The 2017 Audi S3 is a difficult car to nail.

In the edit meeting where I pitched this review of this powerful, peppy sports sedan, a colleague asked, "Oh, so is the S3 like a BMW 3-Series?"

Not really. The $42,900 Audi is smaller and sportier than that.

OK, so what about the BMW M2? That's closer, but the M2 has two doors (as the less powerful 2-Series), and this one has four.

Maybe the Mercedes-Benz CLA45 AMG?

The CLA45 AMG is a lot faster and more powerful than S3, and it looks droopier across the body. But that might be the closest we get. At least they're nearly the same price.


In fact, the $42,900 S3 sits in the rare position of having no direct competitors, which in turn allows it to compete against all comers who dare to challenge its frame. This is the sport sedan that you use every day if you're going to be doing some heavy driving but want to have fun behind the wheel, not just drive mindlessly. Audi says it's for the "sophisticated" driver who wants to "live life in the fast lane-or leave the crowd behind."


Driving it is like a good first date: The car is good-looking, smart but not too nerdy, and fun. Plus, you've heard good things about him (or her) in the press and think he's cool. Audi sold 31,538 units in the A3/S3 model line in 2016.


If you've been looking for a unique sport sedan lately, something unexpected, this could be it. Get it in a bright color.


Good-Looking
Let's talk about how it looks. Cosmetic changes to this year's S3 over previous generations are just what you'd want for a film star-subtle enough to make the face look rested but not revised. There are some new creases and cornering around the angular LED headlights and the signature large Audi grille; the intakes have been lowered as well. Along the sides, the S3 is tucked up higher than the A4 sedan, with a blunter rear end squared off as though it has done those butt-lifts that make it hurt to sit the next day. Perky. (This is a relative term, yes, when it comes to sedans, which are pretty sedate and generic compared with sports cars and convertibles. But you take what you can get.)

Elsewhere, exterior details also delight: When you engage the hazards or use the turn indicators, each tail light illuminates in a pleasing moving line, progressing away from the center of the car, with each tiny bulb lighting independently in a gentle wave effect of red brake lights. Red S3 badging, 19-inch wheels (part of a $1,500 drivers package), and red caliper brakes ($400) help denote that the S3 is more special than other sedans and, more importantly, that you are special for driving it.

Good Value, but It Could Be Faster
The S3 I drove cost $51,725 after such upgrades as the Daytona Gray paint job ($575) and the technology package ($3,000). (Remember, the base version costs $42,900). That beats both the $46,450 M240i and the $49,950 CLA45 AMG, both of which will cost even more, too, of course, if you choose to buy extras.

As far as numbers go, this is where the good news ends.

S3 falters with fuel economy. BMW's M240i achieves 21 mpg in the city and 31 mgp on the highway. Mercedes's CLA45 AMG can hit 23 mgp in the city and 30 mpg on the highway. S3, meanwhile, achieves 21 mpg in the city and 28 mpg on the highway. That's fewer miles per gallon than competitors can manage and a decrease from the previous generation S3, which posted EPA ratings of 23 mpg in the city and 31 mpg on the highway.


Similarly, while the S3 has an excellent 2.0 liter, 292hp I4 engine, it lags behind the power of the 335 inline-six BMW M2 and 375hp of the inline-four Mercedes CLA45 AMG. Zero to 60 mph speeds are 4.7 seconds, 4.2 seconds, and 4.1 seconds, respectively. You're also going to want a little more feedback from the steering wheel when you get inside-one turn of a bolt tighter would mean a lot.

Don't get me wrong. This is a great car; it's quite fun. The six-speed transmission works as smoothly as any in the category; the Quattro all-wheel drive never falters. The whole thing grips corners and across traffic lanes. S3 shares an engine and AWD system with the Volkswagen Golf R, so the spunky DNA of that fun rally car leaves fingerprints here. Get the (optional) magnetic ride, which'll iron it out like silk to proper luxury levels.


The cabin inside sits between the stark minimalism of the BMW and the almost too-much tech of the CLA45 AMG-lots of things like climate zones, heated seats, a parking system and rearview camera, and a panoramic sunroof come standard. The rear seat is viable for adult-sized legs, and the spacious trunk suits as road trip-friendly companion. As long as you're not planning to drive to China or anything. The three-spoke, flat bottom steering wheel, S Sport seats and virtual cockpit all make it feel modern, cool, and, yes, special.


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