This is one of the best performance bargains available right now.
So, you've got about $20,000 to spend on a new sedan. That will get you into a brand-new 2020 Toyota Corolla, which starts at $19,500. The base Corolla produces just 139 horsepower from its 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine but at least this little mill provides a combined 33 mpg rating. You can step up to a larger 2.0-liter engine producing 169 hp and an even better 34 mpg combined rating but it will set you back $21,950.
But what if mpg wasn't your main priority and you wanted something a little faster? The sportier 2019 Mazda3 seems like a nice alternative for $21,895 but even this only produces 186 hp from a 2.5-liter four-pot. Fortunately for speed freaks, we've found an often forgotten Audi model that is now very affordable thanks to depreciation - the Audi S3.
The A3 is the cheapest Audi model you can buy in the US, powered by a 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder producing 184 to 228 hp. Although this is more power than most mainstream compacts, we are more interested in the performance S3 model, which sits between the A3 and the hardcore RS3. Don't let its diminutive size fool you, the S3 is an excellent performance car that shares its drivetrain with the Volkswagen Golf R. Unlike a Golf R, the S3 bears the prestige of an Audi badge, so your friends and family will think you paid a lot more for it than you actually did.
A brand-new 2019 S3 starts at $44,500 but you now find a used one for less than half as much. We found several 2015 models (the first year offered in the US) for less than $20,000. Many of these cars have fairly low miles (less than 65,000) for well under $25,000. The only downside to buying one at this price is that Audi's four-year/50,000-mile warranty has already expired. If you want to buy an S3 with a certified pre-owned warranty, expect to pay at least $27,000, which is still a great value.
All S3 models are powered by a tuned version of the A3's 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder producing 292 hp and 280 lb-ft of torque. Like in most Audi performance models, power is sent out to Quattro all-wheel-drive through a six-speed dual-clutch DSG transmission. Unlike the Golf R, the S3 was never sold in the US with a manual transmission. You likely won't miss the manual because the S3's dual-clutch and launch control allow it to hit 60 mph in just 4.7 seconds and complete the quarter-mile in 13.4 seconds at 102.4 mph.
The other big advantage of having the DSG is the ability to tune the S3 to produce massive amounts of power. VW's manual transmissions can't hold as much power as the DSG units without needing an upgraded clutch. With just a Stage I APR tune and an intake, the S3 can produce a whopping 383 hp. Even with the stock turbo on a Stage II tune, the S3 can run around an 11.7-second quarter-mile time, making this one of the best affordable drag cars money can buy.
Audi made sure to differentiate the S3 from its more pedestrian A3 sibling with a deeper grille, larger wheels, silver mirror caps, and plenty of 'S3' badges. While a Golf R just looks like an unassuming hatchback, your neighbors will envy the styling of this handsome executive sedan. Most S3 examples are painted in boring colors like black and silver but Audi did produce a limited run of Exclusive Edition cars with vibrant colors.
Inside, the S3 differentiates itself from its Golf R underpinnings with a classy and luxurious interior. It may not be the most visually exciting cabin but the materials are excellent and the technology is fantastic even for a five-year-old car. Audi debuted its virtual cockpit technology on the A3, meaning the S3 features optional digital gauges instead of analog ones. This allows the driver to display the map in the gauge cluster without having to take their eyes away from the road to look at the pop-out central screen.
The S3 also features cool optional leather chairs with diamond stitching, which differentiates the car even further from a base A3. Other cool options include Bang & Olufsen audio, magnetic ride suspension, and adaptive cruise control.
Even though it is a performance bargain, the S3 doesn't skimp on practicality. Trunk space is a usable 10 cubic feet and rear seat occupants are treated to 35.1-inches of leg room. You won't get many six-foot passengers back there but smaller occupants will be just fine. The S3 also won't kill you on efficiency with mpg ratings of 22-mpg in the city and 29 mpg on the highway, though it will require premium fuel.
There are plenty of highly depreciated luxury performance cars on the used market but very few offer the relative affordability and ease of ownership found with the Audi S3. For less than $30,000, you can now get a warrantied S3 with low mileage, which can easily be tuned to outrageous levels of performance. The S3 does this all while wearing an Audi badge and giving the driver an elevated pride of ownership as friends and neighbors jealously admire this used hidden gem, thinking it cost a lot more than it actually did.