Looks, space and safety
The S3's tidy styling avoids risks, pulling off the usual Audi theme without looking too blunt or tall, which could easily happen on such a short car with such a short wheelbase. The headlamps have the now-obvious LED running lamps as eyeshadow, with full LED treatment available to turn their keyhole shape into something instantly identifiable in the rearview mirror.
The S3's cabin is a pretty spartan environment, if you're accustomed to the lush wood and leather trimming that's graced cars like the A7 or even the original A4. The leather's real here, but the VW influences are still pretty heady. To wit: those big, round vents that bullet through the dash. They're perfectly executed, with concentric circles that are not like the starred, gimbaled round vents in another car in this segment. What, are they reading off each other's papers?
The S3 gets the better of things with its pop-up LCD screen, though. The fixed, stand-up screens on the latest BMWs and Benzes are more cheaply integrated, and it shows. Not here: the MMI display rotates in and out of the dash, positively dripping color with its Google Earth maps.
As for the interior space, it's a bit of a throwback compared to today's A4 sedan. At 175.9 inches long, on a 103.4-inch wheelbase, the S3 is almost nine inches shorter than the CLA-Class, with nearly three fewer inches of wheelbase--which the Mercedes uses up with its laid-back profile, leaving lots of usable space under the glass. The Audi's marginally wider.
It's notable from the back seat how the S3's doors and roofline make its petite back seat more accessible than the one in the CLA. Neither's a palace, even in a postage-stamp-sized principality like Monaco. I had lots of headroom, but admittedly the S3s driven weren't trimmed with the standard sunroof. At least in the S3, the base red-bolstered seats feel terrific, and complement the flat-bottomed steering wheel. The VW Group controls are hard to miss: there's a lever to raise or lower the seat, a knob to tilt the seatback.
In the back seat, there's the same lack of adult knee room as in the CLA, with easier entry and exit thanks to those regularly shaped doors. It's not a place grown adults will want to gather, but it's made more usable with split/fold seatbacks that expand the 13.7-cubic-foot trunk.
The A3 doesn't rely on body along to protect passengers. It has pre-collision restraint prep, simulated torque vectoring on the front wheels via its anti-lock brakes, and a passel of optional safety technology, including blind spot monitors and adaptive cruise control that maintains a traffic crawl with a tap of the cruise's resume button.
Now featuring not T-Mobile
Every S3 will come with standard power windows, locks, and mirrors; cruise control; leather upholstery; Bluetooth; and a panoramic sunroof.
Audi's MMI system is also standard, with that retractable screen serving as the output destination for the S3's audio and phone systems. MMI now has a wide touch surface on its controller knob, for fingertip text entry--just write out letters, Palm Pilot style, and MMI translates them into destinations or other data. The MMI interface has also been reworked slightly to fit on the S3's console: it now has toggle switches to flip to navigation mode, which conserves space.
Audi Connect will be a key upgrade for the connected class. For a subscription fee, A3 drivers can tap into a 4G/LTE data network that delivers Google Earth maps and other rich feeds to the car--which can even store photos of destinations for use as favorites. Audi Connect enables service to as many as 8 devices, and can stream music from them via local wireless networks it creates. It can all be rendered through a 14-speaker Bang & Olufsen audio system with 705 watts of output. A side note for T-Mobile fans, both of you: Audi's giving the data provider the Heisman late this year, and switching to a much bigger carrier for LTE service. You can guess which two players are in that game, right?
The 2015 Audi S3 shows up at American dealers by the summer of 2014, a few months after the $29,990 A3 sedan lands. The S3 hasn't been priced, but hints of about $40,000 have migrated up a little to something more like $42,000--which still would be a massive discount over the CLA 45 AMG's $48,000 pricetag.
Are those savings worth it, even with the AMG's stated 0-60 mph times being a half-second quicker? Or is the CLA45 AMG too pricey for a car that doesn't even have a plan for a manual shifter?
Read more about the Mercedes-Benz CLA45 AMG first drive and decide for yourself. Meanwhile, we'll be busy finding a few days in the calendar to put them back to back, sometime next spring.