So here's a question for Audi's marketing department: Why should anybody buy an S4 sedan? The new S3 is cheaper, quicker (4.4 seconds to 60!), and, although this won't trigger a buying impulse in everybody, considerably cuter. Sure, it's down a couple of cylinders compared with its bigger brother, and it has to make do with a less sophisticated four-wheel-drive system. But this is 2014 and the world is downsizing; even the BMW M3 has given up two pots.
Let's start with the obvious point that the S3 you're looking at here has its steering wheel on the wrong side and wears a license plate that looks like an eye chart for myopic pensioners. That's because, although the S3 doesn't touch down stateside until September, it's already on sale in England. So we sourced one in the U.K. and arranged to infiltrate a former U.S. airbase to record performance numbers, then did a whistle-stop tour of ridiculously quaint Shakespearean burgs with names like Kibworth Harcourt and Husbands Bosworth to see which one offers the best black pudding. If you don't know what that is, don't ask.
You already know the basics: The S3 is the beefy version of the transverse-engined A3 sedan, sharing the Golf's MQB platform and packing the most powerful current iteration of Volkswagen's familiar EA888 2.0-liter four. That means 292 horsepower, basically the same spec as the forthcoming Golf R. Although Europe also gets both three- and five-door-hatchback versions of the S3, only the sedan will cross the Atlantic. And although Europeans are helping to save the manuals with a standard six-speed stick, all U.S. versions will have the six-speed S tronic dual-clutch automatic that's fitted to our test car.
The looks are Audi-familiar. Despite carrying its engine sideways and being almost 10 inches shorter than an S4, the S3 looks close enough to its sibling that it could probably use its driver's license as a fake ID. The baby sedan's hatchback origins are only obvious in the relative shortness of its trunklid. With a chunky body kit, quad exhaust outlets, and the silver mirror surrounds that Audi reserves for S and RS models, it's a handsome little thing?and a measure more subtle than the Mercedes CLA45 AMG. Whether or not you think that's a plus probably depends on how high you wear your pants. Inside, the cabin is well finished and well equipped, although apart from a flat-bottomed steering wheel and gray instruments (with an '80s-style digital boost gauge), it feels very similar to the standard A3 sedan.
The engine is the highlight. Two decades ago, engines with the EA888's specific output came with turbo lag you could measure in Mississippis, whereas now you have to concentrate hard to detect it. Push the throttle pedal and there's a fractional delay as the boost works through the system, but it's so slight that you couldn't really describe it as lag. Beyond that, the engine delivers perfectly proportional responses. There's lots of low-down torque, yet the engine enjoys being revved, even beyond its 6200-rpm power peak. It sounds good, too, although like the rest of its turbocharged MQB brethren, it cheats slightly with a sound-enhancing loudspeaker on the cowl that supplements the engine's natural noise.
The transmission is so good that you don't notice it. Seamless upshifts played a big part in delivering the very impressive acceleration runs we recorded on the two-mile runway at the former RAF Bruntingthorpe airfield in rural Leicestershire. The S3 proved to be as quick when left in its more aggressive sport automatic mode as it was when we shifted via the steering-wheel paddles. A particular highlight: a 10.8-second zero-to-100-mph. The last time we so bludgeoned an S4 (albeit with a manual 'box) it took 12.0 seconds. For any sedan, that's pretty schnellsten.
We leave Bruntingthorpe and head out into England's Green and Pleasant Land, otherwise known as the late 1950s. Within 10 minutes we've passed the villages of Peatling Parva, Ashby Magna, and Dunton Bassett, whose one pub, The Dunton Bassett Arms, advertises ?excellent Chinese and English food served daily.? The S3's transmission stays transparent in the surreal world, juggling its ratios intelligently. The manual mode works cleanly even when you request multiple downshifts.
Sadly the steering doesn't cope as well, revealing something of a split personality. With the Drive Select system in its comfort setting, the electrically assisted feel is old-school-Cadillac light. The front end responds deftly, but almost no sensation reaches your hands through the thick-rimmed wheel. Dynamic goes too far the other way, adding enough resistance to make it feel like Mark Donohue's Sunoco Camaro, but there's no additional feedback.
There's no shortage of grip, however. Even on the B581 between Broughton Astley and Stoney Stanton?a road with a s*urface that feels as if it's just been strafed?the S3's Dunlop Sport Maxx RT tires found epoxy-like levels of adhesion. Indeed, in the manner of fast Audis since time immemorial, the S3 is a sticker rather than a slider. There's no natural movement in the chassis, and, when the limit eventually does arrive (on a particularly demanding 90-degree bend just outside Willoughby Waterleys, whose population peaked in 1851 at 361, if you must know), there's nothing but well-contained understeer there. It's accurate and very fast, but without the dynamic connection you'd hope for. Surgical, yet also slightly sterile.
The ride quality is surface-dependent. Most English back roads have been laid over a combination of Saxon cobbles and dead Romans, and in comfort mode the switchable dampers of our test car struggled to deal with corrugated surfaces. Counterintuitively, changing to the firmer dynamic mode actually seemed to calm things down, although the S3 then became very firm over better surfaces. Our test car rode on optional 19-inch wheels; we suspect it will cope better with the 18-inch rims that will be standard in the U.S.
The Audi S3 isn't a straight substitute for the S4, as it lacks its bigger sibling's torque-vectoring differential and six-cylinder soundtrack, to say nothing of the incremental smugness Audi owners must feel with each higher digit. But it may be too close for the comfort of Audi's all-powerful marketing department. Like most small brothers, the S3 is a punchy little bastard, and that's why we like it.