Review: 2022 Audi S3

Share
Matt Tierney

The universe holds certain immutable constants—the speed of light, property destruction after a Philadelphia sports championship, the ever-increasing size of new cars. Why does that last one always sting? As a popular model ages, its successor inevitably grows a smidge, and the next successor a smidge after that, generation by generation, until what began life as a compact car suddenly matches the dimensions of a midsizer from two decades ago.

The S3, Audi’s most affordable S model, has crept up in scale for 2022. This car is based on the A3, Audi’s smallest sport sedan, and yet it’s now the size of Audi’s landmark B5 A4, built from 1995 to 2001. The S3 grows 0.8 inches in width and 1.5 inches in length for ’22, and the difference is palpable. Back-seat legroom is noticeably improved next to the outgoing model, and the trunk is surprisingly large and easy to load. As small cars go, this one is practical. 

Low-riding entry-luxury cars with more than 300 hp occupy a niche within a niche. SUVs are Audi’s lifeblood in the American market these days, vehicles like the Q5 and Q7, not entry-level four-doors like the A3, which shares bones with the Volkswagen Golf. The S3’s customer base is predominantly made up of young money that wants to go fast and look good while wearing a premium badge.

2022 Audi S3 rear three-quarter
Matt Tierney

Indeed, the S3 is a handsome package. Hunkered down on its suspension and wearing the black roof, mirrors, grille trim, and 19-inch wheels from the optional Black Optic package ($1950), the Audi looks subtle and sinister. At the same time, the newly enlarged front intakes and honeycomb black-plastic trim on the rear apron look a touch busy, especially compared to the tidy visual clarity of the outgoing S3.

The basic formula hasn’t fundamentally changed, though. The VW Group’s turbocharged, 2.0-liter EA888 four now makes 306 hp and 295 lb-ft of torque, 18 hp and 15 lb-ft more than before, sent to all four wheels via a snappy, seven-speed dual-clutch automatic. Our $55,890 test car came equipped with the optional $1100 sport suspension, which also brings red-painted brake calipers and adaptive damper control, the latter variable through the S3’s standard drive modes. As in the eighth-gen Volkswagen Golf R, the S3 now boasts one central digital brain for its all-wheel drive system, its electronic stability control, its damper control, and its brake-based handling intervention.

Yes, we’ve arrived at that part of the review. Any discussion of the S3 inevitably prompts discussion of the Golf R, the Audi’s mechanical sibling and VW Group platform-mate. The enthusiast cadre is eager to dismiss the S3 as the poser’s choice. Next to the Volkswagen, the Audi is roughly $10,000 more expensive when comparably equipped, and it offers no manual transmission. Although the last S3 and the last Golf R shared a 288-hp four and a Haldex all-wheel drive system, the current models of each bookend a wider performance gap. The VW now makes more horsepower and torque—315 hp and 310 lb-ft to the S3’s 306 and 295—but it has lost the Haldex and benefits from a more sophisticated all-wheel-drive system. As we learned hucking the Golf R around Michigan’s ice-covered Upper Peninsula, the VW’s twin wet clutches and torque-vectoring rear differential allow for sweeping, tail-out drifts. The Haldex-equipped S3 defaults to understeer or neutral behavior in the same conditions, which makes for a bit less drama.

Both cars possess more than enough torque, grip, and technology to conquer just about any road, in a variety of conditions, with ease. Corners are point-and-shoot affairs—aim the nose where you want, lift the throttle to summon an immediate downshift from the telepathic dual-clutch, and guide the car out while the all-wheel-drive and adaptive dampers maximize traction and balance.

2022 Audi S3 rear driving action
Matt Tierney

In many of the larger Audis, which use a more traditional Torsen center diff, this is a robotic, loveless exercise. The S3, by contrast, almost always feels nimble and lively, the engine responsive and eager to rev when on the boil. Between 50 and 90 mph, the car simply takes off on a wave of midrange boost. At the track, I would opt for the Golf and its manual gearbox without hesitation, but for spirited street driving, the S3 is rather engaging in its own right.

