What You Learn is a recurring look at the cars passing through R&T's test fleet. Sometimes you'll learn a lot about the car, other times, not so much. But it'll always be a succinct take on something we've driven recently. - Ed.
Hot Audis have always had a reputation associated with them that isn't necessarily the greatest. People would say that the engines are dangled out over the front axle which leads to a front heavy car that is essentially compromised every time the wheel has turned.
This reputation wasn't incorrect, either. For ages, this is precisely what Audi did because the architecture limited where they could place the engine. So we got years of magazines and forums (oh the forums) telling us how hot Audis would plow straight into a tree when pushed. Here's the thing, though: this hasn't been the case for ages. The engines have moved back, the all-wheel drive system has gotten more advanced, and the cars have gotten better and better.
Take the S3, for example. It might look like a cute little sedan, but don't let that fool you. Most of that is thanks to the crazy little engine under the hood. The S3 has the same 2.0 liter engine that's in the Golf R, which means it makes 292 horsepower and 280 lb-ft of torque. Those are big numbers for a tiny little engine, and you might fear that would make it laggy and peaky. In other words, terrible.
But it isn't. At low RPMs, it can stumble a bit, but once you hit peak torque, which comes in at just 1,900 RPM, the S3 becomes a little monster. Power delivery is rapid and the six-speed dual clutch gearbox does an excellent job of keeping the engine in the powerband. At this point you're likely saying that you want it with a manual, which is not available in the US. Yes, the Golf R is good with a manual, which means the S3 would be too, but you aren't sacrificing anything with this dual clutch. It's perfectly suited to the car.
The good news is that it's not an understeering pig! It's playful, chuckable, and a ton of fun. The chassis is composed and playful, the magnetic dampers are truly excellent, the all-wheel drive doesn't make it push, and that crazy little engine pulls like the dickens out of a corner. That makes for a car that is more fun on a back road than you'd expect. It's more of a backroad weapon and less of an Autobahn cruiser. You'd need an S4 if you want a car that's best there.
But, and of course, there is a but, while the S3 handles excellently, the steering feels artificial and too light (even if it is accurate), a criticism that seems to be levied at any and every car these days. It's a shame, really. More feedback through the wheel would make this car even more engaging, but that's an obvious thing to say. Just like how
Why buy an S3 over the Golf R, which is essentially the same car underneath? Well, for starters, the Golf R is much more boy racer while the S3 is more subtle, an adult sports sedan. It also has an excellent interior with great seats and chunky wheel that you can hold for hours. You can also get Audi's fantastic Virtual Cockpit instrument display and it comes with a fine iteration of Audi's MMI system.
With all those features, the S3 does become pricey. The one we tested with all the bibs and various bobs came out around $52,000, which is more than the base price on a new S4 (though that'll rise with any options, obviously). If you need more space and want something that can sit, unflapped at 140 mph for hours at a time, the S4 is your car. But if you want something smaller and a bit more manic, the S3 is the car for you.