Audi's new S3 sedan is the kind of easygoing car you could be comfortable letting your 16-year-old borrow without worrying that he'll hang it in a tree.
But with nearly 300 horsepower and a starting price of $42,000, it's also a performance car that you'll want to keep for yourself.
The S3 is the go-fast version of Audi's entry-level A3 sedan. It takes the A3's best parts — perfect size, quiet cabin, handsome styling — and then tunes and tweaks the mechanical bits for more speed.
The 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine remains, but upgrades to its powertrain create 292 horsepower and 280 pound-feet of torque. A six-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission handles shifting duties with aplomb, engaging all four wheels via the S3's Quattro all-wheel-drive system.
The car is rated at 23 mpg in the city and 31 mpg on the highway. In a week of mostly city driving, we averaged 20 mpg.
Audi says the S3 will scoot to 60 mph in a respectable 4.7 seconds. Indeed, after the initial turbo lag passes, the S3 surges forward with glee. Keep your foot buried, and the S3's sport exhaust rips out of the four oval tailpipes with a light roar on every upshift.
The S3 comes with multiple settings for the steering, exhaust note and engine/transmission response. Our $49,945 tester also had the optional adjustable suspension. Though it's nice in theory to customize the car — or at least brag about it at the watercooler — most buyers will set the car once and never think about it again.
Go aggressive for the exhaust and drivetrain for maximum pleasure. In any setting, the transmission's shifts are quick and effortless, and the AWD handling is neutral and predictable.
But the S3's transmission does seem reluctant to upshift in Sport mode. More an annoyance than a deterrent, this is endemic to all VW and Audi cars with this gearbox.
The car's Goldilocks size is just right for both parking and full-size passengersin the back seats. The interior is quiet, comfortable and ruggedly bolted together.
In addition to the mechanical upgrades over the A3 platform, the S3 comes with design tweaks inside and out. In addition to the aforementioned quad exhaust, there are tastefully aggressive front and rear bumpers, handsome 18- or 19-inch wheels, and the brushed-metal side-view mirrors that are the S models' trademark.
Standard interior features include a panoramic moonroof, a flat-bottom steering wheel, leather sport seats (which should have had more side bolstering considering this is a performance car) and dual-zone climate control.
Our Misano Red tester also included nearly $8,000 worth of options, among them a navigation system with a touch-sensitive controller, a Bang & Olufsen stereo, LED headlights and a backup camera.
In light of what you get for the money, our S3 wasn't cheap. The Volkswagen Golf R is $4,500 less despite using the same powertrain and coming with nearly the same features and build quality.
Like the A3 sedan, the S3's real problem is BMW. Shoppers with $50,000 to spend would be silly not to at least test-drive BMW's 335i xDrive, which packs all-wheel drive and a flawless 300-horsepower six-cylinder engine into a slightly larger car with even better road manners.
Otherwise, the S3 is good, clean fun that you can use every day — and a refreshing change, at a time when so many performance cars promise all sorts of track-lapping abilities to drivers who are far more likely to cruise the Starbucks drive-through.