The Audi S3 is not exactly a sales juggernaut, despite it being a bit of a legend for passionate fans of the small German premium genre. In most markets outside of Europe, people may consider such setups as the S3 three-door tested here, look at the price, and then think maybe they should just get a nice A4 sedan with greater practicality for similar cash. That certainly has been one reason Audi has never officially brought the S3 hatchback to the United States. And the 335-horsepower RS3 Sportback? Forget about it nearly everywhere but in Germanic regions, Switzerland and the UK.
All of which automatically turns the new S3 hatchback into an unattainable object of desire for many fans of the four-ringed brand. The good news, of course, for many markets not on the three-door S3's dance card is that most of us will get a shot at buying the new S3 sedan that will be powered by the same drivetrain tested here. We reported heavily on the sedan version from the recent New York Auto Show and are convinced that there is much for North American shoppers to like.
As you can already imagine, Audi slid us into a top trim S3 quattro hatchback with the optional six-speed DSG dual-clutch transmission and the most connectivity available via the also optional touch-screen MMI system. The sound system was the very swell 14-speaker Bang & Olufsen, and the two seats in front were Nappa leather and Alcantara-covered multi-adjustable high-sided sport seats with diamond quilted stitching. We were comfy and very supported in the pilot position, safe to say. By the end of adding all this extra trimming, this S3 three-door hatchback would most likely run up to $45,000 or so were it available Stateside. (That's assuming a hypothetical base price of around $37,000.) We would probably be tempted, were we Euro shoppers and had the luxury of doing so, to opt for the S3 Sportback five-door model coming out in September of this year in Europe along with this three-door.
Through the sport exhaust also clapped onto our test car, the 296-horsepower, 2.0-liter TFSI inline four-cylinder engine – a variant of the same EA888 motor as recently tested in the 2015 Volkswagen Golf GTI – chuffs out an excellent song when the Audi Drive Select is switch to its Dynamic calibration. There is an exaggerated sound like a raspy gasp for precious air with every single downshift. Set up this way, every off-throttle moment results in a terrifically tuned percolation of popping and roiling. So far as the aural orchestra to be had on a fully tricked S3, we have here another S model that delivers in spades.
Every off-throttle moment results in a terrifically tuned percolation of popping and roiling.
The one-inch lower chassis with adaptive dampers and more rigid springs also feels much less reluctant to be tossed around as previous editions of the S3. Right away one senses the difference that having 130 pounds less weight, 35 more horsepower and a more responsive and efficient drivetrain can have on a tight little package like the S3. The car retains a slight over-tendency to push through tighter curves when you take a wrong line, but this feeling has gotten to be much less rampant versus the last S3 hatchback.
Though the dual-clutch six-speed version of the S-tronic transmission continues not to be our favorite way to switch ratios in an Audi, the gearbox does alright for itself in Sport mode while shifting with the paddles, and with ADS set to Dynamic. With the optional S-tronic, acceleration to 60 miles per hour is down to 4.6 seconds versus 5.0 seconds with the standard six-speed VW Group-engineered manual transmission.
With the optional S-tronic, acceleration to 60 mph is down to 4.6 seconds.
Speaking of manual shifting, we're getting the hunch that VW Group has decided not to offer any longer a good manual shifting interface for its sportier cars that still make this available. There was just one S3 present in the test fleet with this basic gearbox we were so looking forward to using, and, after playing with it, it had us reluctantly admitting that – at least in this scenario – the S-tronic would edge it out in our voting. Don't hate us for it; there are better manual gearboxes and clutch pedal orientations out there, such as the Getrag manuals preferred by BMW and Mini. We were really expecting a notchier shift action with short S-like throws and great pedal placement for heel-and-toe downshifts. We had none of that. What slick shifting we could manage was only possible after much practice on empty roads using the ball of the right foot and pinky toe for the accelerator. But the throttle pedal's throw is also just too long for anything worth pursuing. We even tried toe-and-heeling with the right foot, but that was a fool's pipedream.
Long story short, at least with this manual gearbox and pedal orientation, we would prefer Audi stick with its now effectively confirmed decision not to bring the standard manual transmission for the S3 to North America. Do it right and with conviction, or don't do it at all on such a car. We made a point to re-ask Audi team experts at this event: will the manual come over when we get our S3 with four doors and a trunk in early summer 2014? The answer was indeed 'no,' over-speculation by leading North American publications be damned.
The really attractive S3 sedan will be screaming for a sensational manual-six experience.
Spiritually, this is a bummer to have reconfirmed; the really attractive S3 sedan will be screaming for a sensational manual-six experience as an image-building option. We won't go all the way and cry 'fail' because the S-tronic action is more than acceptable; it helped us conduct good music through the standard sport exhaust of the 296-hp 2.0-liter. But we will groan our personal disappointment.
The rest of what's going on cannot be sniffed at here. There are slight age-old limitations to this Haldex brand of quattro all-wheel drive paired with a transverse engine on a front-wheel-drive chassis, and we would love some form of optional locking sport differential. But the lighter weight of 3,100 pounds (with S-tronic), greater rigidity of the lowered body and chassis that uses more aluminum in construction, and added power and torque all combine to make this third-generation S3 hatchback much better than its predecessors. The standard 18-inch Continental ContiSportContact 5 run-flats used here are not, as you would imagine, what we would leave on the car were we buying, but on perfectly maintained Bavarian roads free of expansion strips, these Contis do a better than average job.
We get picky when it comes to these smaller gems like the S3. The packaging and drivetrain have come a good long way and they'll be appreciated by many here when the sexy S3 sedans start rolling off the boat. Here's hoping Audi can somehow reverse its unwillingness to bring over a manual S3 quattro sedan, but one with a better shifting interface than they have now for this European S3. We deserve more than only the six-speed DSG/S-tronic.