lags behind the trunk sizes of the BMW 2 Series and Mercedes CLA and is only enough for two medium-sized suitcases and a few smaller soft bags. Split-folding rear seats are therefore essential and thankfully offered on the S3.
Small-item storage is catered for by door pockets front and rear, along with anti-tip cupholders in front. A well-sized center console is large enough for everyday essentials, but the glovebox is rather small in this segment.
Generously equipped in both trims, the S3 boasts a welcome mix of comfort and tech features befitting of its position just below the RS3. The new Premium trim has LED daytime running lights, dual-zone climate control, power-adjustable and leather-upholstered front seats with heating, and keyless start/entry. The Premium Plus trim is now the top-line S3 trim (the Prestige held that honor previously but falls away for the 2020 model year) and includes high beam assist, along with side mirrors that are heated, power-folding, and auto-dimming. For enhanced safety, the Side and Rear Cross Traffic Assist package is optional and adds Audi side assist, rear cross-traffic assist, and Audi's parking system plus.
The retractable MMI center information display screen measures seven inches and can be operated with the controller on the center console. While still intuitive to operate, the system now feels rather outdated alongside the likes of Mercedes' MBUX. HD radio, Bluetooth connectivity, an SDXC card slot with 32 GB of storage, SiriusXM with a 90-day trial subscription, both Android Auto and Apple CarPlay compatibility, and auxiliary audio input are all standard. While the Premium trim uses the standard Audi sound system with ten speakers, the Premium Plus gets the impressive, 14-speaker Bang & Olufsen upgrade. Audi's pioneering and tech-rich virtual cockpit is optional and sports a 12.3-inch display screen ahead of the driver - this system is a worthwhile upgrade that gives the interior a welcome lift.
Certain S3 models manufactured between 2015 and 2016 were recalled due to a malfunctioning connector as part of the passenger occupant detection system. The result was the system being unable to detect whether a passenger was in their seat or not, which could fail to trigger airbag deployment in the event of an accident. In 2017, the NHTSA issued a recall also related to airbags - in this instance, an airbag could potentially deploy with more force than intended. However, no recalls were issued for 2018 and 2019 S3 sedans. Other than these reported issues, the S3 has not suffered any serious problems. Audi covers the S3 with a four-year/50,000-mile basic warranty and a four-year/50,000-mile drivetrain warranty.
As a whole, the A3 range offers exceptionally high levels of safety. While the 2020 model hasn't yet been crash-tested by the IIHS, the 2019 A3 sedan was named as a Top Safety Pick when equipped with full LED headlights. The 2020 Audi S3 received the full five-star NHTSA rating for overall safety.
It's easy to see why the A3 range boasts such an impressive safety record. Many active and passive safety features are fitted as standard to keep drivers and their passengers safe in the unfortunate event of a crash. Eight airbags are standard, with rear-passenger thorax side airbags being available as a standalone option. A rearview camera and automatic headlights/ wipers are included, as is Audi's pre sense system. This safety suite can detect hazards or potential accidents, and prepare the car for such an eventuality by, for example, tightening the front seat belts and enabling acoustic and visual warnings. The Premium trim - new for 2020 - can be optionally specified with the Side and Rear Cross Traffic Assist package, with features like rear cross-traffic alert and acoustic parking sensors front and rear. Opt for the Premium Plus trim, and these features are standard fitment.
Nearing the end of its lifecycle, the current generation of the S3 is a typically polished performance car from Audi. Dynamically, it does exactly what it says on the tin, providing a perfect balance between the cheaper A3 sedan and the fire-breathing RS3. Performance from the turbo-four is excellent and it's matched by sure-footed dynamics. For some, the S3 is too isolated and muted as a performance machine, while for others, the mix of refinement and a wicked turn of pace is ideal. Highlights include the stunningly built interior and dynamic potential, which flatters a less confident driver. It also helps that there isn't really a direct competitor: the BMW M240i is a two-door coupe, the Volkswagen Golf R is a hatchback with a less premium badge, and Mercedes-Benz's CLA 45 AMG is a closer match for the RS3. Packaging issues aside, the S3 is a flawless compact luxury sedan for the younger executive.
