Chasing a Le Mans Legend behind the wheel of the 2015 Audi S3

 

I sat behind the wheel of the 2015 Audi S3 on the Circuit of the Americas (COTA) outside Austin, Texas and anxiously tapped on the steering wheel. And I had plenty of reasons to be anxious.

Behind me sat 10-or-so journalists in a caravan of S3s, ready to take hotlaps around the now-infamous Formula One track. Situated in front of me was an R8 V10 piloted by Le Mans legend Allan McNish, who would be setting the pace for us around the track.

The Audi representative riding shotgun, turns to me and asks if he can put on some tunes. “Sure,” I replied, not really paying attention to the request.

Suddenly, the small S3 cabin is flooded – by way of the seriously bumpin’ 14-speaker Bang & Olufen sound system – with the angry sounds Rage Against The Machine’s “Killing in the Name.” As he quickly turns the stereo up to full blast, my co-pilot looks at me and shouts, “Is this OK?”

Before I could respond, in front of me, McNish punches the throttle on the R8 and roars off toward the first corner. Feeling the eager eyes of the other 10-ish journalists behind me, I, too, punch the throttle. The S3 hunkers down and rips away.

2015 Audi S3

Keeping up

I know that the Audi rep onboard the leading R8 was reining in McNish. Mine, however, was egging me on, as I came fast into corner one, a sharp uphill left-hander.

“This is awesome!” he shouted. And he was right; it kind of was. Rather than being overwhelmed with the moment I was living, however, chasing a racing luminary around the track, I was focused on simply keeping up without wrecking the car.

To my amazement, the car did a far better job keeping up with the supercar than I had anticipated. At full throttle the 292-horspower and 280-pound-foot 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine sounds not like a pint-sized four-pot but rather a seriously beefy V6.

With a six-speed dual-clutch transmission pushing power out to all four wheels through Audi’s infamous quattro all-wheel drive system, the S3 can hit 60 from a dead standstill in 4.7 seconds and top speed of 155 mph.

In Sport mode, the transmission shifts late and hard – but in a very pleasing way. American buyers, who, unlike the Europeans, are not privy to a six-speed manual, will not miss it; the DCT is just as pleasing.

Having just driven the 2014 Audi S4, I expected the all-wheel drive sport sedan legend’s new little brother to mimic its handling characteristics. And it does – but it’s even better.

Where the S4’s MLB chassis now feels soft and squishy, the S3’s MQB is sharp and quick-to-react. In fact, it’s the best application of the new Volkswagen Group platform, which includes the Porsche Macan and 2015 Volkswagen GTI.

Audis have been notorious for being understeer prone. The S3 simply isn’t. Going through the S curves, I was able to kick the backend of the S3 out a bit. This, to me, proved that the S3 simply isn’t a rebadged and uprated A3 (it’s a different engine) but rather a serious compact sports sedan ready for primetime and hair-raising Sunday drives.

Spartans

The only real downside I see to the S3 is its interior. Audi is well known for its outstanding and segment-leading interiors. The S3 is good, yes. However, it doesn’t really meet up with the spare but well-appointed interiors of the rest of the Audi line. The 2016 TT, for example, is Spartan but also has enough going on that the occupants don’t feel like they’re missing out on anything.

Smartly, the designers have made up for their lack of dashboard inspiration with some seriously cool quilted sport seats that will come as an additional option partway into 2015.

S3 seats

Though it’s a bit spare, the cabin is very quiet and comfortable. Before we got to COTA, we journalists had put several hundred miles on the S3s. After hours behind the wheel, I never found myself tired or wishing I were elsewhere, which is not something that can be said for most hard-and-fast cars under $50,000.

Incomparable

If you’re wondering: no, I never caught up with McNish. I felt like I got pretty close, though. That was until he stopped mucking about and actually drove. Then he was just a blur in the distance.

Ignoring my driving inadequacies, however, let’s look at the S3 as it stands in the marketplace.

Some might wrongly think that the Audi S3 competes with the likes of the BMW M235i or the Mercedes-Benz CLA45 AMG. They’d be wrong. The M235i is an inline-six-powered, rear-drive coupe so is not in the same realm. And the AMG would compete with an RS 3, should something like that ever come to the States.

So the S3 stands without comparison … both technically and metaphorically.

However, if forced to compare, and I am going to force myself, I dare say that the S3 is far more well rounded than the other two Teutonic offerings. The S3, unlike the M235i, is far more comfortable – and affordable, when held side-by-side and dollar-for-dollar. Also, the S3 is far more fashionable and gentlemanly than the AMG any day of the week. Sure, the S3 has carbon fiber accents but it doesn’t rub it in your face.

For $41,000, buyers get a car that can – kind of – keep up with Allan McNish on an F1 track and keep occupants comfortable for hours on end. Yeah, I’d say that’s pretty incomparable.