Amped sedans used to stand for something.
Older German cars, stuffed blind with horsepower, weren’t only ugly — they were mostly dangerous, too. Flared wheel arches, super-sized spoilers, spine-shatteringly tight suspensions weren’t just the reality of owning one of those cars, that’s only what you noticed pulling out of the dealer’s lot. Finicky engines, rock-hard clutches and stratospheric running costs were all waiting for you at home, too.
Then something happened.
Those cars killed people — literally and figuratively. On their way to hanging upside down on someone’s fence, they just weren’t comfortable places to be every day.
It’s important to consider history before talking about the 2015 Audi S3. Audi faced a very real possibility of further distilling performance sedans when they announced a performance version of their entry-level A3.
After all, the A3 doesn’t really have a sense of occasion. Only the top-of-the-range car, with every option box ticked, is worth the additional cost over the excellent Volkswagen Golf that the A3 is based on. It’s a fine car, but siblings have always had a tough time sharing the spotlight.
On paper, the S3 doesn’t steal much anyway. The sheet metal from the A3 to the S3 is the same, and short of a lower chin, front splitter, side skirts and rear exhausts, there’s not much separating the two. Audi even kept the creased bezel around the wheel arches from the A3 to the S3 to break up the flat sides — like cuffs at the bottom of skinny tan slacks. No heinous wheel arches.
In many ways the S3 mimics its spirit animal, the B5 S4 from 1999. That car, plugged with a hulking iron twin-turbo V6, and still wearing boring Audi clothes, was the first Audi sedan to successfully elbow its way into a party previously dominated by BMW and Mercedes.
But the resemblance is deeper than that. This year’s S3 and 1999’s S4 share virtually identical wheelbases (102.4 and 103 inches), very similar power numbers (292 and 322) and similar 0-60 times (5 seconds to 5.4 seconds).
The turbo 2.0-liter four is all the S3’s own, however. The engine, which makes 292 horsepower and 280 lb.-ft. of torque, is unique to the S3 alone. On paper, it’s not as intimidating as similar mills from BMW or Mercedes, but that’s never been Audi’s bag. The S3’s engine is mounted to a more competent chassis with power delivered to all four wheels via all-wheel drive. Audi’s telepathic Quattro system shines — grip is never destroyed and the 19-inch summer rubbers create more and more grip the faster and faster you go. Good or bad, BMW’s rear tires never follow their fronts.
Up twisty Colorado mountain roads the song of the throaty four-cylinder engines bounces off the rock walls and back into the sunroof. The exhaust is a rapid-fire scream, and Audi pumps in intake sounds from the howling engine through the cabin to egg you into breaking more laws.
It’s sublime and supreme, mostly because the S3 has overcome its difficult berth and became a throwback to sportier, more dangerous sedans.
Because from the looks of it inside there isn’t much to indicate you’re in anything special. Audi’s MMI screen, which rises and falls from the dash, looks exactly the same as it does in the A3 that costs more than $20,000 less than the S3. The same row of blank, do-nothing buttons line the center stack — and other than a flat-bottomed steering wheel, there’s very little difference between the two cars.
Turbo lag keeps us from ending the story there.
For the unfamiliar, turbo lag is the amount of time it takes a turbocharger to spool up and deliver power back into the engine that’s asking for it.
For pedestrians, a 2.0-liter four makes about 200 horsepower without any forced induction. That means 50 percent of the Audi’s power comes from ramming cold air back into busy cylinders and blowing it back out again.
Think that takes time? It does. It takes exactly long enough to mash the gas pedal, grip the wheel — with a short remainder to ask aloud “Is this thing working?” The delivery of all the S3’s power is deliberately late and brutal.
It’s exactly what those older cars used to be with one key difference: It’s also a reminder that you’re not driving a VW Golf or a lesser-powered car.
A menu of driver’s aid functions help keep you and the S3 from the inevitable ditch you’re going to hit, but damn if it isn’t fun getting there.
And fun cars are worth standing up for.
Five things to know about the 2015 Audi S3:
It’s quick. The S3 moves from 0 to 60 mph in around 5 seconds.
The power comes in a burst. To get 300 horsepower, the turbo needs to be big.
All-wheel drive makes all the difference. The S3 has days of grip.
The engine noise is supreme. It’s partially manufactured noise, but the engine loves to be hammered.
No manual. So don’t even ask. But Audi’s dual-clutch automatic picks up the slack wonderfully.