Once commanding the lion's share of enthusiast's attention, middleweight luxury sports cars like the BMW M3, Audi S4, and Mercedes-Benz C63 AMG have found themselves in unfamiliar territory: sharing the limelight with a burgeoning field of entry-level contenders. The newest addition to this increasingly popular subset is the 2015 Audi S3, which seeks to steal market share away from its BMW and Mercedes-Benz rivals by way of better value-for-dollar, a serviceable back seat, and, in some instances, a higher degree of driver engagement.

Following 4-plus hours of seat time in the new Audi S3 it's apparent that the German automaker didn't simply add horsepower and bigger brakes to it its hot-selling A3 platform and call it a day. The S3 is, for all intents and purposes, a wholly unique model. For instance, Audi's now-ubiquitous 2.0-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder underwent a substantial hardware upgrade in the form of a new turbocharger, pistons, rods, exhaust rings, injection valves, and cylinder head to give the S3 a powerplant worthy of its sporting demeanor. The culmination of such efforts amounts to a 25-percent boost in output over the standard engine. For the uninitiated, Audi could've taken the easy route and achieved this increase via aggressive software tuning. Instead, it adopted a holistic approach to safeguard reliability and efficiency.

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Eye-opening performance

Mechanical details aside, in motion is where the Audi S3's modified DNA becomes apparent. Steering precision and weighting is nothing short of a revelation given the fact that it's electrically assisted. Brake force and feedback is both urgent and powerful, without being overly sensitive during stop-and-go driving. Considering today's "everyday" sports cars can boast upwards of 600 horsepower, 292 horsepower and 280 lb-ft of torque might seem a bit underwhelming on paper. In the real world, however, the manner in which power is delivered tells the real story, and the 2015 S3 is nearly flawless in this regard. Power surges in rapid fashion from just off idle to its power plateau of 6,200 rpm. Thrust officially signs off at 7,000 rpm, thereby affording weekend track goers an 800 rpm cushion for over revving. Shifting duties are handled through a quick-witted 6-speed dual clutch automatic that, unlike the Mercedes Benz CLA 45 AMG, whips off speedy gear changes without the herky-jerky tip-in issues.

Ride quality is expectedly taut, but not to the extent that basic road imperfections are deemed cringe-worthy. And while the optional Magnetic Ride Control system offers dynamic, comfort, and individual drive settings, changes in ride quality between the modes is barely discernable. In other words, save yourself $1,500 and stick to the basic suspension setup.

Before you think about pulling the trigger on a new S3, it's worth noting there are some enticing alternatives to consider. Here's a quick snapshot of how the 2015 Audi S3 stacks up against its two key rivals.

2015 Audi S3

Price range: $42,000 to $50,000

Engine: 2.0-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder

Transmission: 6-speed dual clutch automatic

Drivetrain: All-wheel drive

Horsepower: 292

Torque (lb-ft): 280 lb-ft

Curb weight: 3,450 lb

Fuel economy (city/hwy): 23/31 mpg

0-60 mph: 4.7 seconds (launch control included)


Vs. 2014 Mercedes-Benz CLA 45 AMG

Price range: $48,000 to $65,000

Transmission: 7-speed dual clutch automatic

Drivetrain: All-wheel drive

Horsepower: 355

Torque (lb-ft): 332 lb-ft

Curb weight: 3,494 lb

Fuel economy (city/hwy): 23/31 mpg

0-60 mph: 4.4 seconds (launch control included)


Vs. 2014 BMW M 235i xDrive

Price range: $45,500 to $56,000

Transmission: 6-speed manual or no-cost optional 8-speed automatic

Drivetrain: All-wheel-drive

Horsepower: 320

Torque (lb-ft): 330 lb-ft

Curb weight: 3,695 lb

Fuel economy (city/hwy): 22/32 mpg (automatic), 19/28 mpg (manual)

0-60 mph: 4.4 seconds (launch control included)


Chemistry is Key

With the S3 serving up the best balance between performance and value (by a long shot), Audi's exciting new small sedan wins our vote as the most recommendable model in its class. On the flip side, luxury sports cars are an emotionally-driven proposition, meaning your ideal pick is likely the one that puts a smile on your face every time you jump behind the wheel. And to that we say: make time to test drive each model and the right car will choose you.

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