by Jay Traugott
The Audi S3 shares its Volkswagen-based MQB platform with other family-friendly performance cars such as the Golf R and has been around since 2015. It is thus nearing the end of its current lifespan and due for replacement late in 2020 as a 2021 model. Slotting between the run of the mill A3 at the bottom end and the all-out RS3 at the top, the S3's styling follows suit; the standard A3 keeps things looking unassuming, the S3 looks slightly beefier, and the RS3 looks like a barely legal rally car. The S3 is powered by a turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder that it shares with the Golf R and pushes out close to 300 horsepower. The S3 is an executive compact through and through thanks to an impressive list of standard features, but competition remains stiff. BMW's M240i and the Mercedes AMG CLA 45 are both accomplished cars with a later expiry date.
Audi has, for the most part, kept things the way they are. For 2019, you now get Audi's park assist as standard on the S3 Prestige. This system will take care of parallel and perpendicular parking for you, so you don't have to worry about embarrassing yourself outside your favorite coffee spot. Every morning. Otherwise, it's business as usual, and only a few new wheel designs have been added to the 2019 roster.
Audi's A3 range of cars have always looked rather good, the current generation specifically, but in standard form, they don't exactly look menacing; that is the job of the S and RS range of cars. An intimidatingly large hexagonal grille is the first thing you'll notice when looking at the S3 and combined with sharp LED headlights, it looks like something out of a Boston Dynamics promo video. The S3 follows in the footsteps of its bigger and faster siblings when it comes to styling; enormous performance potential hides behind a simple and elegant exterior design that looks every bit as fresh as its contemporaries. The base S3 looks great with its standard 18-inch alloys and flashy full sunroof. At the back, custom quad-exit exhaust pipes round off the rear of the car in the same angular style as the rest of the vehicle. These small touches all come together to form a car that looks bigger and more premium than it actually is.
The 2019 Audi S3 makes use of Volkswagen's ingenious MQB platform that it shares with a bunch of other VAG brands. Don't let the word "sedan" fool you into thinking that the S3 is a large car; it might have four doors and a trunk, but the numbers don't lie. The S3 rolls on a 103.6-inch wheelbase, it's 175.8 inches long, 70.7 inches wide, and 54.8 inches tall. The Golf R, a car that shares a lot in common with the S3, most importantly its platform, measures in slightly shorter at 168.5 inches due to the lack of a trunk. Weighing in at 3,461 pounds, the S3 isn't a lightweight by any stretch of the imagination but does weigh more than 200 pounds less than the equivalent BMW 2 Series.
The 2019 S3 Sedan is available in eight distinct color choices, one of which is exclusive to the S3 range, while the rest are shared between the standard A3 and the RS3. Despite half of the color options on the S3 being a shade of gray or black, the S3 does come with some more eclectic color options: The S3-only Navarra blue is quite alluring, and the Tango Red adds a bit of drama to an otherwise serious looking vehicle. Other colors on offer are Brilliant Black, Mythos Black, Glacier White, Nano Gray, Daytona Gray, and Ara Blue.
The S3 was designed to offer higher levels of performance without sacrificing too much of the standard A3's practicality and comfort. Audi has managed to perfectly distinguish the S3 from the rest of the range, especially in terms of performance, where the S3 sits comfortably between the A3 and RS3. If you were to only read the numbers in the brochure, the S3 would sound like an all-out rally car: 288 turbocharged horsepower sent to all four wheels via a rapid-fire automatic gearbox, sport-tuned suspension, and driving modes to suit specific road conditions. 0-60 mph takes just 4.6 seconds, rapid by any measure, however, major rivals from BMW and Mercedes offer more powerful cars at a similar price point, and even the highly accomplished Golf R, while not as quick, offers similar performance for less money.
The S3 is powered by a clean revving, 2.0-liter four-cylinder that crunches out 288 hp and 280 lb-ft of torque, with the latter figure arriving before the mid-way point of the rev-range. The four-pot revs cleanly up to its 6,800 rpm redline, but it prefers to spill its torque down low and throughout the mid-range, where it will pin you back in your seat. The S3 won't be taking home any trophies at the dyno day, however; the BMW 240i makes 47 more horsepower, and the Mercedes AMG CLA 45 almost doubles that difference with 83 hp more. The main reason for the S3's rapid zero to sixty time of 4.6 seconds is the fact that all that power and torque gets sent to all four wheels thanks to Audi's Quattro AWD system. The seven-speed dual-clutch transmission fires off shifts in no time and doesn't hesitate to provide the driver with lower gears when downshifting hard. The powertrain sounds good, too, firing away with bangs and pops on upshifts, while in between, there's a bass-filled growl to soundtrack your antics.
