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2016 Audi A3 / S3 Pros and Cons: Why (Not) This Car?

Audi S3 front quarter

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I should have written up the Audi S3 months ago. I haven't because I couldn't figure out what to compare it to.

When I asked on TrueDelta's Facebook page, people suggested the Golf R. But that would be boring, as they're pretty much the same car, just in different body styles with different styling. Want a hatchback, a manual transmission, or to save $6,850? Get the VW. Want a sedan, additional features (such as a sunroof or power passenger seat), a somewhat more upscale interior, or a more prestigious brand? Get the Audi.

No one else offers a sedan the S3's size with about 300 horsepower. BMW offers the M235i, but it's a two-door. Mercedes offers the CLA (which is seven inches longer) with either 208 or 375 horsepower. Though the upcoming 400-horsepower RS 3 will more directly compete with it , I see little choice but to pit the S3 against the AMG CLA45 (previously the CLA45 AMG, Mercedes juggled its nomenclature for 2016).

That said, the S3 really is in a class of its own. If you want a 175-inch-long sedan with about 300 horsepower from an upscale brand, it's your only choice. But do you?

A3 / S3 Reviews: Audi S3 front quarter

Though unrelated mechanically, the S3 looks much like larger Audi sedans, just smaller. more A3 / S3 photos

A3 / S3 Reviews: Audi S3 interior

To some people, the A3's spare interior seems cheap. The more expensive S3 has the same interior.

Tested: 2016 Audi A3 / S3

4dr Sedan turbocharged 292hp 2.0L I4 6-speed automated manual AWD

Compared: 2014 Mercedes-Benz CLA

4dr Sedan turbocharged 355hp 2.0L I4 7-speed automated manual AWD

Why the 2016 Audi A3 / S3?

  Compared to the CLA
Powertrain performance
Powertrain performance: About the same Better Worse

Judging from their specs, the 292-horsepower Audi S3 shouldn't accelerate nearly as quickly as the 375-horsepower (up 20 from the 2014-2015) Mercedes-AMG CLA45. But it does. In magazine testing the Audi lags only a few tenths behind. With a hard launch it can jump to 60 mph in just 4.4 seconds.

This said, the Mercedes feels stronger. The Audi accelerates so smoothly, with so little in the way of sensation, that it's far too easy to overshoot your intended speed. Its turbocharged 2.0-liter four has so much midrange grunt that on two-lane highways I felt no need to downshift below fourth for curves.

And this said, you will encounter lag in the S3, especially at low speeds. The 220-horsepower engine used in the Audi A3 and VW GTI feels more responsive in typical daily driving. To get another 72 horsepower from 2.0 liters, the S3's engine must employ a larger, heavier turbo, and larger, heavier turbos take more time to spool up. At which point the more powerful engine does rocket away. The S3 has a dual-mode exhaust with a sport mode that might be entirely synthetic--engine noises are played through a speaker. It sounded synthetic to me. I didn't care for the sound and turned it off. The AMG engine sounds more authentically raw when wound out, in a good way.

Both cars are offered only with dual-clutch automated manual transmission (DCT). The S3's has six gears, while the CLA's has seven. Transmissions of this type (DSG in VW/Audi parlance) can shift more quickly than other transmission types. When accelerating quickly, the Audi engine braps with each shift, and the AMG engine downright barks. When creeping along at parking lot speeds they (and especially that in the Mercedes) can feel less smooth than a conventional automatic, as they lack torque converters. They're also less engaging than a conventional, three-pedal manual. If you really want one of the latter with the S3's engine and chassis, check out the Volkswagen Golf R.

Handling: Better Better Worse

Audi rarely tunes its cars to have strong personalities. The S3 isn't an exception. The small sedan can attack curves with excellent poise and grip, and understeers only when approaching the very high limits of its grippy tires (which won't happen often near the speed limit on paved public roads). Partly thanks to its all-wheel-drive system, getting on and off the S3's throttle has a minimal impact on the car's demeanor. Audi loves to use the word "dynamic," but dynamic this otherwise outstanding chassis is not. Plus the S3's steering provides little feedback, such that I did not feel confident when pressing it anywhere near its high limits.

I drove the S3 from Detroit to Nashville and back, taking detours in both directions to include twisty roads. On the most challenging of these roads the S3 was fun, but short of euphoric. I never felt, "I've got to have one of these."

The Mercedes handles with less polish and less balance, but with firmer, more direct steering and simply more personality. Technically the Audi handles better, but the Mercedes can be more engaging and fun.

