Audi S3 — Driving excitement in a small sedan

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

Full disclosure: We are big fans of small high-performance cars — especially four-door compact sedans that will move four adults in comfort — that are infused with extraordinary horsepower, cutting-edge cornering capabilities, impeccable handling, and overall driving dynamics. Throw in a stylish luxury package, all the better. So spending quality time with the refreshed compact 2017 Audi S3 was a very pleasant experience.

For 2017, the S3 has been given some updates including a very attractive reworked interior that includes the virtual cockpit digital instrument cluster with its large 12.3-inch display that can deliver vibrant color at 60 frames per second. The virtual cockpit helps to enhance the infotainment viewing and navigating experience via the large Google Map images. In addition, the exterior has been reworked for what Audi calls a sportier and more aggressive appearance.

Also the car gets upgraded tires as well as tweaks to the sport-tuned suspension, steering, and all-wheel drive system. When paired with the energetic turbocharged 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine making a substantial 292 horsepower and 280 pound-feet of torque mated to a six-speed dual-clutch automatic, you have a potent driving machine whether on twisting mountains roads or long stretches of interstate highway.

For example, the S3 has been timed at 4.4 seconds from 0-to-60. When we needed extra power in merging onto a fast-paced freeway, it was immediately delivered — turbo lag is nonexistent — with smooth shifts from the dual-clutch automatic and the steering is quick and precise. Our test car came with the optional adaptive suspension that can be switched between Comfort, Auto and Dynamic. A downside for some people is the S3 ride is relatively firm even in the Comfort setting. We had no problem in that regard.

Here's the thing — fuel economy suffers slightly from the A3's standard 252-horsepower engine as a trade-off for the exhilarating performance. It's EPA-measured at 21 mpg city, 28-highway and 24-combined in the S3 Quattro. The downside — expensive premium gas is required for the S3, regular gas is okay for the A3.

We found the new sedan impeccably quiet at any speed. Wind noise, road noise are all things of the past. Lexus, the king of silence, could use the new Audi as a benchmark for future vehicles.

One of the really neat features of our test car was the center speedometer and tachometer gauges that could be configured either in full-size format or a smaller version allowing the screen behind the gauges to be expanded to 12.3-inches with a detailed Google map. Audi calls it the virtual cockpit.

It's very intriguing and extremely useful to have a large navigation screen behind the steering wheel directly in front of the driver. Once we turned it on, we never left home without the huge virtual screen blazing away with a Google Earth display. The standard information and navigation screen is mounted high in the center of the dashboard.

Thankfully Audi has made a lot of technology, safety equipment and convenience features standard, something automakers are loath to do even in the entry-level luxury segment. Automakers tend to bundle their newest items into relatively high-cost options; something Audi doesn’t do. For instance, Audi has made such things standard as pedestrian and vehicle collision warning and braking, rearview camera, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, leather seating surfaces, tri-zone climate control, Audi's MMI infotainment system with seven-inch center display, a 10-speaker audio system with CD player and two USB ports, and a sunroof.

We found the front seats comfortable for long-distance trips and supportive for spirited driving. But we recommend before purchase to check out the back-seat legroom, which might be on the short side for taller passengers. And you may be dismayed at the car's small 10 cubic feet of trunk space. But remember that the S3 is a compact car measuring just 175.8 inches in length and with a wheelbase of only 103.6 inches.

The S3 comes in just two trim levels — Premium Plus and Prestige. The Premium Plus is loaded with a lot of good stuff for a starting price of $43,850 including destination charge. The Prestige, starting at $49,350 adds a 14-speaker Bang & Olufsen sound system, adaptive cruise control, lane departure intervention, and the Technology package that includes the virtual cockpit expanded instrument cluster. The upgraded sound system and the Technology package can be added to Premium Plus as options. We think the Technology package is very much worth the $3,000 option price on the Premium Plus model.

Our Prestige test car carried a bottom line of $51,250 including a couple of options.

Base price: $43,850; as driven, $51,250
Engine: 2.0-liter turbocharged 4
Horsepower: 292 @ 5,400 rpm
Torque: 280 foot-pounds @ 1,900 rpm
Transmission: 7-speed dual clutch automatic
Drive: all-wheel
Seating: 2/3
Wheelbase: 103.6 inches
Length: 175.8 inches
Curb weight: 3,462 pounds
Turning circle: 36.1 feet
Luggage capacity: 10 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 14.5 gallons (premium)
EPA rating: 21 city, 28 highway, 24 combined
0-60: 4.4 seconds (Car and Driver)
Also consider: Mercedes CLA45 AMG, Lexus IS, Volkswagen Golf R

The Good
• Potent turbocharged 4-cylinder
• Upscale interior
• Precise handling
• All-wheel drive is standard

The Bad
• Tight back seat for adults

The Ugly
• Limited trunk space