Unlike its competitive set of pocket-size luxury hot rods, the Audi S3 carries a little Teutonic monkey on its back: the Volkswagen Golf R, which shares the wee Audi’s guts and MQB structure yet is both more practical and more affordable. While a finer polish has been given to the updated-for-2017 S3, including additional interior tech and minor performance tweaks, that comparison still weighs on Audi’s smallest sports sedan.
The S3’s freshening is subtle, bringing the car in line with the larger 2018 Audi S4 via a more angular grille, standard LED headlights, and LED taillights with dynamic turn signals that illuminate in an outward-sweep pattern when activated. Our test car also had optional and revised 19-inch aluminum wheels (18s remain standard) shod with the newest Pirelli P Zero summer tires in size 235/35R-19. Audi fans will be able to spot the new chiseled mug at a glance, but the execution continues to be handsomely understated, adding just a touch of scrappiness from the S3’s chunky, albeit tidy, proportions.
Mechanical changes are mostly limited to the standard Quattro all-wheel-drive system, the electronic controls for which are now more integrated with the S3’s stability-control system, allowing the two to better manage the chassis’ behavior at the limit. The car also has a greater rearward bias of torque distribution and revised front and rear differentials that can each manage up to 100 percent of the engine’s torque when necessary. Taken together, the S3 is more capable than ever of maintaining massive speeds over slick, undulating pavement, even as the excitement it can generate is tempered by extreme refinement. Despite the smarter, more flexible drivetrain, the S3 still defaults to a safe and stable push when the front tires give up the fight; without taking it to a racetrack, it’s difficult to say if the changes would improve the S3’s lap time around Virginia International Raceway’s 4.1-mile Grand Course, which was a scant 1.0 second quicker than the Golf R’s. A light dusting of snow on our skidpad prevented us from confirming the Audi’s maximum lateral grip (for reference, Golf Rs have returned up to 0.95 g in our hands), but our test car was able to stop from 70 mph in an impressive 153 feet.Audi’s magnetorheological dampers were included in our car’s $2000 Black Optic Dynamic package (19-inch wheels, body-color exterior mirrors, and gloss-black exterior trim) and excelled at ironing out Michigan’s crumbling roads while maintaining taut control over body motions. Feedback from the electrically assisted steering remains muted, but the S3 tracks well at highway speed and the weighting of the tiller can be firmed up nicely by toggling the Drive Select system to its most aggressive Dynamic setting. There also are Comfort, Auto, and Individual modes for fine-tuning the powertrain, suspension, steering, and exhaust system.
The Europe-market 2017 S3 receives a slight boost in output for the EA888 turbocharged 2.0-liter inline-four, but cars bound for the U.S. get no such fortification: power remains at 292 horses at 6200 rpm and 280 lb-ft of torque at 1900. The iron-block engine is still a responsive and powerful gem, though, and produces an aggressive fizz from the S3’s standard sport exhaust but doesn’t drone on the highway—which is good when the engine is buzzing along at 3000 rpm during an 80-mph cruise. A six-speed dual-clutch automatic is the sole transmission choice and brings smart, rapid-fire shifts with only the occasional low-speed hesitation that a torque-converter automatic would never produce.This marks the first time we’ve properly tested a U.S.-market S3, which, at 3485 pounds, is 185 pounds heavier than a 2015 model we tested in the U.K. The more powerful Mercedes-AMG CLA45 sedan is heavier still at more than 3600, but the Golf R is about 80 pounds lighter with its automatic transmission and about 150 trimmer with the six-speed manual. Utilizing the dual-clutch’s launch-control feature, the Audi mustered a 4.6-second blast to 60 mph and a quarter-mile pass of 13.3 at 104 mph—properly quick yet 0.2 and 0.4 second (and 4 mph) slower than the Euro model. More important, those times also slightly trail the Golf R automatic’s, even if our preferred VW setup with the manual stretches those figures to 5.2 and 13.7 seconds. The S3’s 5-to-60-mph run (5.8 seconds) is more telling of its actual stoplight heroics. We also succeeded in matching the S3’s 24-mpg EPA combined rating in the real world.
While the S3’s cabin gains a few small trim changes and an updated menu structure in the MMI infotainment system, the biggest update for 2017 is the availability of the 12.3-inch Virtual Cockpit instrument display. A highly functional capstone on Audi’s sleek and minimalist interior design, the configurable readout brings a wealth of data to the driver’s line of sight and is one of the most notable elements separating the S3 from its lesser VW sibling. But it’s a big screen in a small theater, as the 10Best Cars–winning Golf has a far more accommodating back seat for adults, six additional cubic feet of passenger space (93 cubes versus 87), and more than double the cargo capacity. While the S3’s seating position is actually lower than the VW’s, the heads of taller drivers brushed the headliner in a way they generally don’t in a Golf.
You’ll need at least $43,850 to secure a 2017 S3, as well as an additional $10K in options for one like our loaded test car. Along with the Black Optic bundle, the uplevel Prestige package (MMI navigation and Audi Connect services, adaptive cruise, the Virtual Cockpit, Bang & Olufsen audio, LED interior lighting, and automatic high-beams, as well as blind-spot, rear cross-traffic, and lane-keeping assistants) added $5500. S sport seats with nappa leather cost $1450, and the Navarra Blue Metallic paint ($575) and red brake calipers ($400) were both extra.
Considering the $36,475 entry point for the Golf R with the six-speed manual and that a fully loaded version is less than $42K, the S3’s upgrades simply aren’t enough to overcome the basic goodness of the Golf. Sure, the Audi is a bit classier at the curbside, and MMI and Virtual Cockpit are nice pieces of tech. But the Golf R continues to represent a better bargain for what is essentially a more functional—and nearly as luxurious—vehicle with similar equipment. For those with a persistent aversion to the Volkswagen badge, an Audi that is more clearly a step up is on the horizon, in the form of the 400-hp five-cylinder RS3 sedan.