The trouble with entry-level luxury cars is just that; they are entry level. Once you've tasted the pleasures of a range-topping flagship, a junior model is inevitably a let down, a bit like flying in economy after a spell in first class.
All the premium automakers suffer this problem to varying degrees. In Audi's case, the A3 sedan is better than most, partly because it benefits from the company's overall design excellence and attention to detail, inside and out, that pervades all the brand's vehicles.
That said, the base A3's cabin does feel rather sparsely appointed, compared to, say, Audi's superlative Q7 crossover. Think of them both as Christmas trees, except the A3 is a lot smaller and has fewer decorations.
Happily the A3 range has been spruced up for 2017 and the enhanced S3 performance version adds its own distinctive appeal. For performance enthusiasts the S3 is definitely the model to choose, with a snappy 0-60mph time of 4.7 seconds on tap and a top speed in excess of 150mph.
The S3 projects that engaging sensation of a small car with a powerful engine under the hood, specifically a 292-hp turbocharged 2.0-litre four-cylinder. Add in the sure-footed feel of the quattro all-wheel drive system and you have an upscale pocket rocket that steers and handles with rewarding precision.
What the S3 designation brings (for around $50,000) is an upgraded cabin, particularly in terms of the front seats and cockpit trim. The optional sports seats in my test car had diamond pattern stitching that helps break up the mostly black regime in the cabin, aided by similar stitching on the doors and center console.
One drawback of the extra wide front seats is that forward vision from the back of the cabin is restricted, which is unfortunate as rear passengers already have to deal with tight legroom.
While I like the S3's handling dynamics, the 19-inch Continental summer tires can be noisy and you can feel them nibble at road surface imperfections. And although the powertrain has plenty of punch, it is also a tad harsh at higher revs.
Compared to the smoother power delivery of a V6 or V8 motor, the turbo fours that Audi (and most other automakers) are adopting in smaller cars are simply not as refined. But that's part of the bargain you make when you opt for a model at the lower end of a luxury brand's line-up.
While the S3 seems expensive, compared to the competition, it actually represents good value, given its mechanical specification and its excellent suite of sophisticated infotainment and safety features.
Fast, engaging and chic, the latest S3 may belong to Audi's entry level family but it makes a compelling case for itself in the world of compact sports sedans.
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