Driving a little car after spending so much time in big SUVs feels a bit like losing weight. Everything seems easier. Like baggy old clothes that no longer fit, street lanes and parking spots all look too roomy. Every unit of horsepower churned out by the motor feels more energetic, because it’s moving less weight. It feels great.
Regrettably, small vehicles like the all-new Audi S3 are quickly becoming a rare breed. More than 80 per cent of new vehicles purchased in Canada were SUVs or pickup trucks last year.
In an alternate universe, the all-new Audi A3 and its sporty S3 counterpart would be the entry point into Audi’s lineup. They cost $38,900 and $47,900, respectively. In our universe, most people will probably opt for the $38,650 Q3 SUV, or the even the larger $42,250 Q5 SUV, and with good reason. If you often need space for a baby seat, or stroller, or adult passengers, you can stop reading now; you’re better off with an SUV.
If, however, you’re tired of boring vehicles and willing to sacrifice a smidgen of practicality, step right this way.
Although it doesn’t look like it, the S3 sedan is Audi’s upmarket take on the enthusiast-favourite Volkswagen Golf R hatchback. They share the VW Group’s MQB Evo architecture, all-wheel drive and a two-litre, turbocharged, four-cylinder motor.
In the Audi, it’s good for 306 horsepower and 294 lb-ft of torque, which is a tad less than the Golf, but an improvement over the old S3. On paper, the new Audi is roughly on par with the previous small-luxury-car champ, the Mercedes-AMG A35.
First, let’s get the obvious out of the way. I’m just under six feet, and sitting in the back, my knees are pushed up against the front seat and my head grazes the roof. The 2022 S3 is slightly larger than the outgoing model, but you don’t feel any extra space inside, save for perhaps a whisker of extra headroom. Subcompact rivals, however, are similarly cramped.
The S3 wins points for its new cabin. It’s angular, modern and feels like a proper little luxury car. The configurable digital dashboard is nothing new, but it’s excellent, as is the central touch screen. The latter is clear and easy to use, which makes the unfortunate lack of a physical control dial less of an issue. A small round volume-control touchpad is an odd choice, but if you find it disagreeable, there’s a traditional volume knob on the steering wheel.
You flick the car into gear with an unusual toggle switch mounted between the seats. In normal cruising mode, the car’s performance is fairly unremarkable. The motor and gearbox are sluggish to react. But the S3 shows glimmers of potential. The way the car rushes forward once the gearbox selects an appropriate cog makes it obvious there’s a lot of torque available. The steering lacks feel, which is sadly par for the course these days, but it is quick and nicely weighted.
In Dynamic mode, the car becomes genuinely entertaining. It feels light on its tires. The throttle is crisp and the automatic gearbox holds ratios well, so when you put your foot down, you instantly get kicked back against the seat by a wallop of torque, which maxes out at just 2,000 rpm. The motor becomes noisier with a nice, deep bark. Yes, engine noise is fake, augmented by the speakers, but it’s well done. Without being outrageous, the S3 is good, wholesome, responsible fun.
Best of all, the ride is comfortable for a small, sporty car. That’s due to the (expensive) optional adaptive dampers fitted to the model we drove. Audi nailed the tuning, offering a wide range of adjustment between Comfort mode and Dynamic.
Audi’s smallest performance car has long been my favourite in the brand’s lineup. The company’s bigger, faster S and RS models often feel slightly tame and uninspiring – albeit more usable – compared with more extreme machines from Mercedes-AMG and BMW M. But, the all-new 2022 S3 is an exception. It’s expensive for what you get, as are its luxury-brand peers. Nevertheless, Audi has delivered a car that’s both comfortable and a joy to drive – provided you spring for the pricey adaptive dampers. The 2022 S3 may have just dethroned the older Mercedes A-Class as my favourite small luxury sedan of all.
With the market shifting almost completely to SUVs and trucks, the days of niche cars like these seem numbered. Enjoy them while you can.
2022 Audi S3
- Base price/as tested: $47,900/$60,250 (estimated)
- Engine: 2.0-litre turbo four-cylinder
- Transmission/drive: Seven-speed dual-clutch automatic
- Fuel consumption (litres/100 kilometres): 10 city, 7.2 highway
- Alternatives: Mercedes-AMG A35 sedan or hatchback, BMW 2 Series Gran Coupe, Mazda3 Sport GT AWD, Volkswagen Golf R
It looks lacklustre in company-lease grey, but a brighter metallic hue brings out the car’s sharp lines. The fender flares and creased bodywork make it look more aggressive than the sleek Mercedes.
You can have any colour you want, as long as it’s black or grey. More options would have been welcome. The new dashboard and infotainment system are as good as it gets in small cars.
For outright driving thrills, BMW’s 2 Series coupe can’t be outdone, but it only has two doors, which will be a deal-breaker for many drivers. The Mercedes A-Class has the advantage of being available as both a sedan and a hatchback. The S3 can go from zero to 100 kilometres an hour in 4.8 seconds.
Unfortunately, many options you’ll want aren’t available on the base Komfort trim. You’ll have to pony up for the $50,400 Progressiv trim to get adaptive dampers, which are bundled into a $1,600 package. The advanced navigation package is $2,250 and a driver assist package is another $1,300.
The trunk lid’s bulky supports cut into the already-limited rear trunk space.
Probably the best all-around little luxury sedan, if you can stomach the price.