Monte Carlo, Monaco — The dramatic cliffs of the Cote d’Azur and glitter-paved streets of Monte Carlo would flatter any automobile. Not all cars return the favor — especially the compact sedans that dominate the rest of the world.
That the new Audi S3 manages to look at home in a driveway parked next to an automobile costing ten times as much should indicate what Audi's been able to accomplish.
Developed primarily for the North American market, the Audi S3 arriving here a year from now as a 2015 model wouldn't have made the trip in the old regime. But with A4 having grown in size over the years, room now exists in Audi’s lineup for a stronger compact sedan like the new A3 arriving in spring 2014, with roughly the same footprint as the original B5-generation Audi A4, sold in strong numbers to Americans between 1995 and 2001.
An engine start button brings the S3’s turbocharged four-cylinder to life with a rorty growl. Audi expects the S3 to produce somewhere in the neighborhood of 290 hp and 280 lb-ft of torque when its engine tuning gets locked in. All-wheel drive comes standard, as does Audi’s dual-clutch automatic transmission, known to Audi-philes as the Direct Shift Gearbox. As often the case, the DSG in Sport mode cracks off instantaneous, rev-matched downshifts when slowing for a curve. And thanks to its standard Quattro all-wheel drive, which can brake the inside front wheel ever so slightly to help minimize understeer when hustling through curves, it's hard to put a foot wrong in this thing.
The standard Audi Drive Select features allows one to tailor throttle sharpness, transmission responsiveness and exhaust note volume to his or her liking. On models with the optional magnetic adjustable shocks, ADS further allows the driver to adjust suspension firmness as well as steering effort and quickness. With all settings left in Comfort mode, the S3 feels relatively benign, never gooey or soft but less responsive and not as fun as when the systems are set in “Auto” mode. The S3’s demeanor changes to firm and edgy as when all features were set in the sporiest “Dynamic” level. In case of the exhaust note and suspension, there isn’t a huge amount of difference from one setting to the next, but in others, such as throttle and especially the steering, the difference seems massive. Generally, the default “auto” settings are more than sporty enough for day-to-day driving, but we imagine if it was our S3, we might hit the “Individual” setting so we could mix and match, leaving the powertrain and exhaust settings in Dynamic all the time to keep the engine at attention and hear the sporty blaaaaaat all the time, then leave the rest in Auto.
Just for kicks, Audi let us drive Euro-spec S3 sedans equipped with the six-speed manual transmission. We found it nice overall, with its notchy shifter, light clutch, and work-of-art shift knob, and would love to have it as an option here to please the hard-core enthusiast crowd. That said, we’re not sure how many buyers would choose it over the DSG when time comes to write the check. Audi seems to agree, and the manual-equipped S3 will stay on the other side of the pond. For now.
Inside, the S3’s interior relies on Audi's typical competency, including low-gloss finishes, padded surfaces, and little reliance on brightwork to dress things up. Our test vehicles were fitted with the S3’s upgraded sport seats, upholstered in a combination of soft black leather and red faux suede. We wished for more lateral support, as the seats seemed a bit wide for leaner physiques, especially considering their sporty purposes.
Audi integrated most dashboard functions into an updated multi-media interface (MMI), with a disc-like controller mounted in front of the armrest (the top surface of which can be ordered as a touch pad that recognizes hand-scrawled characters for easy information input) that corresponds to a thin screen that motors up from the center of the dashboard. New toggle-style switches near the MMI disc make switching modes a simple one-touch affair. The S3 will also offer 4G LTE connectivity, provided by a yet-undisclosed carrier, as well as a sparklingly clear Bang & Olufsen surround sound system.
While front seaters will have plenty of room for elbows and heads, the rear seat reminds passengers they're in a compact car; it’s not as tight back there as, say, the new Mercedes-Benz CLA-Class’ rear quarters, but side windows do come rather close to outboard passengers’ noggins. Our test cars did not feature the panorama sunroof that will come standard on U.S. models, but we can’t imagine it helping much in that department. The trunk, however, looks surprisingly spacious with about 13 cubic feet
The S3 bodes well for lesser A3 models—and there will be several, including sedans powered by 170-hp and 220-hp turbo four-cylinder engines or a 150-hp diesel model, as well as a four-seat cabriolet (the latter two arriving with the S3 in the fall). The last model set to arrive at this moment will be an electric A3 E-Tron hatchback, scheduled for early 2015. Audi has great expectations for the A3 and S3 in the U.S., and after our first taste of the car, so do we.