When fitted with proper winter tires either all-wheel-drive car should perform well in the snow (as long as the white stuff isn't too deep).

In my experience one Audi has been tremendous "I'd love to own this car" fun: the second-generation TT RS with a manual transmission. The upcoming RS 3 will employ the powertrain and chassis of the third-generation TT RS, and so could be considerably more fun to drive than the S3. A manual transmission doesn't appear likely, though.

A3 / S3 Reviews: Audi S3 rear quarter

Most elegant from the rear quarter. S3 has four exhaust tips, two per side and one per cylinder.

A3 / S3 Reviews: Audi S3 instrument panel full

Cleanly styled to a fault. Round air vents as in the sporty TT.

Fuel economy
Fuel economy: About the same Better Worse

For a car that can get from zero to 60 mph in under five seconds, the Audi S3 can be quite economical. The tested 2016's EPA ratings were 23 mpg city, 31 mpg highway. For 2017, the S3's ratings have fallen to 21/28 for no obvious reason. Maybe the updates pushed the car into a higher test weight class. I doubt the car's real-world fuel economy has changed. I observed 25 mpg in suburban driving (with a light foot) and nearly 30 mpg on the highway.

Despite its more powerful engine, the Mercedes-AMG CLA45 scores even better than the 2017 S3 (if not quite as good as the 2016): 23/30.

Controls and instruments
Controls and instruments: Better Better Worse

Comparing the infotainment controls of upscale cars, I find Audi's MMI easiest to operate.

For 2017 the S3 receives Audi's "virtual cockpit," a reconfigurable LCD instrument cluster that can do just about anything the console-mounted system can do. I've enjoyed using this new system in three other Audis I've tested with it.

Looking to trade in your vehicle? Get an estimate of how much it's worth.

Why Not the 2016 Audi A3 / S3?

  Compared to the CLA
Ride smoothness
Ride smoothness: Better Better Worse

When compared to the Mercedes-AMG CLA45, the Audi S3 has no clear relative weaknesses beyond a lack of personality. It has weaknesses, but in each case the Mercedes is even weaker.

Take ride quality. The S3's firm suspension feels nearly perfect on a twisty two-lane road, but the resulting ride can seem annoyingly bumpy and thumpy in town. I'm not sure I'd want to live with it day-to-day.

But, as far as I could tell during my limited time drivng it, the Mercedes rides even more firmly.

Rear seat room & comfort
Rear seat room & comfort: Much better Better Worse

Same goes for rear seat room. The Audi S3's rear seat can be a tight fit for adults, especially if those in the front seats are tall. But at least most adults will fit. My adult-sized children rode in the back seat from Detroit to Nashville and back without complaining about the amount of space. (It helped that none of us are tall; I'm 5-9.)

The back seat in the CLA provides far less room for heads and legs. Mercedes markets it as a coupe for a reason.

A3 / S3 Reviews: Audi S3 front

Looks much like other Audis of the front. This is the 2016. Tweaked for 2017.

A3 / S3 Reviews: Audi S3 back seat

Adults will fit much better back here than in the CLA.

Cargo capacity
Cargo capacity: Worse Better Worse

Actually, the Mercedes does have one clear advantage: truck volume. The Audi S3's trunk, at just ten cubic feet (two fewer than the base A3 thanks to the AWD system's rear differential), is about as small as you'll find in a car with four doors. Even the CLA, with its drooping rear end, has a trunk that's nearly a third larger.

This said, the S3's trunk was large enough for three people taking a four-day trip.

Other features of the 2016 Audi A3 / S3

  Compared to the CLA
Exterior styling
Exterior styling: Better Better Worse

The styling of the Mercedes screams "look at me." Prefer your cars less extroverterd and more tasteful? No one does tasteful and understated better than Audi. The S3 looks much like other Audi sedans of the past 15 years, just with more compact dimensions.

For 2017 the S3's styling has been mildly updated. Most people won't notice that it has changed.

Driving position & visibility
Driving position & visibility: Much better Better Worse

With its more upright upper body, more compact instrument panel, and larger windows, the Audi is considerably easier to see out of than the bunker-like Mercedes.

Front seat support & comfort
Front seat support & comfort: Better Better Worse

The tested S3 was fitted with the $1,450 "S Sport Seat Package." These sport seats, though minimally adjustable, look fantastic, provide excellent lateral support (at least for someone with my 33-inch waist), and proved comfortable even when driving all day. Note, though, that these seats delete the S3's otherwise standard 8-way power adjustments. They retain 4-way power lumber adjusters, but I couldn't quite get the bulge to fit my lower back. Unlike many, the headrests don't jut too far forward.