That difference in hardware is VW’s way of acknowledging its enthusiast customer base. The Golf R is a clear reward for those who will gladly pay more than $40,000 for a Volkswagen hatchback, and it’s the best performer in the brand’s lineup. In Audi-land, however, it’s the top-dog RS3 (a $60,000 model not currently sold in America) that gets the torque-splitting rear differential, along with a fiery, 401-hp turbo five-cylinder. Translation: the ultimate Audi compact, with the brand’s most historically relevant engine configuration.

In that light, the S3 might seem like chopped liver. Before cuing up Stealers Wheel and lamenting the car’s position in VW hierarchy, however, consider the interior. It feels like the inside of a scaled-down A4, and that’s a compliment. From center stack to steering wheel, there’s nothing confusing about the S3’s interface, and the touchscreen works well enough. The current Golf’s infuriating haptic touch controls are thankfully absent—that change alone makes the Audi a lot more appealing as a daily driver.

If the cabin feels high-tech and expensive, it’s mostly because the S3’s best features are expensive. Our test car included the Premium Plus package ($2800), a mid-grade setup that adds satellite radio, adaptive cruise control, active lane assist, rear-cross traffic alert, power-folding mirrors, and a memory driver’s seat. The Fine Nappa Leather package ($1250) adds soft hides with diamond-stitched seat backs; these thrones are comfortable and provide generous thigh support while adding nice contrast to the interior. Metal and piano-black trim abound in locations where the Golf uses plastic. Door-pocket storage is reasonable, but the center console is shallow and pathetic compared to the cavernous vault between the front seats of a Honda Civic.

Audi’s Virtual Cockpit digital instrument cluster remains the best in the business, with easy-to-read graphics and impressive, full-screen Google Maps integration. Along with navigation and a thumping Bang & Olufsen 3D sound system, the Virtual Cockpit comes bundled into the $2250 Technology Pack. The only downgrade next to the outgoing S3 is the absence of that car’s flat-bottom steering wheel—evidently a no-go with the hands-on detection tech of the new model’s Driver Assistance system. 

There are a couple of other missteps. For one, the voice commands flat-out don’t work and tend to induce white-hot rage. You’ll try the system once before remembering that Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are standard, and then you’ll never go back. The little touch-sensitive click wheel near the shifter, which operates like a 2005 iPod, is also a weird choice. In winter, with gloves on, it works half the time; with bare hands, it’s just awkward.

2022 Audi S3 interior center console gear selector
Matt Tierney

This is an expensive car, even considering the badge and what you get. Fifty-six thousand dollars could score you a decently equipped BMW 3 Series or a Genesis G70, even the perfectly competent A4. However, none of those choices offer the fun that comes from stuffing a small platform with more power and grip than it really needs. That experience will be worth the compromise for those happy to live with the S3’s compact size and—more important—for those willing to pay to not drive a Volkswagen. 

That buyer represents a sliver of the new-car market, but Audi clearly considers the audience worthwhile. If the S3 was once a compelling little premium hot-rod, it’s now bigger and better—two qualities that don’t always go hand-in-hand. 

 

***

 

2022 Audi S3

Price: $45,945 / $55,890 (base/as-tested)

Highs: Quick, comfortable, and fun. Feels more like a luxury car than past S3s, but hasn’t lost any of the old car’s spunk. Small enough to feel chuckable, large enough to be livable.

Lows: The premium features Audi customers want are only available through pricey options packages. Factory voice-control system is an epic fail.

Summary: You’re paying for the badge, but the S3 delivers punch and features that belie its economy-car roots.

Comments

Share Leave comment
Read next Up next: 300-hp, manual-only GR Corolla is Akio’s love letter to U.S. enthusiasts