All-wheel drive, compact size, really flies

The 2017 Audi S3 may not draw a lot of unnecessary attention to itself, but don’t be mistaken: Underneath its understated design is a spicy little number that is among the best-driving compact sedans on the market, bar none. With 292 horsepower from its TFSI turbocharged four-cylinder engine and the handling prowess of Quattro all-wheel drive, the 2017 Audi S3 is a riot on curvy roads. It’s also adept at munching miles on interstate highways, particularly if you’re not hauling a carload of passengers.

  • 2017 Audi S3 - Driven
  • Year:
    2017
  • Make:
  • Model:
  • Engine:
    inline-4
  • Transmission:
    Six-Speed Auto
  • Horsepower @ RPM:
    292 @ 5400
  • MPG(Cty):
    21
  • MPG(Hwy):
    28
  • Torque @ RPM:
    280 @ 1900
  • Energy:
    Gasoline
  • Displacement:
    2.0 L
  • 0-60 time:
    4.7 sec.
  • Top Speed:
    155 mph
  • Price:
    42900
  • Price:
  • car segment:
  • size:
  • Purpose:
  • body style:
  • Overall:
    9/10

Exterior

2017 Audi S3 - Driven Exterior High Resolution
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2017 Audi S3 - Driven Exterior High Resolution
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2017 Audi S3 - Driven Exterior High Resolution
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2017 Audi S3 - Driven Exterior High Resolution
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Being the smallest model in the lineup here in the States, the Audi S3 looks like a sporty version of the A3.

Exterior design on Audi sedans takes on a very old-school German philosophy: Same sausage, different lengths. Being the smallest model in the lineup here in the States, the Audi S3 looks like a sporty version of the A3 — and the “3” models are like shrunken twins of the similarly styled S4 and A4, which are smaller versions of the S6 and A6, which are like smaller versions of the S8 and A8. Line them all up together, and they look remarkably similar.

The front view of the 2017 Audi S3 I tested is not that different from the S4 or S6, for example. There’s the trademark Audi hexagon grille, sleek LED accents that act like mascara for the headlights, and a very cohesive, clean pair of creases that begin at the top inner corner of the headlight lenses and flow beautifully up the hood toward the lower corners of the windshield.

2017 Audi S3 - Driven Exterior High Resolution
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2017 Audi S3 - Driven Exterior High Resolution
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2017 Audi S3 - Driven Exterior High Resolution
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From the side, the Audi S3’s relatively tight dimensions come into better focus.

From the side, the Audi S3’s relatively tight dimensions come into better focus, as it’s clear there’s not a lot of overhang past the front or rear wheels. A crisp character line starts almost invisibly at the rearmost point of the headlight, traveling back through both doors just above the door handles before finally terminating at the foremost point of the taillight.

A secondary cut in the lower third of the profile starts at the same level as the front wheel hub just ahead of the front door, the juts upward sharply on its way back to the rear wheel well, giving a sensation of speed. This line continues onward after the brief interruption by the rear wheel, forming the surface that will turn into the top lip of the rear bumper. It’s a design that is striking in its combination of simplicity and effectiveness.

At the rear, the 2017 Audi S3 has an attractive, anodyne look. Like the rest of the car, the design here is simple and effective. The S3 has a well-integrated trunk lid spoiler, and there’s a pseudo-diffuser framing quad exhaust tips at the bottom of it all. LED taillights are cool and let people behind you know this isn’t a run-of-the-mill compact car.

Exterior Dimensions

Length 103.6 Inches
Height 54.8 Inches
Width (with mirrors) 77.2 Inches
Front Track 61.1 Inches
Rear Track 60.1 Inches
Drag Coefficient 0.31

Interior

2017 Audi S3 - Driven Interior High Resolution
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2017 Audi S3 - Driven Interior High Resolution
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2017 Audi S3 - Driven Interior High Resolution
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The sporty front buckets were very attractive.

First, let me just say: Oh my goodness, these seats. The front and rear seats in my tester were black leather, with some sections done up in quilted stitching. The sporty front buckets were very attractive and drew a lot of positive reaction when I shared a photo of them on Instagram.

Those seats were mighty comfortable, too. They included extendable thigh support and plenty of adjustable lumbar support. Side bolstering was good, but not too snug for boys like me who get a steady diet of potatoes.

Rear seating would not be as kind to a six-footer like me, however. Audi says there’s 35.1 inches of rear legroom and 36.1 inches of headroom. I say it’s snug if you’re six feet tall, especially if you’re sitting behind another person of that height. My children, ages 1 and 5, did not gripe. However, my wife complained a bit about making room for the rear-facing child seat of our youngest, which left her with little legroom in the front passenger seat.