The $2,250 "AMG Performance Seats" in the Mercedes retain the standard power adjustments, while adding some for the bolsters, so for at least some people they can be adjusted to fit better. In my brief drive I found the driver seat's lumbar bulge overly prominent even when minimized, so I'd probably find it less comfortable on a trip.

I haven't driven either car with its standard seats.

Price or payments
Price or payments: Much better Better Worse

With a base price of $43,850 for 2017 (up $425 from the tested 2016) and a typically equipped price in the high 40s, the Audi S3 might seem pricey for a sedan of its size. But this price is only $3,305 more than a similarly equipped 220-horsepower A3, which seems reasonable. It's $6,850 more than a Golf R with the DSG transmission, but additional standard features (such as a sunroof not available on the Volkswagen) account for about $2,500 of this. Is it worth ten percent more to you to have an Audi sedan rather than a VW hatchback?

Then there's the Mercedes, which starts over $50,000 and lists for $11,000 more than the Audi when both are comparably equipped. The Audi's price suddenly seems attractive. The 2018 RS 3 should cost about as much as the CLA45, though.


The Audi S3 proved a quick, highly capable car with enough space for three people on a long weekend. But, like other S-level Audis, it feels much the same as the A3, just quicker. This a car that can be trusted to follow orders, even those that call for high speeds along curvy roads. But it doesn't entice you to play.

The Mercedes-AMG CLA45 isn't significantly quicker and can't match the Audi's imperturbable poise through curves, but it has a more overtly sporty personality. Brash, even. There's a tight, firm, highly responsive feel to the entire car, including its steering. But the CLA45 is also harder to see out of, has a rear seat unsuitable for adults, and costs much more.

Ultimately, the Audi S3 is the smarter buy by just about any objective measure.

A3 / S3 Reviews: Volkswagen Golf R engine

I neglected to photograph the S3's engine. Here's the same engine in a Golf R. Powerful, but laggy

A3 / S3 Reviews: Audi S3 trunk

Small trunk, but usually enough.

See more 2016 Audi A3 / S3 photos

Audi provided an insured car for a week with a tank of gas. I briefly drove a Mercedes-Benz AMG CLA63 at a regional media association event.

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2016 Audi A3 / S3 pros and cons, according to Michael Karesh: the best reasons for buying (or not buying) the 2016 Audi A3 / S3. Join TrueDelta to post your own impressions.

Response from dougjp

11:41 am October 27, 2016

I've often been attracted to this car, then ultimately decided no. Turbo lag, ride and lack of trunk space (same amount as the Cadillac ATS, by the way) being the main reasons.

I never compared against the AMG, but rather the M235i, as the number of doors and access to the back seats aren't primary factors to me.

I'm wondering if a comparison for the S3 comes from Audi's own stable in addition to the Golf R, the 2017 A4? Have you driven it, does it have turbo lag in day to day driving? Only 164 lbs. more weight than the S3, 7 speed vs. 6 speed, torque is close to the S3's number and peaks 300 RPM lower, although power is down by 40 in comparison.


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Response from mkaresh

12:04 pm October 27, 2016

The M235i is considerably more fun to drive than the S3. I'd have compared it, but two doors vs. four.

I had the 2017 A4 for a week a while ago, but haven't written it up yet. Some lag, more than with the 220-horsepower engine, but not as much as with the 292-horsepower engine. This makes sense, as more horsepower from the same displacement usually means more boost which means a larger, heavier turbo that cannot spool up as quickly.

I did review the 2016 Audi A6 earlier this year with the 252-horsepower engine.

The thing with the A4 is that it's not at all tuned to be a sports sedan. It's simply an excellent all-around sedan. Maybe the S4 will be considerably sportier, but as noted in this review Audi usually reserves overtly sporty tuning for its RS cars, and not always even those. For example, the RS 5 feels sedate in typical daily driving.

As for the BMW, if you want a car that's an absolute blast to drive the M2 is hard to beat. Incredibly fun car. The M3/M4 drives like a pig in comparison.


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Response from Impressed

12:52 pm October 31, 2016

It's refreshing to read a review of a German car that doesn't include words like "Teutonic" and other stereotypical auto journo nonsense. I just saw one of these cars recently and was dismayed at the lack of a manual option, but the interior looked like a nice place to be. The owner seemed happy enough.


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