It might not have the most power or killer straight-line speed, but one thing it does get right is to provide an edge of your seat driving experience. The suspension setup on the 2019 S3 is a rather traditional affair: the standard 18-inch alloys are joined to a MacPherson strut and four-link rear suspension system that works well on smooth roads, but as is to be expected, the ride can get harsh at lower speeds, especially around town where road surfaces aren't that great. There are mountains of grip available from the 225/40 sized summer tires.
Audi has done a praiseworthy job with its electrically assisted power steering system, which weights up just enough to make the steering feel natural, and at the same time, it returns great steering feedback. Lots of grip, great feedback, and a beautiful chassis translate into a car that is easy to drive fast. Whether you're a novice driver or an experienced pilot, anyone can extract 90%+ of the S3's performance potential, making it an ideal point-and-shoot performance car. Coming to a stop is an even simpler affair when you have 13.4-inch ventilated disks sitting up front. Stopping power is strong initially, and doesn't fade even when you're pushing on.
They say that you can't have your cake and eat it, especially when that cake can accelerate to sixty faster than a 2004 Aston Martin Vanquish S V12, but the Audi S3 Sedan won't drain your wallet at the gas station. According to Audi, the S3 will return an EPA rated estimates of 21/28/24 mpg on the city/highway/combined cycles. The heavier and more powerful BMW 240i xDrive will get you 21/30/26 mpg. The S3 gets a 14.5-gallon fuel tank which should be good enough for around 350 miles range in mixed conditions.
There is a reason why Audi has a reputation for building great interiors, and once you step inside the S3, you realize why. Audi has spent some serious time and money to make sure that the S3's insides look and feel a premium as possible, and managed to hide the fact that the current car has been in production in base A3 guise since 2013. The interior layout is typically Audi in the way that it feels uncluttered bordering on sparse, but it is all tied together with top-class materials that give it that German executive feeling we know and love. The tangible stuff feels durable and of high quality, especially the larger knobs and buttons on the dashboard. Outward visibility is good, partly due to a set of narrow windshield pillars. Visibility out the back is compromised by thicker side pillars and a small rear window that necessitates the use of the reverse camera system. The cherry on top is Audi's exceptional virtual cockpit on the Prestige trim.
Subcompact sports cars are never going to be cargo hauling, family vacation heroes, and in reality, they can offer reasonable space for four adults, five if you absolutely have to. The S3 comes equipped with a great set of bucket seats up front, as you'd expect from a car that brands itself as sporty. They offer great side support, but aren't too hardcore and will make excellent road trip companions. Finding a comfy driving position is made simple thanks to a power-adjustable driver's seat with 16 different position settings including four for lumbar adjustment. A wide wheelbase and slim interior design give passengers in the back ample shoulder room, but that doesn't translate into good legroom, most notably in the rear, where six-foot-tall adults will feel cramped.
The interior of the 2019 Audi S3 is something special and plays well with the low key sporty exterior. Brushed and illuminated aluminum interior inlays and cross-stitched leather gives an overwhelming impression of speed and, well, money. The 2019 S3 is available with four different choices of leather color and stitch; Black with Rock Gray contrast stitching, Black Nappa with gray contrast diamond stitching, Magma Red leather with anthracite stitching or Rotor Gray Nappa with Anthracite stitching. The gear selector will also be covered in your choice of leather. For those who want an even sportier look, there is a specialized Audi Sport carbon fiber insert available.
The A3 range isn't known for having the most trunk space; even the standard A3 gets a smaller trunk than the rest of its competitors, but that number is whittled down to a measly 10.0 cubic feet when you add the Quattro AWD system present in the S3. Both the BMW 2 Series and Mercedes CLA offer more space despite having to turn all four wheels. To put 10 cubic feet into perspective, you'll be able to fit two mid-sized suitcases in the trunk of the 2019 S3, and with the split-folding rear seats folded down, you could pack away most of your monthly grocery shop.
