First Drive: 2017 Audi A3/S3

Munich – The Audi A3, a classy hatchback based on the Volkswagen Golf platform, came into the world in 1996. It went through a third-generation reboot for the 2012 model year, and in 2013, a sedan version was introduced at the New York Auto Show, primarily for the hatch-averse American market. For 2017, this premium compact gets a mid-cycle makeover, adopting some visual cues and new tech found in the marque's fresher offerings.

The big news for the 2017 A3 is the inclusion of Audi’s Virtual Cockpit in the Technik trim levels.

The 2017 models arrive in Canada late September of this year and continue as the A3 Sedan, S3 Sedan and A3 Sportback e-tron plug-in hybrid five-door hatchback.

Visually, you’ll spot the 2017 A3 by its more angular grill, slimmer standard Xenon (optional LED) headlights and a more aggressive lower fascia. New LED taillights spruce up the back. Nothing earth-shattering here, but the tweaks bring the A3 in line with newer Audis. A selection of new colours and redesigned standard wheels round out the cosmetic changes.

The interior carries forward with its elegant and uncluttered look. Initially, the A3’s cabin might seem a bit plain, but it is a premium effort with every surface vetted for scrutiny. On start-up the 5.8-inch MMI screen glides up from a slot in the dash. For 2017, this MMI interface gets a new menu system that is similar to that of … you guessed it, a smartphone. Additionally, handwriting detection comes courtesy of the upper surface of the central control knob. The control knobs and switches now have white backlighting, and a USB port is now standard.

The big news for the 2017 A3 is the inclusion of Audi’s Virtual Cockpit in the Technik trim levels that are available on all but the entry-level front-drive model. This 12.3-inch digital TFT display replaces the traditional central gauge cluster, and offers several configurations – the most impressive being the crystal-clear navigation display with a small speedo and tachometer living in the lower corners.

Audi engineers have overhauled the 2017 A3’s complete tire lineup with an eye on increased efficiency.

The entry-level front-wheel-drive A3, which rolls on 17-inch alloys, gets a new drivetrain for 2017. Previously powered by a 170 hp 1.8L turbo four-cylinder, the 2017 2.0 TSFI FWD model runs with a completely new 2.0L turbo four sporting an innovative combustion process that promises greater fuel efficiency. It makes 186 horsepower and a healthy 236 lb-ft of torque, and powers the front wheels through a new seven-speed twin-clutch S tronic gearbox. Auto-start/stop is standard issue, and for those wondering, no manual transmission is offered on any model A3.

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Once into the quattro all-wheel-drive models, the drivetrains carry forward from 2016. As such, the 2017 A3 2.0 TSFI quattro continues with its 220 hp, 258 lb-ft four connected to a six-speed dual-clutch S tronic. The only change for 2017 is the addition of fuel-saving auto-start/stop. A Technology Package adds active lane assist, adaptive cruise with stop-and-go, and forward collision mitigation.

I’ve held off on driving impressions of these models simply because they weren’t here at this international preview of the 2017 A3 in Munich. The only models pertinent to our market were the A3 Sportback e-tron and S3 Sedan, and even the latter sported a power upgrade of ten horses, fourteen lb-ft and a seven-speed dual-clutch S tronic that, according to the info supplied by Audi Canada, won’t make it across the Atlantic. Plenty of forbidden fruit here too, like diesel hatches, a 1.0L three-pot engine and a deceptively cute S3 cabriolet.

Time to hit the lovely Bavarian B-roads and Autobahn in a 310 hp, 295 lb-ft, seven-cogged Euro-spec S3 sedan. Bloody fantastic car. Yes, there’s some turbo lag down low, but once beyond that, this diminutive four-door scoots like a scalded cat. And with its tweaked Haldex AWD system it dismisses such things as, oh… corners with an aloof neutrality. Don’t look for any oversteer here.

The S3 is a point-and-shoot car of the highest order. It just grips and goes. The steering is sharp, deadly accurate and has better feel than I recall experiencing in the last S3 I drove. The transmission bangs off shifts with lighting speed, and full-throttle upshifts are punctuated with delightful pwoofs from the exhaust. The S3 is an immensely capable technocrat that can put the scare into any number of considerably more powerful cars. If you could level any criticism, it’s that the S3 is a tad cold and uninvolving – like it doesn’t really need you there.

Listed as new standard equipment for Canadian S3s are LED headlights, LED fog lights, LED taillights with dynamic indicators, illuminated tread plates, smartphone interface, rearview camera and auto-start/stop.

New colours for 2017 include Tango Red Metallic, Ara Blue Crystal Effect, Nano Grey Metallic (pictured) and Vegas Yellow (pictured). Our grey tester also had the new Magma Red interior with matching vent surrounds.

Step up to the Technik trim and we see advanced park system, side assist, navigation, advanced key functions, Bang and Olufsen sound and the Virtual Cockpit. The latter works a treat, offering up a multitude of clearly organized info in various configurations, from traditional gauge simulation to all-in navigation screen.

A quick spin in a Vegas Yellow S3 cabriolet revealed this drop-top to have an impressively solid structure. Naturally, the roof went down for a bit despite the miserably rainy welcome Munich was offering us Canucks. Cool car. Too bad we don’t get it.

Continuing in the same highly technological vein, but taking a different tack, is the Audi A3 Sportback e-tron plug-in hybrid. It feels very much like the rest of the family – alert, comfortable and built to a jewel-like standard. If you’re a hatch-y and a green-y with 40-grand-plus to spend on a slick premium plug-in hybrid, this could be your ride.

The heart of the matter is a 150 hp 1.4L TSFI four working in conjunction with a 102 hp electric motor. Total system output is 204 horsepower, and it reaches the front wheels via a six-speed, dual-clutch S tronic transmission. We managed about thirty kilometres of fully electric driving before the gas engine cut in, after which the transitions were largely seamless.

There are drawbacks to this pricey nod towards electrification. The 96 liquid-cooled lithium-ion cells add plenty of weight and cut into the hatch space. And the e-tron loses some of the agility found in the gas models – it’s just not as much fun to drive. However, if short commutes are your MO, this A3 hatch will be cheap and clean to run. Kitted with the Virtual Cockpit, out tester was certainly a rolling techno-wonder.

We’ll see pricing for these 2017 Audis closer to availability, but expect them to be close to the 2016 models that currently range from $31,600 to $45,400 before packages and option upgrades.

The Audi A3, a classy hatchback based on the Volkswagen Golf platform, came into the world in 1996. 6/8/2016 1:48:41 PM