The US didn’t have much of the luxury car market before 2000. But within a few years both the BMW 1 Series and Audi A3 arrived as the least expensive cars in their respective lineups. They were intended to engage younger buyers in the brand early, so they would continue to buy more expensive versions later on.
North America has since seen three generations of the A3 and S3, with the S3 being a sportier version of the same five-seat subcompact sedan. They were almost always offered with four-cylinder engines, and for 2022 both received an update.
The sedans received an exterior redesign for 2022 to refine some corners and the wheel arches, which Audi calls the “quattro blister,” are now more pronounced. The latest Matrix LED headlights are available and most of the company’s driver assistance features have made it up to the 2022 A3, including standard lane departure warning, Audi cruise assist available with lane guidance and lateral assistance with rear cross traffic assistance and Park assist.
Both A3 and S3 sedans come standard with Audi’s 10.1-inch MMI touchscreen infotainment display with large icons for navigation, media and main controls, and easy wireless connections to Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. Wireless charging is available, but a full digital 10.25 instrument cluster is standard. Audi’s 12.3-inch virtual cockpit digital instrument cluster is part of the technology package ($ 2,250) that also comes with MMI Navigation Plus, premium audio, traffic sign recognition and Audi Connect.
In addition to technology, the cabs of the A3 and S3 differ slightly. The A3 features heated, leather-covered and electric seats, a panoramic roof and three-zone climate control. There are two new color options including brown with gray stitching, beige with gray stitching.
The S3 adds new electrically adjustable sports seats upholstered in Nappa leather. It also offers different materials for interior finishes such as carbon and brushed metals.
Both cars have a great low seating position with tons of odd-sized bodywork adjustments. The S3, with its diamond stitching, looks much more refined. One annoying oddity with both cars is that it takes nearly a full second from the driver pressing the start button until the car starts.
Audi MMI infotainment works perfectly with wireless Apple CarPlay and quickly switches between screens. Extra icons on the side of the screen allow the owner to switch back and forth between the smartphone and the native system.
There are no knobs for volume, tuning or climate control. Instead the Audi has a circular slider on the center console for volume and integrated buttons for fine-tuning. There is a volume control on the steering wheel, which is the easiest option to get used to. The climate also uses buttons and rocker switches, which are better than doing it via the touchscreen but not up to par with the physical dials.
The door and dashboard trim, including the raw wood, looks good and most of the contact points are soft. Both the front and back are fine for a mid-sized adult, but if some of them were football players, it would be tight.
Although Audi is known for its all-wheel drive, the A3 is one of the few that can be bought with a front-wheel drive layout. Still, it’s the A3 40 TFSI quattro that gets a 24 percent increase in fuel consumption, landing at 38 miles per gallon (mpg) on the highway and 31 mpg combined. That combined number outperforms its current competitors, the Mercedes-Benz CLA-Class and the BMW 2 Series Gran Coupe by 6mpg and 4mpg, respectively.
The base A3 also gets a 2mpg boost to 32mpg combined.
These efficiencies come from the new 48-volt lightweight hybrid system that can store energy and allow the car to coast with the engine off in many situations. This, combined with the 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine, delivers 201 horsepower and 221 foot-pounds of torque. A seven-speed dual-clutch transmission transmits power to the front or all four wheels. The mild hybrid system is one of the smoothest start / stop systems in the industry.
The S3 uses the same engine but no lightweight hybrid system to deliver 306 horsepower and 295 foot-pounds of torque. That’s increases of 18 horsepower and 15 foot-pounds, and sprinting to 60mph takes just 4.5 seconds. It is also equipped with a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission but only four-wheel drive.
The S3 is half an inch lower than the A3 in normal form, but lowering springs can be specified on the A3. Only the S3 is offered an adaptive suspension that can be adjusted with the driving modes. Normal, Comfort and Sport control throttle sensitivity, suspension smoothness, steering effort and transmission in automatic mode.
Both the A3 and the S3 do a better job than most automakers at making the Comfort setting very comfortable and the Sport setting feeling sporty. Some automakers appear to have very few changes between driving modes. That Sport setting, especially in the S3 with the 19-inch wheels available, is a bit stiff for everyday driving, except for the enthusiast. Those wheels come with the Black Optic package ($ 1,950) which also adds summer tires, black tailpipes, black mirror housings, a black roof, and other dark accents.
The Comfort setting is perfect for Mid-Michigan dirt roads and with all-wheel drive the A3 was stable even at higher speeds on gravel. It will easily check potholes on normal Midwestern roads. The steering is quicker in those more aggressive modes, and an individual driving mode allows buyers to set any desired parameters.
The power of the 2.0-liter and mild-hybrid system in the A3 was never lacking, and the real-world combined fuel mileage of 32 miles per gallon was more than that manufacturer’s estimated 31 mpg. There is a bit of a lag from the turbocharger when starting from a stop, but once it goes the A3 keeps close to its maximum power range.
The S3, on the other hand, is hilarious and aggressive. There is very little turbo lag and speeds quickly top three digits. The updated brakes and the S3 are appreciated as the A3’s caps weren’t very predictable or progressive. The turbo quattro doesn’t sound good at full lean, but for the average driver, both speed and comfort are plentiful.
The 2022 Audi A3 starts at $ 35,895 in front-wheel drive and the S3 comes in at $ 46,895 with standard all-wheel drive. The A3 competes with the BMW 2 Series Gran Coupe ($ 35,700) and the Mercedes-Benz CLA ($ 38,800) while the S3 competes with the high-performance versions of those, which come in at $ 45,500 and $ 48,950 respectively. Both BMW and Mercedes are also all-wheel drive.
Overall, the BMW is a bit sportier, the Mercedes-Benz is a bit more luxurious, and the Audis are somewhere in between. The BMW and Mercedes can be had rear-wheel drive while the less expensive Audi has a front-wheel drive layout. If a buyer is looking for a less expensive model, BMW and Mercedes are more fun. Buyers approaching high performance will enjoy the Audi S3.