So wraps up my trio of Audi fast cars. First we had the S4 sedan in the deep of winter. Then we turned the volume up to RS and revisited the RS 5 Coupe, which continues to impress despite its age relative to segment newcomers. And now we take a long, hard look at the S3, the most affordable and accessible of the Audi’s sporty line.

The S3 takes it all up a notch.

It’s not my first taste of the S3, but the last fling was all too brief, and only whetted my appetite for this wunderkind of the Audi lineup. Of course, I got plenty familiar with the A3 during our long-term test last summer, and it’s everything a small luxury sedan should be(with the exception of a lack of cooled seats), compact and classy and competent.

But the S3, ahh the S3 takes it all up a notch. Seeing as the S3 starts at just $2,000 more than the fully loaded 2.0TFSI Technik trim, anyone that appreciates factory-tuned performance will jump on this. You get a whopping big 70-hp and 22 lb-ft boost with the handling chops to match, plenty of goodies to ignore while you’re dialed into the drive, and it includes the S-Line Package that is a $1,500 option on the A3. For me, it’s a no-brainer. This is the 3 for enthusiasts, that’s for sure.

Getting down to brass tacks, the heart of the S3 is Audi’s ubiquitous 2.0-litre turbocharged, intercooled, direct injected four-cylinder powerhouse. In S3 application, it tops out at 290 hp at 5,400 rpm, but you’ll feel its 280 lb-ft of torque from before 2,000 rpm and right on up past 5,000 rpm. Step on it and it goes, AWD not quite the same rear bias planted feel as the S4 but nonetheless completely stable on dry or wet pavement, though the Dunlop SP Winter Sports and warmer weather conspired to deprive me of the opportunity to test it in the white stuff. Likewise, traction of the softer compound in the warming weather left something to be desired, but the S3 nonetheless felt always composed and balanced even when it broke loose, which took a fair amount of effort to accomplish in the dry.

With the natural rigidity of the MQB chassis and the sport-oriented front MacPherson Strut with lower wishbones and four-link rear suspension with complex spring and shock absorber arrangement, that firm ride rewarded in the corners, where the S3 stays flat and allows careful control of the car’s understeering tendencies. Feedback from the throttle, brakes and steering was also exemplary, so you can control the attitude of the car with some light throttle and steering inputs.

Driven more sedately, the S3 is a similarly composed cruiser, but be forewarned, the firm ride and short wheelbase transmit an awful lot of impact from rough roads into the cabin, so it may not be to some tastes. Both my wife and I found it a fair trade-off for that buttoned-down feel on the highway, where it is also locked on a steady trajectory.

The S Tronic does a better job of delivering both a relaxed manner for commuting and a high-intensity tune for snaking roads and attacking clear on-ramps. In regular Drive, shifts come earlier and mostly unnoticed, and Sport mode holds the gears and cracks off shifts when you approach the limiter or on hard braking in anticipation of turn-in and corner exit. Paddle shifters are available for taking control, though the Sport mode leaves little to be desired and allows greater concentration on throttle, steering and braking inputs. Throttle, steering and suspension damping can also be set to Comfort, Auto, Dynamic, or mixed and matched in the Individual menu, but the Comfort suspension was a very thin velvet glove over the S3’s titanium-firm damping.  Steering and throttle had noticeable and clearer intensity to them in the Dynamic mode, and Auto was so smooth that it always felt about right for the job.

The slick Audi interior also felt right for this sport compact role, high quality plastic and switchgear, with some genuine aluminum finishers and a thick, flat-bottom steering wheel with contouring on the grips that is just about perfection. It also features a variety of buttons and dials on the spokes to control the audio and info interfaces, making many function a simply swipe or press of your thumb.

Spend some time in an Audi interior, and they begin to feel like an inviting model home: impeccably organized and full of clever touches, but perhaps a touch cold. After sampling several Audis and our long-term A3 last summer, my wife chimed in: “I don’t know what about Audis that make me think like I’m at home whenever I get in.  Give me an S3 and I’m a happy girl. Great handling. Fast enough for my taste.” While the ring vents and sparse passenger dash remain a bit awkward in my eyes, the clear and responsive screen high on the dash are undeniably effective, especially paired with Audi’s handwriting recognition MMI controller. If I had it in the budget, though, I would wish for Audi’s carbon-fibre finish around the shifter – there is just something so right about it in the S4 and S6 that it seems a shame not to offer it here as well.

The seats are adjustable in a multitude of slide, tilt and lumbar positions, with headrests the go up and down and fore and aft for ideal neck support, with plenty of bolstering during more spirited maneuvers. Rear seats are tight, as is to be expected in this compact class, though it should be noted that they are more accessible and roomier than those in its main German rivals, the Mercedes-Benz CLA-Class and BMW 2 Series (a coupe, that). The trunk, too, is small, to state the obvious.

I won’t drill down into the feature list as it is available to configure to your heart’s content on Audi.ca, but the S3 definitely has a very appealing niche of the market cornered. While small, it is a proper sedan that can seat four easily and five in a pinch, topping both the CLA and 2 Series practicality, and while it isn’t as hard-core as the ballistic CLA 45 AMG, it has the performance chops to keep up with the M235i, and has Audi’s signature Quattro AWD making it viable for all-season antics and fun. Granted, the BMW and Merc also both offer all-wheel drive, but the Audi has a sense of solidity and stability that may not be as off the charts, but will never leave you with anything less than giddy enthusiasm for the drive home.

Warranty:
4 years/80,000 km; 4 years/80,000 km powertrain; 12 years/unlimited distance corrosion perforation; 4 years/unlimited distance 24-hour roadside assistance

Competitors:
Acura ILX
BMW M235i
Buick Verano Turbo
Mercedes-Benz CLA 45 AMG

Pricing: 2015 Audi S3 Technik
Base price: $47,500
Optional equipment: Misano Red Pearl Effect paint $800; Audi Magnetic Ride $700; red brake calipers $400; LED headlights $1,050; 19-inch wheels $800; Technology Package $1,400
A/C tax: $100
Destination charge: $2,095
Price as tested: $54,845