Big, fast Audis occupy an interesting niche in the performance luxury market. While they’re not always the most outright engaging vehicles in their segments, cars like the RS 6 Avant and S8 provide unmatched luxury, straight-line speed, and stability, to the point where it’d be foolish to consider anything else if you’re looking for a practical daily driver to fly under the radar.
The Audi S3, refreshed with new looks and more tech for 2022, isn’t big or especially quick when compared to the twin-turbo V-8 bruisers mentioned above. It’s the smallest, cheapest, lightest, least powerful S-branded car in the company’s lineup. And that’s its advantage: Short of the mid-engine V-10-powered R8, the S3 provides more smiles per dollar than any new car with four rings on the nose.
The S3, like most small cars in the VW Group’s portfolio, rides on the same MQB platform underpinning the latest-generation Volkswagen GTI and Golf R. That means unlike most bigger Audis, the S3’s engine sits transversely on top of the front axle rather than longitudinally in front of it. There’s no big weight past the nose to upset the car’s dynamics. If you’re familiar with big, fast Audis, that’s a big deal.
Under the hood sits the company’s tried-and-true 2.0-liter TFSI turbocharged inline-four, rated at 306 hp and 295 lb-ft of torque, an increase of 18 hp and 15 lb-ft over last year’s model. Don’t let those standard quad exhaust tips fool you; the motor isn’t particularly groundbreaking or exciting. It is, however, supremely effective in its mission, which is to deliver oomph when you need it without ever really running out of steam. Like most modern turbo fours, most of the fun can be found in the midrange. And thanks to the seven-speed dual-clutch transmission, that sweet spot is always just a paddle shift away.
Quattro comes standard, obviously, but you still have to drive the S3 like a front-wheel-drive car to extract the most performance. Chucking the car into a corner and a big lift off throttle gets the rear end swinging around, and a bit of carefully timed trail braking prompts even more rotation. Turn-in is aided by brake vectoring, which grabs on the inside rotors for a bit of extra assistance when it senses the car being turned. Mash the throttle and you’ll feel torque being sent to the rear to straighten the S3 out. It’s the type of car that rewards decisive inputs. At the same time, it’s not so missile-fast that you’ll be hitting triple digits on every straightaway. That’s not to say it’s slow; Audi quotes a 0-60 time of just 4.5 seconds.
The steering, in typical Audi fashion, is set up in such a way that it feels happiest while pointed straight. The sensation is a bit weird at first, but you get used to it quickly. Combined with the Bridgestone summer tires on our tester measuring 235/35 R-19 all around, there’s an immense amount of stability that’ll give even novices enough confidence to decimate their favorite mountain pass. Thankfully the brakes are up to the task of hauling the 3538-pound sedan down to pedestrian speeds, with discs measuring 14.1 inches up front and 12.2 inches in the rear, paired to single-piston floating calipers on all four corners.
But the S3 shines most in its adjustable suspension setup. The front MacPherson and four-link rear architecture is the same as before, but where the old car used magnetic ride to adjust stiffness, the 2022 model uses electronically actuated hydraulic fluid to swap between comfortable and sporty settings. What’s most remarkable is the range between the softest and hardest modes, which is wider than cars that cost three times the price. Leave it in comfort and the S3 rides even softer than the base A3, but switch the suspension in Dynamic mode and it turns the shocks into real canyon-carving material. Yaw, acceleration, and level sensors monitor road conditions to further tailor the ride to fit the driver’s needs, adapting the shocks as necessary.
Only hardcore enthusiasts will be able to spot all of the updates made to the S3’s exterior for 2022. Measuring 1.4 inches longer, 0.8 inch wider, and 0.5 inch taller than the previous car, many of the panels’ designs have been carried over, with only the front and rear fascia receiving real changes. Looks are subjective, but we think it’s safe to say the S3 blows its closest competitor, the BMW M235i Gran Coupe, out of the water. We wouldn’t go as far as to call it innovative or exciting, but at least it’s handsome and true to the brand’s objectives.
Despite being based on Audi’s most budget-friendly U.S.-market car, the S3 still provides a lovely interior. Everything is logically laid out, with easy-to-read dials and buttons. There’s real switchgear for the climate control, thankfully, meaning you don’t have to fumble through menus on the 10.1-inch touchscreen just to turn on the A/C. Some costs were cut, for example in the cheap-looking center console and door trim. But most of the touch points, like the steering wheel and tiny Golf-like shifter knob, are made from high-quality materials. The diamond-stitched leather seats are pleasantly bolstered without being invasive and offer solid lumbar adjustment.
One possibly troubling note: To counteract the lack of exciting noises from the engine, Audi pumps a five-cylinder exhaust note sound through the speakers. Depending on how obsessed you are with the brand, or with authentic experience, this could be a blessing or a curse. Thankfully, popping the drive mode into Comfort turns down the volume.
We can think of a few cars priced at and under the 2022 S3’s $45,945 starting MSRP that are more fun to drive. But we’re hard pressed to come up with an alternative that better balances fun, luxury, and usability. The S3 is one of those do-it-all cars that checks a ton of boxes while providing enough performance to excite the vast majority of buyers. Best of all, it’s a great example of how surplus weight and horsepower aren't always the answer when it comes to having fun.
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