The 2015 Audi S3 creates little stir on a sunny, cool morning in Monte Carlo. Parked outside a posh hotel not far from the famous casino you know from James Bond films and mere steps from the iconic streets that make up the circuit of the Monaco Grand Prix, the S3 only hints at what it can do. It’s a handsome car, for sure, but it easily blends into the glamorous surroundings of a Royal principality where Ferraris and Bentleys are more common than Fords and Chevys. But the S3 isn’t meant to stand out in Monte Carlo, it’s meant to turn the heads of American consumers seeking a classy sedan with sporting character and luxurious features.
Like the rest of the A3 lineup, the 2015 Audi S3 was designed with the U.S. market in mind. That means the S3 is a legitimate four-place sedan with a real back seat and a respectable trunk. You can sit in this car and not feel like you wish you had skipped a few meals. Though it wears Audi’s familiar understated, elegant styling and is based on the Volkswagen Group’s corporate MQB architecture, the S3 feels more than a bit like a red-blooded Yank. A four-door coupe, a hatchback, and other body styles were considered, but none of them passed muster because Audi wants the S3 to earn its stripes in America, and Americans prefer sedans.
“This car has largely been made with a focus on the U.S.,” says Filip Brabec, Audi project management director. That’s notable because America-first products are not the norm for German carmakers.
Specifically, the focus is on the U.S. small sedan market, an area that Audi and other premium-brand automakers are rediscovering. Slightly longer and lower than the new A3 sedan, the 2015 Audi S3 measures 175.9 inches in length, 70.7 inches in width, and 54.8 inches in height. Those dimensions are very close to the original A4 from 1994, a car whose spirit the new A3 family hopes to recapture, now that the current A4 has grown larger, heavier, and more upscale.
The S3 is the headliner in the new A3 lineup, though it won’t arrive until July 2014 at the earliest. Audi will launch its standard A3 models, with 1.8-liter and 2.0-liter turbo four-cylinders, beginning in the first quarter of 2014. The wide-ranging lineup will also include a diesel model and a cabriolet.
The S3, though, promises to be the most fun thanks to its more potent 2.0-liter turbo. Audi estimates that the S3 will push out 290 hp and 280 pound-feet of torque (European-spec cars are rated at 296 hp). Final numbers for the United States will be announced closer to launch. The TFSI engine works with Quattro all-wheel drive and a six-speed S tronic dual-clutch transmission with paddle shifters. Audi predicts 0-to-60 sprint of 5.0 seconds, which felt very doable during our drive.
The output figures of the 2015 Audi S3 are modest compared to the brash Mercedes-Benz CLA45 AMG, which nets 355 hp and 332 lb-ft from its turbocharged four-cylinder, and boasts a 4.5-second 0-to-60 time. Although the CLA is the A3’s natural rival, the AMG variant is not directly comparable to the S3. Audi puts its most sporting—and powerful—models in RS trim to face off against Mercedes’ AMG and BMW’s M divisions, meaning we’d have to wait for a theoretical RS3 for a true comparison. And while S3 pricing hasn’t been announced, it’s estimated to come in around $40,000, which well undercuts the CLA45 AMG at $48,375.
As it is, the S3 provides a nice boost over the highest-powered A3 (expected to make around 210 hp). It also includes special design touches such as sportier bumpers with honeycomb inserts, restyled side sills, five-spoke wheels, and a chrome-framed grille with double horizontal bars and a matte gray finish. Inside, we find pleasing materials, an intuitive layout, and seats that are comfortable yet sporty. Our tester’s black interior looked sharp with brushed aluminum trim and red stitching and accents. The tachometer also shows boost pressure, and a driver information system can record your lap times. Other electronics include a seven-inch, high-resolution screen that extends from the dashboard, and an MMI rotary wheel that also functions as a touch pad.
The S3 is plenty of fun to drive, with an eager chassis and a strong engine. It feels like a real sport sedan. Its taut dimensions and good visibility prove welcome during our test drive on the twisting roads of southern France. Though our route begins in the heart of Monte Carlo, we quickly navigate the mid-morning traffic, dash through the famous tunnel where Formula 1 cars run, and arrive at the mountainous region on the border between France and Italy. The most challenging pass we encounter is the Col de Braus, which cuts into the Alps with a spectacular array of hairpins and switchbacks. The 2015 Audi S3 is more than up to it. The car has excellent reflexes, and the suspension maintains its composure through the tightest of turns. The electromechanical steering is direct and communicative, and the system varies the ratio as you move the flat-bottom steering wheel off-center. The result is a purposeful, athletic sedan for enthusiasts.
When the terrain is less taxing, we take note of the engine. The sound is just OK. We goose the throttle in tunnels hoping to get an earful, but the reply is only a grunting, buzzy note. The six-speed manual we drove isn’t scheduled to come to the United States, which is a shame because it makes the S3 more engaging. The throws are long and direct, and the shift gates make a pleasing sound as you click into gear. Still, if you put purist notions aside, the S tronic is a solid gearbox. Punch up dynamic mode, and the car feels noticeably quicker. S tronic holds the gears longer, and the engine sounds better, thanks to the flaps in the quad exhaust system that open at a higher load.
The 2015 Audi S3 really is an impressive car. It’s agile and quick, but subtle. It may not turn heads like it flashy competitors from Mercedes-Benz and Cadillac, but it rewards the driver with an engaging experience and plenty of everyday functionality. That’s a combination that should play well in America — even more so than on the French Riviera.
2015 Audi S3
- On Sale: Summer 2014
- Base Price: $40,000 (est.)
- Engine: 2.0-liter turbocharged DOHC 16-valve I-4
- Horsepower: 290 (est.)
- Torque: 280 (est.)
- Transmission: Six-speed dual-clutch
- Drive: 4-wheel
- L x W x H: 175.9 in x 70.7 in x 103.6 in
- Curb Weight: 3400 lbs (est.)