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First Drive: 2017 Audi S3

When you’re not as willing to compromise anymore, get the compact sport sedan for grownups

In the three years the latest Audi S3 has been on the market, it has impressed car writers around the world — and inspired very little in the way of passion in the marketplace. Now, Audi is putting a new face on the 2017 Audi S3, adding a few new high-tech features, and upgrading driving dynamics, hoping to light fires in the hearts of enthusiasts. But at $43,850 to start, does the S3 make any sense when there's a more practical hatchback with nearly identical running gear, the Volkswagen Golf R, that's roughly seven grand less?

Whether the Golf R can truly be considered competition for the S3 is up for debate; the S3 occupies an unusual place in the market. It's a more premium offering than the Subaru WRX or even the Golf R. It's also less powerful than the CLA45 AMG, and while it's less expensive than the BMW M240i xDrive coupe, it's also less sporting, less powerful, and less coupe-like. The S3, rather than falling in with a group, stands apart, doing its own thing. But is the S3 the mysterious schoolyard maverick, or the weird kid who just doesn't have any friends?

The same 292-horsepower, 280 pound-foot turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder powers the S3 and the Golf R, and both use a Haldex all-wheel drive system, though the S3's version pushes a bit more of the torque rearward in dynamic driving with the 2017 upgrades. The Audi skips the optional six-speed manual transmission in favor of the six-speed dual clutch also offered on the Golf R. So aside from the perpetual hatchback-versus-sedan debate, and the lack of a manual gearbox option, what's the big difference between the Audi and the VW?

Refinement. It's the S3's biggest trump card over the Golf R, and it's a difference that makes the newly refreshed S3 stand out from the rest of the performance-oriented entry-luxury crowd as well. The Mercedes-Benz CLA-Class is the closest natural competitor to the A3/S3 in the American market, but even then, it's not a precise match. While the CLA45 AMG has a healthy 63 horses on the S3, it doesn't offer the refinement of the S3's driving experience. Noise — whether from wind or road — is subjectively much lower in the S3 than in competitive cars, and the engine noise that does make it into the cabin has the carefully manicured feel of auditory bonsai, with boy-racer overtones totally absent. Its dual-clutch gearbox is much more refined, whether it's being shifted by the wheel-mounted paddles or left to its own automated devices, and its optional dynamic suspension makes for a broader range of ride comfort.

If all of that sounds like it might mute or damp the sporting experience of an all-wheel drive, turbocharged, dual-clutch sport sedan, you're clearly paying attention — but you're missing the point. There are a plenty of raw, visceral sports coupes and sedans out there if that's what you're after, and they're tons of fun to drive — at least some of the time. The song of an engine approaching redline may be pure music on a Saturday afternoon, but the drone of the same engine reverberating through the cabin on Wednesday morning is just annoying.

Yes, the S3 is incredibly fast when flung around a back road at seven tenths (push any harder and you're either angling for a Darwin award or a vehicular homicide indictment). No, it's not as rewarding or involving as some of the alternatives to drive, but it's not as punishing, either. The S3 is the compact sport sedan for grownups; it's for those who have left Golf Rs and WRXs and Evos and Focuses and their ilk in life's rearview mirror, but who still want speed, grip, and handling. They just aren't so willing to compromise to achieve it anymore.

In fact, the S3 only requires one real compromise from its owner: price. First, you have the $43,850 base MSRP of the 2017 Audi S3, an increase of just $400 over last year's model. That's still more than $7,000 dearer than a base, manual-transmission 2016 Golf R without navigation or dynamic chassis control, and about $16,000 more than a base Subaru WRX. Refinement has its price — and as configured, the price of our fully-loaded test S3 was a shade over $52,000.

Not all of the 2017 S3's premium price tag is spent on the semi-tangibles that add up to greater comfort and quietness. Much of the price difference between the S3 and its corporate cousin comes from the advanced Audi virtual cockpit system, which replaces the analog gauge displays of the previous S3 (and current Golf R) with a 12.3-inch high-resolution display that reconfigures itself in response to the mode of the drive select system (Comfort, Sport, Sport+). Other new tech features for 2017 include the touch-based MMI input, which allows the user to draw letters directly on top of the control wheel for easier eyes-up destination entry; and standard front and optional rear collision detection systems.

And then there's the interior. Audi has a reputation for excellent fit and finish, and that reputation is exemplified in the S3. The cabin looks and feels a lot like a slightly smaller version of the A4, but fortunately, not like a cheaper one. Brushed aluminum trim, sport seats, and a flat-bottom steering wheel add sporty touches to the otherwise minimalist, understated look of the cabin. The exterior, likewise, is typical of today's Audis. Aside from the stockier look mandated by the S3's shorter length, it wears its smooth surfaces and crisp edges well. For 2017, the front face is tweaked slightly, including an "undercut" headlight design, and a rear diffuser insert added to the rear bumper. LED taillights are standard; Xenon headlights can be replaced with LEDs.

Two main trims are available for the 2017 Audi S3: Premium Plus and Prestige. The base-level Premium trim offered for the A3 isn't offered here. With the Premium Plus model, you get the S model sport suspension tune, progressive steering, full LED headlights and taillights with dynamic turn signals, keyless start/stop/entry, smartphone interface with CarPlay and Android Auto, among other features. Upgrade to the Prestige package and you'll get the fantastic Audi virtual cockpit instrument panel display, a Bang & Olufsen 705-watt sound system, MMI navigation with voice control, Audi adaptive cruise control with stop/go, Audi side assist with rear cross-traffic alert, and more. The cost of the jump from Premium Plus to Prestige? A cool $5,500. It's worth it, especially for the virtual cockpit, MMI navigation, and adaptive cruise control upgrades, which both improve the daily driver utility of the car through ease of use, and are some of Audi's best halo tech features at the moment — despite the S3's compact/entry level positioning.

In the end, the upgrades to the 2017 Audi S3 make for a sharper-looking, higher-tech, more enjoyable compact premium sport sedan. Is it enough to turn the heads of buyers aching for an all-out compact performance car? No. But for those who want more out of their car — and their life — than just railing on the limit 24/7, but don't want to succumb to the floating beige coffins of late middle age just yet, the S3's balance of size, price, performance, quality, comfort, and tech hits a perfectly targeted sweet spot.

2017 Audi S3 Specifications

On Sale Now
Base Price: $43,850 (base)
Engine: 2.0-liter turbocharged DOHC 16-valve I-4/292 hp @ 5,400 rpm, 280 lb-ft @1,900-5,300 rpm
Transmission: 6-speed dual clutch automatic
Layout: 4-door, 4-passenger, front-engine, AWD sedan
EPA Mileage: 21/28 mpg (city/hwy)
L x W x H: 175.8 in x 54.8 in x 77.2 in
Wheelbase: 103.6 in
Weight: 3,461 lb
0-60 MPH: 4.7 sec (est. )
Top Speed: 155 mph