2017 Audi S3 - Driven Interior High Resolution
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2017 Audi S3 - Driven Interior High Resolution
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The dashboard was a remarkably clean design, like most recent Audis.

The dashboard was a remarkably clean design, like most recent Audis. Free of superfluous buttons and dials, it’s refreshingly simple at a glance. However, there’s still plenty of technology on-deck. An infotainment screen pops up out of the dash when you start the car.

The gauge cluster had Audi’s awesome Virtual Cockpit TFT screen instead of analog gauges. This digital cluster gives you an on-screen representation of your speedometer and tach — some purists don’t like that — but it also gives the flexibility to do awesome things like view a Google Maps navigation route with full satellite imagery while minimizing the gauges to a secondary role.

Audi’s MMI infotainment setup deserves the praise it typically gets. Our S3 had the MMI touch control dial in the console that allowed easy maneuvering through the menus and submenus of the infotainment software. Audi also had presence of mind enough to include Android Auto connectivity. I found myself liking this infotainment setup better than the ones I’ve experienced in more expensive BMW and Mercedes cars lately.

My favorite party trick with MMI Touch is the handwriting recognition of the control dial. Go to the phone screen and start tracing the letters of a contact’s first name. It’ll search your contacts instantly, narrowing the field as you continue tracing letters. Too cool.

Interior Dimensions

Front Headroom 36.5 Inches
Rear Headroom 36.1 Inches
Front Shoulder Room 54.8 Inches
Rear Shoulder Room 53.0 Inches
Front Legroom 41.2 Inches
Rear Legroom 35.1 Inches
Cargo Room 10 Cu-Ft
Seating Capacity 5

Driving

2017 Audi S3 - Driven Interior High Resolution
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I cannot overstate the joys of Quattro all-wheel drive.

Front-wheel drive compact cars with any sort of sporty powertrain — Hyundai Elantra Sport, for example — have a tendency to plow through turns thanks to classic front-wheel drive understeer. Rear-wheel drive compacts like the A3’s German competitor, the BMW 3 Series, often have the opposite problem: They get tail-happy when pushed in the twisties. In either case, traction control nannies often intervene before most drivers realize what’s actually going on.

Audi’s Quattro all-wheel drive makes the S3 one of the sweetest-handling compacts on the market. Lay into the curves, and it just eats them up. The dangerous thing is its confidence-inspiring grip. When I took the car for a spin down a favorite (mostly deserted) two-lane with plenty of twists and bends, I found myself bounding along well in excess of the speed limit before I even realized what I was doing. So steady is the grip, and so sweet is the handling that speeds that feel insane in other cars feel almost mundane in the Audi S3.

2017 Audi S3 - Driven Interior High Resolution
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Steering is precise and, in sport mode, it takes on a sweet quality almost as good as a mid-’90s BMW hydraulic steering setup. That’s rare in today’s world of electric power steering. Brakes were grabby on day one, but once I got used to them, I appreciated their ability to slow me down precipitously.

There seemed to be a fair amount of road noise in the cabin. Perhaps the Continental ExtremeContact low-profile 235/35 19-inch sporty tires had something to do with that. They also probably played a part in helping the Audi S3 achieve its sweet handling balance. This trade-off is nothing new in the segment.

Drivetrain Specifications

Engine Size 2.0-Liter Four-Cylinder
Bore X Stroke 82.5 x 92.8
Horsepower 292 @ 5,400 RPM
Torque 280 @ 1,900 RPM
Engine Block Cast-Iron
Cylinder Heads Aluminum Alloy
Valvetrain 16-Valve DOHC
Air Induction Turbocharged
Fuel Injection TFSI
0-to-60 MPH 4.7 Seconds
Top Speed 155 MPH

Pricing

Premium Pluss $42,900
Prestige $48,400
Options
S Sport Seat Package $1,450
Dynamic Package $1,500
Black Optic Dynamic Package $2,000
Red Brake Calipers $400
18-Inch All-Season Tires No Charge
Rear Side Airbags $350

Competition

The all-wheel drive compact sporty sedan crowd is not a large one in America. But here are three cars that might be considered close competitors to the 2017 Audi S3:

BMW 330i xDrive Sedan

2016 BMW 3 Series High Resolution Exterior
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BMW 340i - $47,900
2016 BMW 3 Series High Resolution Exterior
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Over at BMW, there are two possible all-wheel drive competitors to the Audi S3 Quattro I tested: the 330i xDrive, and the 340i xDrive. The 330i has a price tag closer to my test car when equipped similarly, however, and it has a similar engine.

