Midcycle updates bring sharper performance, better tech to 2017 Audi S3

"We're being followed," I tell my co-driver as we zip along roads in the boondocks outside of Durham, North Carolina. A white Audi A8 shadows my Daytona gray Audi S3 move for move. Even after briskly whipping around multiple turns, rapidly powering out of corners, passing numerous slower cars and taking a detour off the preplanned drive route in attempt to break free from the shackles of oversight, the A8 still lurks in my rearview mirrors.

Big Brother is slightly annoying, but I understand he's playing the role of sweeper to help us car writers out in case of any issues, be it a flat tire or spearing into a ditch while trying to avoid a kamikaze squirrel. Not that anyone in an S3, which receives midcycle updates for the 2017 model year, should end up in a ditch dodging a critter, because this Audi is more than capable of pulling off evasive maneuvers.

There's also little doubt that with a little more effort and a bit less fear of getting tagged by local law enforcement that Audi's S3 compact sport sedan could've shaken the big A8 on these backroads. Its carryover 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine brings a hearty 292 horsepower and 280 pound-feet of torque to the party on 17.4 pounds of boost. A six-speed dual-clutch transmission channels power to all four wheels, helping to get the 3,462-pound sedan to 60 mph in a scant 4.7 seconds.

You can spot a 2017 S3 by its wider grille, different bumper, and LED lights with sweeping turn signals.

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Considering the power output, the S3's 21 miles per gallon city and 28 mpg highway fuel economy ratings aren't too shabby, but they're far from tree-hugging levels of efficiency.

Peak torque is available between 1,900 and 5,300 RPM, explaining the S3's eagerness down straights and exiting bends. Boost lag isn't an issue, and thrust stays strong all the way up to redline. For a blown four-banger, Audi manages to give the engine an audibly pleasing exhaust growl, too.

The engine's union with its dual-clutch gearbox makes for a sensational drivetrain combo. It's responsive and well-tuned for ripping through up- and downshifts in hard driving, yet it's seamless for regular commuting, exhibiting no hesitation or jerkiness in low-speed situations that tend to be the kryptonite of this type of gearbox. Those who preach the virtues of the manual transmission will have to continue sending angry letters to Ingolstadt, because the S3's midcycle refresh doesn't include the addition of an old-fashioned stick-shift model.

My test car's available $1,500 Dynamic Package adds 19-inch wheels wrapped with high-performance Continental ContiSportContact tires and adaptive magnetic dampers to kick the S3's handling prowess up a notch. Further improving reflexes is new Quattro all-wheel-drive software that brings lessons learned from the latest TT and TTS to the S3. The software update allows more torque to go to the rear wheels, and doesn't cut power when the tires begin to slip in hopes of decreasing understeer tendencies.

Running from Mr. A8 doesn't push the S3's grip limits to the max. The gradual curves on my drive route do little to strain its lateral capabilities, with the suspension's Dynamic setting keeping things nice and tidy, displaying hardly any body roll. A small autocross course would likely do the trick, but more extreme testing will have to wait until some other time.

Steering response is quick off center, and features some weight to it when you dial-in more lock. The S3's brakes, which feature larger rotors at all corners versus the A3, get the job done with strong bite and a firm pedal feel.

The S3's potent 292-horsepower turbo engine.

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Toggling the Drive Mode Select system to Comfort brings a smoother ride, lighter steering and power delivery that isn't as rambunctious, which is great for the 90 percent of driving people do on a daily basis.

Visually, the S3 gets new bumpers, wider grille, LED headlight housings, LED taillights with sweeping turn signal indicators and rear diffuser inserts. Nothing wild, but just light updates to the exterior to freshen the car's clean and attractive wrapper.

The S3's simple cabin layout remains with the retractable center infotainment screen, standard Bluetooth and an updated Audi smartphone interface that's now capable of running both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. Design, build quality and materials remain a step above what's found in the Mercedes-Benz CLA-Class, its chief rival.

Audi's impressive Virtual Cockpit is now available in the S3.

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What is new for 2017 is the availability of the Virtual Cockpit system that continues its spread throughout the Audi lineup that began with the R8, TT, A4 and Q7. It features a user-configurable 12.3-inch LCD screen replacing the traditional analog gauge cluster. Navigation with Google Earth imagery, Wi-Fi hotspot capabilities and a rocking 14-speaker Bang & Olufsen premium sound system also remain on the S3's option menu.

On the safety front, standard features include a rearview camera and Audi Pre Sense Front, which pre-charges the brakes in preparation for unavoidable front collisions and partially brakes automatically if the driver takes no action. Adaptive cruise control, blind-spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert are available. Active lane assist, which automatically steers the car back into the center of the lane if unintentional drifting occurs, is optional.

The updated 2017 Audi S3 is on sale at dealers now, carrying a base price of $42,900. That's not a small sum, but it gets you a compact sports sedan that features clean looks, strong cabin tech and a backseat capable of shuttling a couple of adults for shorter trips, while also being quick and downright entertaining when you open it up. To be clear, it's not as hot as the 375-horsepower Mercedes-AMG CLA45, and the CLA250 is more of a direct competitor to the A3, but this S3 has a better-appointed interior and a more usable back seat, making it sort of a just-right option in its segment.

Not quite Mercedes-AMG CLA45 potent, but still a lot of fun.

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Driving enthusiasts looking for a true Mercedes CLA45 competitor from Audi will have to wait until next summer, when the 2018 RS3 is slated to arrive in the US. That car will feature a 2.5-liter five-cylinder making 400 horsepower and 354 pound-feet of torque, enough for a 60 mph time of 4.1 seconds and a top speed of 174 mph.

Hopefully, I'll see that same A8 again when I get my shot at the RS3. Something tells me he wouldn't be crowding my mirrors for very long.