Inside, personal storage is decent. There are door pockets and anti-tip cupholders for the driver and passengers, and the center console is large enough to fit a few wallets and cell phones. The glovebox seems small compared to the rest of the class.
The S3 is in the second half of its current generation, thus it gets a long list of standard features, most of which are sourced from the A3 Premium Plus, so even in base trim, you walk away with a good amount of standard equipment. The exterior of the 2019 S3 features full LED head- and taillights, a moonroof as well as a keyless entry system. Inside, full leather upholstery, power seats with 12-way adjustability and interior LED lights to greet the eye. Small touches such as illuminated door sill inlays, heated front seats, and all-aluminum pedals do well to hide the fact that the S3 is almost five years old. Some features are only available on the higher-end trim and include extra USB charging points for the back seat passengers, full navigation, an automatic garage door opener and more. Audi's pre-sense assistance features include a rearview camera, park sensors, and adaptive cruise control, while the feature you'll notice quickest on the top trim is Audi's incredible digital instrument cluster.
Technology gets outdated at an ever-increasing rate these days, case in point is the MMI infotainment system on the S3 that is starting to show its age despite still being an easy to use system that doesn't require a massive learning curve to master. A seven-inch slide screen mounted in the center of the dashboard displays all important nav and media information and is controlled by rotating a centrally located knob. Audi's MMI infotainment system incorporates Apple CarPlay and Google Android Auto as well as a 32GB SD slot, Bluetooth and an Aux input. The standard sound system consists of ten speakers, but that gets replaced by a Bang & Olufsen sound system in the Prestige model. The Prestige model comes standard with the Technology package, which includes full navigation, handwriting recognition, the Bang & Olufsen sound system, and most importantly, a 12.3-inch virtual cockpit display system.
The third-generation Audi S3 has had one recall in the United States. The recall affected certain S3 cars manufactured between 2015 and 2016 and was due to a malfunctioning connector in the passenger occupant detection system. The connector was prone to failure, which could cause the system to not recognize whether or not a passenger was occupying the seat, and in turn, fail to deploy the airbag in case of an accident. In other cases the airbag would deploy with too much force, possibly causing injury. Audi covers the 2019 Audi S3 with a four-year /50,000-mile basic warranty as well as a four year/50,000-mile powertrain warranty, and a four-year roadside assistance guarantee. Recalls aside, owners report few problems with the S3.
The A3 family of cars offer class-leading safety and are known for being some of the safest vehicles in the United States. The IIHS awarded the 2019 Audi A3 with a coveted Top Safety Pick rating due to a good overall score in crash tests. The NHTSA gave the 2019 S3 a full five out of five stars for overall safety.
The IIHS doesn't give away a Top Safety Pick award for no good reason; the 2019 Audi S3 is packed to the brim with cutting edge safety equipment and technology that has proven to keep occupants alive even after major accidents. In terms of airbags, occupants are protected from head to toe thanks to dual front, front knee, front side, and side-curtain airbags, taking the total to eight. Standard safety tech includes auto headlight and wiper activation, front and rear pre-collision warning, a rearview camera, and rear cross-traffic alert. Traditional safety technology such as ABS, tire pressure monitoring, and traction control are all present. The S3 Prestige includes all the latest and most advanced safety tech on offer from Audi, which means it gets adaptive cruise control, active lane assist, auto high beam control, and semi-autonomous parking.
The A3 is noted across the world for being an excellent junior executive car which manages to strike a good balance between price, performance, practicality, and design. This ethos is transferred over to the S3 in a way that makes this 288-hp sports sedan seem completely and utterly practical. The exterior shies away from the current trend of loud and brutish looks, in preference of a more mature look and feel, which makes all the more sense once you step inside. The interior feels premium, to say the least, with special mentions going out to the cross-stitched leather seats and brushed aluminum door inserts. Probably the most important aspect of this car is how it drives, and in that category, it scores high. The balance and steering feel of the S3 is top class; it makes driving extremely fast feel easy and controllable, and the Quattro system gives a sense of surety that when things get out of hand, there's always a bit of extra grip to be found. The 2019 Audi S3 might not be the quickest, biggest or most feature-rich car in its class, but it does so many things so well, that it is difficult to match.
