The Audi S3 is a near-perfect performance sedan.
The Audi S3 is part of a niche segment for compact sport sedans in the USA, with only rivals like the Mercedes-AMG CLA 35 and BMW M235i Gran Coupe left. The latter isn't even a four-door, showing how poorly represented the segment is due to the rise of crossovers and SUVs.
But there is still a small group of dedicated fans, and the cars mentioned above must hit multiple targets. They must be sporty, practical, relatively fuel-efficient, luxurious, and attractive.
It's a tall order, so what better way to test the S3 than to crisscross the intensely varied biomes of Southern California? We did it all in the S3, including getting stuck in traffic, cruising on the highway, and exploiting the performance potential on a few quiet twisty roads.
Our S3 test unit cost $57,440 ($44,900 MSRP). We've tested the A35 AMG and the 2 Series Gran Coupe, and they were cheaper, even with options included. Audi added several big-ticket options to this unit, and it's all stuff you'd either want or expect on a car like this.
The Prestige Package includes Audi's Virtual Cockpit, a Bang & Olufsen sound system, and adaptive cruise control. These are all must-have items, taking the price up to $52,095. Ibis White and Turbo Blue are the only no-cost paint options, which means the S3 requires another $595 investment if you want it to stand out.
We'd skip the Black Optic package ($1,950), which is simply cosmetic. That money is better spent on the $1,100 S Sport Package, which includes red brake calipers and a sportier suspension setup with damper control. Finally, Audi added a $1,250 Nappa leather package, elevating the interior quality far beyond that of its rivals.
Audi's exterior DNA is best described as sinister yet elegant. The grille and lower intakes might be too much for some, but have you seen a BMW these days?
The reason this car works so well is simplicity. If you look at the profile, you'll notice that it's a simple sedan shape that doesn't try and blend various design concepts that don't work together. Both its main rivals are coupe-like sedans, which is a formula that fails more often than not.
Audi went with a simple design and added subtle design cues, like the more aggressive air intakes, red brake calipers, integrated rear spoiler, an indistinct diffuser, and dual exhausts on both sides of the tail.
The EA888 engine is a legend at this point. It's powered everything from the fifth-generation GTI to the entry-level Porsche Macan and damn near every four-cylinder Volkswagen Group product in between. Here, it produces 306 horsepower and 295 lb-ft of torque. The EA888 has always been a peaky, quintessentially turbocharged engine, despite the best attempts to eliminate turbo lag. Peak torque only arrives at 3,000 rpm, but the S3 is equipped with a mild-hybrid system that fills the torque gap to some extent, but it's still there.
If you've heard any of the products equipped with this engine, you'll know what it sounds like. It can be pretty vocal when you want it to be and subdued when you're not in the mood. The M235i is more of the same, and the CLA 35 is the loudest of the bunch. Honestly, they all do the same job, at least vocally. In their various sport modes, they burp and crack enthusiastically.
The seven-speed dual-clutch transmission is yet another VAG staple. Here, it performs wonderfully. We rank this transmission above any others in the class.
We made judicious use of the S3's adaptive cruise function, which works nearly as well as the gearbox, only getting occasionally hung up on the decision-making of California drivers. The combination of this system and the transmission make for a truly relaxing experience on the highway.
Finally, we get to the S3's upgraded brakes. Being a performance model, it gets ventilated rotors and larger calipers up front. Between the S3 and the CLA 35, the S3 wins based on brake feel. The two cars are equal when it comes to stopping power, however. The go-faster 2 Series Gran Coupe matches Audi's braking feel and stopping power, but the rest of the driving experience is too underwhelming.
If you've driven an Audi before, you'll know where this part of the review is headed. Despite this car still packing its front-biased layout, the Audi S3 delivers when you come across a twisty road.
All cars must make compromises, especially in this segment. The BMW compromises too much, as it's devoid of steering feel and any meaningful engagement. The CLA is a bit soft, and you must add the optional AMG Ride Control to get the most out of it.