The BMW is down on power compared to the Audi S3, despite having the same engine displacement of 2.0-liters. BMW says the 330i xDrive sedan makes 248 horsepower, compared to the 292 in the S3. So the Audi will likely feel quicker. The manufacturer’s numbers bear this out, with BMW claiming a 5.5-second zero-to-60 mph time, while Audi says the S3 will do the same sprint in just 4.7 seconds.

Both the BMW and the Audi are styled pretty conservatively, but both definitely look like the premium compact sedans they are. If the raw acceleration numbers don’t matter to you, it may very well come down to which design you like the most — or which dealership can give you a better lease deal.

Learn more about the BMW 330i xDrive Sedan here.

Mercedes-Benz C300 4MATIC Sedan

2015 Mercedes-Benz C-Class Exterior AutoShow
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2015 Mercedes-Benz C-Class Exterior AutoShow
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Mercedes-Benz has the C-Class in this segment, and the closest in price to the S3 may be the C300. And, to keep this a comparison of all-wheel drive models, there is a 4MATIC-equipped C300.

Like the BMW 330i xDrive, the C300 4MATIC doesn’t quite have the same power or acceleration as the Audi S3 despite having the same 2.0-liter engine displacement. The M-B engine makes a reported 241 horsepower — a deficit of more than 50 horses to the Audi. It’s a half-second slower to 60 mph than the BMW, which itself is slower than the Audi to that speed by nearly three-quarters of a second.

Mercedes, like BMW, offers a hotter version of the C: The AMG models. If you want to go faster, it’s just a matter of coughing up more money. The Mercedes-AMG C63 may very well be king of the compact sports sedan segment, with its stupidly powerful 503-horse AMG Biturbo V8 engine that rockets the car to 60 mph in less than four seconds.

You’d spend quite a lot more money on the AMG C63 than you would for a loaded Audi S3, though. And you wouldn’t be able to dip into its massive performance capabilities on the street without endangering yourself or others — or your license to drive. In a world of speed limits, these differences are little more than status-markers.

Find out more about the Mercedes-Benz C300 4MATIC Sedan here.

Jaguar XE R-Sport 35t AWD

2017 Jaguar XE Exterior
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2017 Jaguar XE Exterior
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Surprise! Jaguar has a compelling entry in this segment now. The Jaguar XE is attractive, handles itself well, and comes in a wider variety of flavors than Audi offers in the A3/S3. It’s also offering more power for your dollar, with the 35t version flaunting a 3.0-liter supercharged V6 good for 340 horsepower at roughly the same price as the above competitors — somewhere in the mid-$40K range.

The Jag’s R-Sport trim offers similar sporty exterior looks as the Audi S3. Inside, the Audi arguably has the baby Jag beat for luxury and attractive design. But in terms of driving, the Jag’s V6 feels stronger down low in the rev range; its supercharger no doubt helping that impression.

Audi’s infotainment system is better than Jaguar’s, and so is its other in-car technology. No slick Google Maps display filling almost the entire gauge cluster in the Jaguar XE, for example. I daresay Audi has more comfortable seats than Jag, too.

Where the Jaguar XE may have the advantage over the Audi S3 is price, depending on your location. Jag lease deals can be pretty compelling. The trade-off is in the Jag’s ability to retain resale value. Audis typically command higher prices than Jags when both cars are a couple of years old.

Read more about the Jaguar XE R-Sport 35t AWD here.

Conclusion

2017 Audi S3 - Driven Exterior High Resolution
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The 2017 Audi S3 is handsome, quick, and a fun way to schlep oneself to work after taking the kids to school. However, it’s not for the scarce of funds — the Audi S3 starts at $43,000, and if you want the Prestige package car that I tested, you’ll be looking at a starting point of $48,000. As equipped, my test car came in well over $50,000 with those sexy S Sport seats and double-five-spoke 19-inch wheels.

That kind of coin can buy you a pair of all-wheel drive non-European vehicles — even, perhaps, a very well-equipped Dodge Charger AWD. But few cars strike the kind of balance offered by the Audi S3, which offers a top-shelf experience both in terms of its interior and its driving dynamics. And within its elite segment, the prices commanded by the S3 are not unusual at all.

If there’s one final thing to be said for the Audi S3: It may well be setting the example by which those other premium-priced compact sedans should be judged.

Disclosure: Audi provided the vehicle, insurance, and a tank of gas for this review.

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