The 2022 Audi S3 is tasked with a seemingly impossible mission: charm entry-level luxury fans away from the steady drip of SUVs they’ve been mainlining for the last five years. To do this, it’s been given license to accentuate the advantages that a small-ish sedan has over its tall-riding rivals, namely, the kind of light-on-its-feet handling and squirt-gun acceleration that’s hard to duplicate in a more ungainly crossover.
Compounding the difficulty of its task is the revised makeup of its direct competition. In addition to taking on a contingent of mall-crawl machines, the S3 faces off against new rivals from BMW (the M235i Gran Coupe) and Cadillac (the CT4-V), as well as the continued efforts of Mercedes-AMG (the CLA 35). Once wide open, the compact four-door commons is now cluttered, with no shortage of choice available to free-thinking premium shoppers with $46,000 or so burning a hole in their pockets.
Fortunately for Audi, its long experience in setting the tone for big performance in a small package serves it well. The S3 is a welcome respite from the pummeling sport-utility tide, but more importantly, it proves that a well-conceived automobile doesn’t have to overwhelm owners in order to deliver fun behind the wheel.
Proportion Is Important
If there was one word that best described the 2022 Audi S3‘s formula, it would be “balance.” This is a vehicle that rises above the sum of its mechanical details and styling cues to present a compelling harmony that’s more difficult to enjoy when piloting its similarly muscular rivals.
It starts with the Audi’s package, the dimensions of which are both practical and visually pleasing. Unlike the BMW M235i Gran Coupe or the Mercedes-AMG CLA 35, the S3 sticks with a traditional three-box sedan shape that preserves rear headroom and keeps the car in tune with the larger S4 model positioned just above it in the brand’s sizing hierarchy. With more usable space than one might expect from its modest dimensions, the S3 provides the kind of adult-friendly rear seat that’s often missing even from crossovers of similar size.
The S3 cabin occupies a similar “just right” niche when it comes to form and function. The brand’s decision to pursue a minimalist strategy for vehicle controls is evidenced by the center console’s do-everything touchpad/dial and single-nub shift control, but it’s backed up by enough redundant toggles and buttons on the stack and steering wheel that you can ignore the fancy stuff if it irks or puzzles you while driving. The decision to avoid a full piano-black apocalypse inside the sedan is laudable, and my tester’s pair of LCD screens were generally easy to navigate and quickly offered up the vehicle and entertainment info I was seeking.
Sometimes, technology just needs to work rather than overachieve, and Audi’s gear does little to distract from the S3’s ownership experience.
Four-Ring, Five-Tool Athlete
More impressive is the overall feeling imparted by the Audi S3 on the road. It’s a coming together of chassis and drivetrain that avoids the histrionics that occasionally appear when imbuing an entry-level platform with brawny levels of boost.
Although a very quick car — the S3 scorches to 60-mph in a mere 4.3 seconds, thanks to its standard all-wheel-drive grip — its 2.0-liter, four-cylinder turbo engine manages to make its 306 horsepower output feel less frenetic and more fulsome when driven on a daily basis. There’s no sense that the Audi is ever champing at the bit when the vehicle is left in Comfort or Auto driving modes, which makes it quite capable as a commuter that keeps its cleats in the trunk until it’s time to dig into the tarmac.
Once you switch the vehicle to Dynamic mode, turbo lag shrinks and the engine note soars (thanks to artificial sweetening via a sound transmitter through the S3’s firewall). Shifts from the seven-speed dual-clutch automated manual transmission also crisp up like a thin slice of mango left in the sun, adding its own high-fructose nectar to the mix, while the full brunt of the car’s 295 lb-ft of torque help the new S3 feel mightier than the model it replaces.
The additional 74 lb-ft of twist compared to the entry-level Audi A3 doesn’t upset its S-badged sibling in the slightest, thanks to a lower, tauter suspension setup that’s offered with available adaptive dampers. It’s a recommended option, given that they allow the S3 to maintain its Clark Kent persona while commuting, then tear off the suit and tie for a little two-lane crime fighting once the day’s work is through. This is a car that is eager to please the driver — albeit keeping them slightly removed from the action under the wheels in the vein of most modern electric power steering systems — and any hint of harshness is erased, again, by the fundamental parity baked into the S3’s proposition.
Know Your Role
There’s an important distinction to be made between the terms “balance” and “compromise,” and it’s a line that the Audi S3 walks with poise. With all-out road course record setting left to the upcoming RS3, the S3 is given the grace to present an unruffled, premium drive that can be enhanced, rather than disrupted, by a jolt of turbocharged adrenaline.
The key to successfully avoiding automotive compromise is often the relaxation of expectation. Thanks to Audi building in this additional breathing room, the S3 flourishes, rather than wilts, when building out to its imposed limitations at the top end, all without undermining the talents that make it such a commendable day-to-day companion.
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