As automotive technology progresses forward, hints of the past seem less and less common in new cars. Names don't mean what they used to, curb weights are quite high, and some styling is a far cry from each company's Greatest Hits that date back a decade or three. But is there still at least a little nostalgia to be found? Audi's numerical designations have changed and expanded over the years, but it still makes room for fun in its entry-level S model, the 2023 Audi S3. Just like it did with the B5-generation S4 back in 1999.
I'm a proud (and emotionally damaged) B5 S4 owner, so I was quite curious to see if some of the qualities that made my car an enthusiast legend—excellent highway manners, torquey turbocharged power, excellent grip—live on in the S3. They don't possess the same badge (spoiler alert: 3 and 4 are different numbers) but did Audi stick to at least some of the 24-year-old recipe? Even with modern crash, tech, and fuel efficiency standards, it was fun to find a few similarities between my old twin-turbo enthusiast icon and Audi’s current smallest S car.
2023 Audi S3 Specs
On the outside, the Audi S3's dimensions are noticeably wider, taller, and longer than the OG B5 S4, but its modest size is a breath of fresh air for a modern sport-centric luxury car.
It's a handsome four-door that possesses a few subtle design accents that give it a sporty yet dignified look. My tester's Python Yellow color might be wild, but its stance and trim proportions are understated. It looks like designers spent a lot of time reading through the German Designer’s Guide to Stealth. That's not an actual published book, but if it were, somebody could send a copy to the team that designed the BMW XM.
The S3's interior has a similar understated luxury appeal. Its design is clean, simple, and aesthetically pleasant, with good overall materials quality and even some nice LED accent lighting in low light. Audi's MMI infotainment is quick, responsive, and very easy to use, which can't be said about competing systems like Mercedes' MBUX. The 10.1-inch screen is crisp and clean, and thankfully, several controls like drive mode, auto start/stop, HVAC, and volume are separate, physical buttons. However, a lot of the center dash and console's real estate is occupied by massive panes of piano black plastic, so keep a clean microfiber cloth in the cabin at all times if that's a turn-off.
Driving the Audi S3
Climbing in and going for a spin is equally pleasant. Overall visibility is quite good, and between the S3's thin moonroof cover and generous interior dimensions, it feels very relaxing and airy—not cramped or cave-like in the slightest. Its front sports seats allotted plenty of room for my tall stature, and hip and shoulder room were equally great. The power seats had an OK amount of tilt, and the bolstering wasn't as thick as I would've liked, but they were quite comfortable even after a couple of several-hour stints behind the wheel. It's well-insulated from the outside world, too, including at sustained, higher-up highway speed, but more on that later.
Throwing down $1,100 gets you adaptive dampers underneath the S3's wheel arches, but my tester didn't have them bolted up, and I don't think they're necessary. In easy-going A-to-B-type driving, the conventional damping is quite well-matched to the vibe of the car. The ride soaks up small annoying imperfections in the road very well and sends minimal chop to occupants' seats. It feels overall very solid and confident, and zipping through city streets is as enjoyable as in any sport compact. It's an enthusiastic ride, but a nicely tuned balance that wouldn't annoy any normie passengers.
The S3's power was nicely balanced, too. Producing 306 horsepower and 295 lb-ft of torque, its turbocharged 2.0-liter TFSI inline-four matched with all-wheel drive will propel the S3's 3,538-pound curb weight to 60 mph in just 4.5 seconds. The experience feels plenty raucous, but not right off the line. For the sake of historical comparison, the similar-weighing 2000 S4 hit 60 in 5.6 seconds with 250 hp at its disposal—with double the turbos and a little more displacement. My, how technology's progressed.
Instead of instant, German-turbo-four torque, wide open throttle built up peak boost pressure just as the tach needle swept into the midrange. From there, it pulled like a train up to its 6,500-rpm redline, with a light accompanying shove against my chest the whole way up.
Helping with this brisk effort was a seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox that was lightning-quick in its own Sport mode. However, on the flip side, it was mildly annoying in the more conventional Drive mode. Here, it took its sweet time slipping the clutch to the point of not fully engaging first gear until what felt like 40 feet past a neighborhood stop sign. So, I defaulted to Sport for almost all of my 640 miles behind the wheel. Probably not great for fuel economy but a minor compromise in the grand scheme of things.
Having driven a handful of Audis from 20 or more years ago—including my own—I was quite inclined to see how the current Audi S3 got down with highway rips and twisty road romps. It did not disappoint. First and foremost, it was an excellent highway car. The baby S' relatively portly curb weight lent quite well to confident and stable highway manners, and the car was awfully comfortable well above the speed limit. Just like Quattro cars of the past.
Interestingly, the faint noise it made while pulling up towards redline with more than half throttle resembled an off-beat, minor-key five-cylinder. The source of it was a speaker mounted to the firewall that Audi dubs the soundaktor, and I like to think the engineers had fun with it by paying homage to the 200 Quattro Trans Am, C4 UrS4, or anyone's preferred four-ringed, 034-five-banger of yore.
Besides open highway, there was no better place to keep the soundaktor, akting, than a twisty canyon road, which is where the S3 was a lot of fun. That well-balanced, conventionally damped chassis tuning that felt good around town felt great while ripping through twisties. Body roll and brake dive were minimal whether under lateral or longitudinal g, or any high percentage of both—like any good front-based sport compact, the baby S loved being trailbraked into any flavor of corner. Smooth, pinpoint weight balance was easy to achieve thanks to excellent brake modulation, harnessed by a just-firm-enough pedal and 14.1-inch drilled and vented front rotors.