The Audi is devastatingly effective at covering ground, but it never feels close to the edge. It has a grip for days and goes where you point it without hesitation. This is a huge selling point to some, but we can't help but miss the days of front-wheel-drive hot hatches and lift-off oversteer. Still, Toyota proved you can have your cake and eat it with the GR Corolla, which is more than happy to get its tail out when an occasion presents itself.
Thankfully, the Honda Civic Type R also exists if you're looking for old-school FWD hot hatch fun.
What it does get right, besides outright grip, is steering feel. There's a tactility to the Audi's steering that's helped along by its softer suspension and lighter weight. The tires feel like they're always touching the tarmac and not simply skipping over it.
The rack is quick, too, ensuring Robin Hood-like accuracy. Thanks to the S3's manual override, you can pick a gear on the way into a corner. Mid-corner adjustments are possible without upsetting the car too much, thanks to the brilliant quattro all-wheel-drive system. The AWD will also fire you out of the corner if you keep the vehicle within its narrow-ish torque band.
The S3 suits a driver who loves going fast but doesn't love flirting with the consequences. In other words, this is the thinking man's canyon carver.
It'll take a beating, too, as our day in the canyons proved. It was roughly 89-100 degrees depending on altitude in the LA canyons, and the S3 handled it with aplomb. Not once did we see the temperature gauges go haywire, and limp mode never came out to ruin the day.
The brakes also delivered consistent performance, in keeping with the car's overall theme of not wanting to flirt with unintended consequences.
Audi does technology better than anyone in the segment. BMW and Mercedes come close, but Audi Digital Cockpit's and MMI's intuitiveness can't be beaten. At no point do your hands need to leave the wheel for anything, and the voice-recognition system can handle anything the steering wheel controls can't.
The steering wheel is a fantastic thing, too. Here, Audi beats everyone in the business, crafting a Goldilocks wheel that offers quality materials, the perfect size, and the ideal shape. The vents on either side of the instrument cluster also provide a fighter-jet-like vibe while keeping cold or hot air from blowing directly onto your hands.
There are some scratchy plastics, as with every car at this price point. But they're hidden, buried below your knees, or well out of reach.
The S3 shines bright in another area: the little things. The diamond stitching on the seats, for example. It's far nicer than anything from Affalterbach or Munich. The door handles feel slight and elegant, too. The tiny "quattro" badge on the dash is also a beautiful touch.
The rear seats fold down but only partially flat. You can keep adults back there, too, though those over 5'11" won't be terribly comfy. Kids will, and they'll love the turbo noises.
Should you want to go surfing, mountain biking, or anything that requires a sizeable recreational item to be placed in the S3, you'll need rails. We made do with a few towels, some bungee straps, and a 9-foot longboard.
Stacking the S3 against the A35 feels unfair. We like the little AMG in a vacuum, but it never really stood a chance and was therefore axed.
That leaves the M23i Gran Coupe. The Bimmer is fast and corners well, but there's just no engagement. BMW is at its best when it does RWD or AWD cars with a rear bias, but the M235i is essentially a FWD car that only engages the rear axle when it detects a loss in traction.
BMW offers a little more luxury than the S3, but the Audi has nicer leather. Audi's infotainment is our preference here. The 2 Series Gran Coupe has not yet been equipped with the new iDrive 8. We won't leave Mercedes-AMG out in this department either. MBUX is still one of the best, but only if you like talking to a car.
The S3 is just as comfy as the M235i on the road, making things all the more difficult for buyers. Aesthetically, the Audi wins hands down. The Gran Coupe does not need to exist. We would have been delighted with a 135i hatch, but alas.
So, where does that leave the S3? If you ask us, it's the segment king, so long as you're after a four-door sedan. No one builds one quite like Audi, even if it occasionally compromises in the driving department. But no car can check every box.
If you need a car that'll tick 99.9999999% of all boxes, the 2022 Audi S3 is as good as things get under $60,000.