The Premium model has a starting MSRP of $43,000. This price excludes taxes, licensing registration, and a $995 destination fee. Notably, the base 2020 S3 now starts at $1,500 less than the cheapest 2019 model. Moving up a trim is the S3 Premium Plus at $45,600.
The simple S3 line-up comprises the Premium and the better-equipped Premium Plus. Both use a 288-hp turbo four-cylinder engine, a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission, and Quattro AWD.
Starting off with the Premium gets you LED daytime running lights, LED taillights, dual-zone climate control, an eight-way power driver's seat, heated front seats, leather upholstery, a panoramic sunroof, and a ten-speaker audio system. Audi's seven-inch MMI display screen and infotainment system is standard fare.
The big-ticket item you'll immediately notice inside the more expensive Premium Plus trim is the fantastic Bang & Olufsen audio system: with 14 speakers and 705 watts, it provides rich sound quality. This trim level also adds high-beam assist and exterior side mirrors, which are auto-dimming, power-folding, and heated. On the safety front, there are eight airbags, Audi's collision detection system, a rearview camera, and an automatic function for both the windshield wipers and headlights. Optional on the Premium but standard on the Premium Plus are front and rear parking sensors, rear cross-traffic assist, and Audi side assist.
Newly introduced for 2020 is the Side and Rear Cross Traffic package for the Premium trim. Three driver-assistive technologies are built into this package: Audi side assist, rear cross-traffic assist, and the Audi parking system with both front and rear parking sensors.
At the time of writing, final prices had not been confirmed for the additional packages for the 2020 S3, but we anticipate them to be similar to the packages available for the 2019 model. For $1,100, the S sport Package substitutes the standard suspension with Audi's magnetic ride dampers and also adds red-painted brake calipers. The S Sport Seat Package costs $1,450 and boasts sports seats in fine Nappa leather and armrests and kneepads trimmed in leatherette. Specifying the Technology Package includes the fitment of Audi's 12.3-inch virtual cockpit display ahead of the driver, along with navigation and the Bang & Olufsen audio system. The price of this package will differ between the Premium and Premium Plus, as the latter is already equipped with the upgraded sound system.
Priced fairly close to each other, both the Premium and Premium Plus trims represent good buys. For $2,600 less, the Premium does without the Bang & Olufsen sound system, high-beam assist, and interior storage package, which includes a rear USB port. It also misses out on some driver-assistive safety features like rear cross-traffic assist. However, if these particular features aren't essential for you, then it could be a good move to go for the Premium trim, which still has powered and heated front seats, leather upholstery, and a decent infotainment system with both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto integration. The most desirable option by far is the virtual cockpit display with navigation - ahead of its time when launched, this digital display is still one of the best in the business.
With menacing styling and a viciously powerful 2.0-liter turbo - how do outputs of 382 horsepower and 354 lb-ft sound to you? - the frankly comical CLA 45 occupies an elite performance plane a few notches above even the S3. While both cars feature exquisitely built interiors, the Mercedes' is far more striking and looks like the significantly fresher of the two - which, of course, it is. With the outgoing CLA 45 costing $53,100 and the 2020 model expected to be priced at a similar level, there is clearly a price to pay for the gulf in power between the S3 and this. Yes, the CLA 45 is the more emotive machine, but does one really require that much power in a compact sedan? The S3 simply looks like the far more sensible purchase.
While a hatchback and a sedan may not look like natural competitors, both share the same Volkswagen Group MQB platform and turbocharged engine. With both of these models due to be replaced soon, which leaves as the winner? Well, the Golf R remains the cheaper option by just under $2,000, so immediately gets out to an advantage. The Golf's hatchback shape also makes it more spacious in the back, and there's greater cargo capacity than in the S3. While the S3 is the sharper handler, the Golf is no slouch and actually has a slightly more comfortable ride quality. If you can't tell yet, the Golf R is the surprisingly easy pick here in all measurable aspects. It's cheaper, just as fast, and more practical. Plus, the Golf R is better-equipped than the Premium trim S3. Only the Audi's more desirable badge may sway buyers towards it.