Overall dynamics were great, but I wish it had the tires to match. My tester featured optional 19x8 Audi Sport wheels and 235/35/19 Bridgestone Potenza S005 summer tires—after 20 minutes of enthusiastic driving, the outside front got punished in long sweepers. I bet the chassis would shine a lot brighter with more width and a better compound. I get the balance between economy, cost, and performance, as well as possibly not wanting to get too close to RS3 territory. But this is an S3, not an A3 S-line, and 235s aren't enough for 3,600 pounds in my picky enthusiast mind. Still, on its given meats, it would out-drive its B5 S4 forefather on refreshed, stock suspension all day long on the same roads.
When it came to steering, the S3's fun-to-drive attitude was ever-so-slightly dampened by a little vagueness just off-center, but any additional lock thereafter progressively shoveled on more weight in Dynamic mode, much to my joy. Plus, some faint road texture made its way to my fingertips. At the same time, front-end responsiveness was good and straight-line highway jaunts had very weighted, confident steering as well. No twitchiness or uncertainty to speak of.
Finally, Audi's latest Haldex-based Quattro system in the S3 came in handy keeping the car planted through sharp chicane-like transitions. But it's a very front-wheel-dive-centric system. I wish it could send enough torque to the rear to do classic base S car stuff, but drift-ability is sadly restricted to the RS3.
The Highs and Lows
The 2023 Audi S3 is a handsome, well-appointed, comfortable, fast luxury sport compact. It's quite versatile as a daily commuter and plenty of fun to flex on the weekend. Heck, it'd be great to see what a little more negative camber and some sessions on track would feel like, too.
But there are still a few grievances to air. Besides the mild soundaktor-supplied symphony at wide open throttle, its intake and exhaust notes are awfully quiet. Sure, Audi S cars are all about stealth speed, but this was simply too stealth. I didn't realize that the exhaust pipes produced some mild burbles and crackles in Dynamic mode until I listened carefully while ripping alongside a rockface up in the mountains. I occasionally heard its diverter valve bleeding boost while tooling around town, which is always a plus. But on the whole, it's just way too quiet—instead of optional adaptive dampers, optional active exhaust would go a long way in making the S3 more exciting.
Then, cruising along with the windows down north of 40 mph exhibited a lot of wind buffeting. If you're inclined to enjoy some regular fresh air, this could get annoying.
Audi S3 Features, Options, and Competition
The 2023 Audi S3 starts at $47,895; after painting my tester Python Yellow ($595), including the Prestige trim package ($6,700), Black Optic package ($1,850), and adorning its interior in Nappa leather ($1,250), the price hits a grand total of $58,290. If it were my money, I'd go for Navarra Blue, but only because it resembles my B5's Santorin Blue.
For that nearly $48,000 starting price, you get the base 18-inch wheels with run-flat summer tires, plus such niceties as LED lighting throughout, a 10.1-inch infotainment screen, 10.25-inch instrument cluster, power front seats with lumbar and heat, parking sensors, and minimal advanced driver assistance. The Prestige tacks on more tech, such as adaptive cruise control, a head-up display, navigation, a bigger instrument cluster, and neat, intuitive exterior LED lighting animation.
When it comes to competition, the Mercedes-AMG CLA35 (sadly, the A35 is no longer sold here) starts a bit higher at $51,000, though produces a lot more power at 416 horses. Cadillac's CT4-V starts at $48,490 and makes more power, and Acura's Integra Type S starts at $50,800. The Teggy is the only option available with a manual transmission. The BMW M235i Gran Coupe starts at $49,295 and makes around the same power. I've driven the Bimmer and the AMG A35, and I wish the Benz was still sold here as it'd be a really tough choice between it and the S3.
Finally, there's the inter-Volkswagen Auto Group competition. The VW Golf R starts at $45,835, and possesses a little more enthusiasm, particularly by way of a torque-vectoring rear differential and stick-shift availability. Prospective Golf R buyers might also consider the S3, but I'm not sure S3 buyers will also consider the Golf R. The far more muscular RS3 starts at $61,995 and packs a rowdy five-cylinder. But it might be hard to find this drift-able, 401-hp monster with a sticker that isn't doused in dealer markup.
The clearest example of where the entry-level S has improved substantially since the B5 is in fuel economy. The S3 returns an EPA-rated 23 mpg city, 32 highway, and 26 combined. I had all the spirited-driving fun in the world, clocking in over 600 miles behind the wheel, and still managed 28 mpg, which clearly beats the EPA's math. For comparison, the 2000 S4 returned 19 combined when new. Being a little more conservative with right-foot inputs and some willingness to put up with the S-tronic transmission's annoying Drive mode could've definitely led to even higher numbers.
Value and Verdict
I enjoyed my week with the 2023 Audi S3 and was pleasantly surprised by its chassis dynamics. Even though its steering is electric, its nice, progressively-added weight was a joy to feel in the twisties. By that same measure, the brakes were quite strong and great to modulate. It was plenty comfortable by most folks' daily driver standards, yet had very good body control when driven expeditiously around all kinds of Southern California canyon roads. Anecdotally, it doesn't seem like you see many new or year-old S3s rolling around, and I'm a little surprised as it's an excellent, well-rounded package.
It was also fun to ponder the similarities to, or at least mild hints of, what Audi did with its S models two or more decades ago. Whether it be its understated appearance, soundtrack, confidently weighted ride, or smile-inducing torque shove, it was cool to see some quintessential Audi-ness in the S3's double helix. Driving it back to back with my S4 in some ways made them feel worlds apart, mainly due to the fact that cars in general have changed an awful lot over the years. But when the highway opens up and the boost kicks in, the lineage between the two becomes quite clear.
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