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ENTRÉ TO AUDI: S3 is the performance version of automaker’s smallest sedan

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Always on the lookout for new market opportunities, German luxury-car makers have discovered there’s gold to be found in “entry-level” offerings.

Mercedes-Benz and BMW have ground-floor vehicles designed to lure first-time buyers to their marques with low (for them) prices around $30,000.

Also looking to capture a portion of the up-and-comer crowd is Audi, Volkswagen’s upscale division. Dubbed the A3, the automaker’s small sedan features much of what makes Audi’s larger vehicles so desirable, but in a compact size.

Like all modern German model lines, the A3 can be had with a variety of equipment and performance levels, from mild to wild. Our tester this week is the S3, S being Audi’s nomenclature for its more sporting models.

But “sporting” alone can’t capture the S3’s many positive attributes. Audi has taken the automaker’s current design language and tweaked it with a dose of edginess, from its raptorlike headlights to its chiseled body creases leading to angled taillight slits.

Audi has earned a reputation for top-flight cabins, and the A3/S3 upholds that tradition. Hide-wrapped power multi-adjustable front buckets provide excellent comfort and support for front-seat occupants.

Handsome, white-on-gray gauges bring a designer touch to the dashboard. A popup screen handles audio/nav/communications duty, directed by a simple-to-operate round controller on the console. Ancillary buttons and knobs are well-organized for the most part, and function with Germanic precision (even though the car was assembled in Hungary).

AudiS3041Saving the best for last, the S3’s drivetrain is simply a joy. The 2.0-liter turbo four-cylinder spits out 292 frisky horses, delivered to all four wheels via a taut-shifting six-speed automatic transmission. Selecting Sport mode keeps the revs in peak power zones for instantaneous thrust; a manual mode gives the driver gear control via paddle shifters.

The car carves through corners with a giddy exuberance, while the near-perfect steering and brakes impart a sense of absolute control.

The S3 is small, and it certainly isn’t cheap. But boy, is it sweet.