The 2019 S3 is available in two models, the base model goes for an MSRP of $44,500 while the higher-spec trim, the Prestige, will cost you $49,800. These prices exclude a destination fee of $995. The more powerful Mercedes AMG CLA 45 comes in at $53,100 and the more practical Golf R costs $40,395.
You can get the 2019 Audi S3 in two distinct trim levels. The Premium Plus forms the base of the lineup, while the Prestige sits at the top.
Premium models are equipped with the same spec sheet as the standard A3 Premium Plus, but obviously gets the performance-orientated powertrain that includes Quattro AWD, a six-speed DSG auto transmission and a 288-hp turbo four-cylinder engine. On the exterior side of things, the Premium Plus rolls on a set of S-line specific 18-inch wheels and gets a set of full LED head- and taillights as well as a panoramic moonroof. The interior of the Premium Plus includes full leather upholstery, heated front seats, a flat bottomed steering wheel with paddle shifters and Audi's 7.0-inch MMI display and infotainment system.
The Prestige model includes the aforementioned features and adds a set of extra USB charging points for back seat passengers, Audi's 12.3-inch virtual cockpit display, full navigation, and handwriting detection tech, along with a 14-speaker Bang & Olufsen sound system. Added safety tech includes adaptive cruise control, active lane-keep assistance, automatic high beam/low beam switching, and semi-autonomous parking.
The Premium Plus S3 is available with four main packages. The Black optic appearance package costs $1,300 and adds a set of 19-inch matte titanium wheels wrapped in 235/35 summer tires and some high-gloss exterior trimmings. The $1,100 S Sport Package will paint your brake calipers red and replaces the stock suspension setup with Audi's magnetic ride dampers. The S Sport Seat package will set you back $1,450, and for that money, you'll receive fine Nappa leather-covered sport seats with four-way power-adjustable lumbar support and leatherette covered armrests and kneepads. The most expensive package is the Technology package, priced at $3,200. Included in the tech package are an upgraded Bang & Olufsen sound system, Audi's virtual cockpit system, Audi Connect Care, and MMI navigation. All but the Technology package are available on the Prestige, as the Technology package equipment is already equipped.
Both trim levels offer good value for money, and seeing as the 2019 S3 is due for replacement soon, Audi has tried bumping up the S3's appeal by stacking it with standard features. The base S3 gets a full leather interior, heated seats, an Apple CarPlay and Google Android capable MMI infotainment system with a seven-inch display screen, full LED headlights and more. The Prestige adds a massive list of extras on top of the Premium Plus' list. Most significant is the addition of Audi's virtual cockpit system which includes a 12.3-inch display unit. The sound system also sees a major upgrade. Safety levels are improved by the addition of rear cross-traffic assistance, semi-autonomous self-parking and lane-keep assistance. For the $5,300 premium, you do get your money's worth, and with all the tech additions found on the Prestige, it will be the car that will remain the most relevant for longer. Spend the extra and buy the Prestige.
Since they share the same platform and engine, the Golf R was a prime candidate for a comparison with the S3. The first thing to note is the fact that the Golf is a hatchback and not a sedan, so it's technically not competing in the same class. The Golf R can't match the Audi on interior refinement, but offers more interior space, especially with that hatch liftgate that makes packing and unpacking cargo a much simpler affair. Both cars are great driving machines, but the S3 is a sharper handling car. Where the Golf R starts to look really appealing is in the price department. A top of the line Golf R will set you back $40,885, well under the asking price of a Premium Plus S3, and with negligible performance differences, we'd opt for the Golf nine times out of ten.
The CLA 45 manages to trump the S3 in a few categories, most notably in power, weight, fuel consumption, and interior space. The CLA 45's 2.0-liter inline four-cylinder churns out an astonishing 375 hp yet still manages to return a combined fuel consumption figure of only 26 mpg. These are impressive numbers, especially when compared to the lighter and less powerful S3. The CLA 45's interior is on par with that of the Audi, and Mercedes' infotainment system and use of materials are right up there with the best of them. The CLA can't match the S3 for pure driving enjoyment but is most certainly a faster car, intended to rival the full-fat Audi RS3. You'll pay for the extra dose of speed, however; the CLA 45 starts out at an MSRP of $50,400 - splitting the difference between the S3 and RS3. But which to buy? In the real-world, the S3 is all you'll need and want.