by Frank A. Aukofer

With its 2017 A3 and S3 models, Germany’s Audi redefines the meaning of “entry level.”

Yes, they are the first-step introduction to the company’s extensive lineup of luxury/high performance sports cars, sedans and crossover sport utility vehicles. But they are anything but base.

Their only nod to the entry label is their classification as subcompact cars. With a total of slightly more than 96 cubic feet of interior volume, they reside in the U.S. government’s subcompact range of 85 to 99 cubic feet. That includes 86 cubic feet for passengers and 10 cubic feet of trunk space.

That has both advantages and disadvantages. The advantage is a tidy footprint. At 14 feet 8 inches long, they exhibit quick and precise handling, especially in the all-wheel-drive quattro models, along with a capability of doing rapid U-turns almost anywhere.

news-2017-audi-s3-10The main disadvantage is a small trunk and a back seat that anyone over 6 feet tall likely would find challenging, with restricted knee and head room. As with most sedans these days, the outboard rear seats are comfortable but the center-rear position—with a hard cushion and big floor hump—should be reserved for backpacks or watermelons.

The A3 was introduced to plaudits as a 2016 model. Now, for 2017, there’s a family of four: A3 in sedan and convertible (Cabriolet) models with either front-drive or all-wheel drive; high-performance S3 sedan with quattro all-wheel drive, and the e-tron plug-in hybrid four-door hatchback.

Audi chose the new S3 as the 2017 launch vehicle. With standard all-wheel drive, it is powered by a turbocharged four-cylinder engine that delivers 292 horsepower and 280 pounds-feet of torque. That considerable power gets to the pavement through a snap-shifting six-speed twin-clutch automatic transmission that also can be manually shifted with paddles on the steering wheel.

news-2017-audi-s3-9Audi says the S3’s zero-to-60 mph acceleration time is 4.7 seconds, with a top track speed of 155 mph (or 130 with all-season tires). It’s unlikely anybody would try that on a regular basis, but the confidence of instant power is always present.

The A3, with a new 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine, comes with 186 horsepower and 221 pounds-feet of torque. That’s with front-wheel drive and a starting price tag of $32,150. Order it with Quattro all-wheel drive, and the 2.0-liter four-cylinder delivers 220 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque. The sticker is $35,100.

None of the prices are in economy car territory and options boost the stickers even higher. The tested S3 had a starting price of $43,850 and when the extras were added the bottom-line cost came to $51,325.

news-2017-audi-s3-24Leather upholstery is part of the standard equipment, unlike the man-made faux leather on some other luxury cars. It also includes full safety equipment, automatic climate control, panoramic sunroof, satellite and HD radio, smart phone interface with Apple Car Play and Android Auto, and a seven-inch infotainment screen that hides in the dash and rises majestically when the S3 wakes up.

Among the options were a navigation system, Bang & Olufsen premium audio system, 19-inch custom wheels with high-performance summer tires, magnetic ride control, cross traffic alert, sport seats and soft Nappa leather upholstery. Curiously for a car in this price class, all the S3’s front seat controls are manual, although they offer a myriad of adjustments to accommodate almost anyone.

One minor annoyance is the shade for the panoramic sunroof, which is made from a perforated cheesecloth-like material that allows way too much sunlight to intrude. This is a current fad embraced by too many luxury cars. Sun shades should be opaque.

news-2017-audi-s3-23But driver satisfaction and entertainment is the bottom line on the S3 sedan. Under any circumstance you might imagine—short of rough off-roading, which you would never do anyway—the S3 accelerates strongly, shifts swiftly, brakes strongly, handles with intuitive competence, tracks cleanly on straightaways, promises reliability and delivers a ride that is sporting stiff but compliant and not uncomfortable.

The only thing some owners in areas of foul weather might do would be to swap out the 155-mph summer tires for the 130-mph all-season tires. As much grip as they deliver in handling and stopping on dry surfaces, the summer tires get tricky in messy circumstances.

Because of its price, the S3 is not a car for everybody. However, you can order a lightly optioned A3 with front-drive and almost as much driving satisfaction—at a price near what an average new car sells for nowadays.

news-2017-audi-s3-11Specifications

  • Model: 2017 Audi S3 quattro four-door sedan.
  • Engine: 2.0-liter four cylinder, turbocharged, 292 hp, 280 lb-ft torque.
  • Transmission: Six-speed dual-clutch automatic.
  • Overall length: 14 feet 8 inches.
  • EPA passenger/trunk volume: 86/10 cubic feet.
  • Weight: 3,462 pounds.
  • EPA city/highway/combined fuel consumption: 21/28/24 mpg. Premium recommended.
  • Base price, including destination charge: $43,850.
  • Price as tested: $51,325.

Disclaimer: The manufacturer provided the vehicle used to conduct this test drive and review.

Photos (c) Audi.