The 2015 A3 is an impressive introduction to the Audi lineup, featuring luxury ride quality, sophisticated electronics and peppy powertrains; it's let down by numb steering and unremarkable fuel economy.
Want to know what the hottest thing in the luxury segment is these days? You're looking at it: Small, entry-level sedans from established luxury brands aiming to suck the millennial generation in with enticing design, luxury content and the latest in electronic wizardry. This is the new 2015 Audi A3, the brand's attempt to lure the few affluent members of this group — the young professionals, the trendy fashionistas, the movers and shakers.
Audi is doing it by providing an updated version of the A3 that's been on sale here since the 2006 model year. Gone is the four-door hatchback version (for now), replaced by a more traditional "three-box" sedan layout, meaning it has a trunk and fixed rear glass. It also sits on new underpinnings, shared as before with the Volkswagen Golf and Audi TT (see how the 2013 and 2015 model A3s compare here; Audi skipped the 2014 model year). It's longer than an Audi TT, with a longer wheelbase too, but shorter than the A4 sedan, which has grown a bit since its introduction. Ironically, the new A3 sedan is within inches of the original 1996 Audi A4's size; the old A4 is longer, but the new A3 is actually wider. Later this year, the sedan will be joined by a convertible, a diesel version and a more powerful sports-oriented S3, while next year the five-door returns in a plug-in-hybrid version called the A3 e-tron.
Exterior & Styling
If the A3 looks familiar, that's on purpose — the car's designer said the company requires certain cues in its new sedan designs, such as the one-third/two-thirds proportion rule: The top one-third of the car, when viewed from the side, will be greenhouse while two-thirds of it will be below the beltline. These proportions are carried over from all of Audi's sedans along with the three side windows and character line that starts with the headlights and sweeps back to the tail. It's clean, almost timeless and Germanic in its "form following function" ideal, but let's be honest — it does tend to make all Audi sedans look pretty much the same.
How It Drives
The base car starts out with a turbocharged 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine making 170 horsepower and 200 pounds-feet of torque that's sent only to the front wheels through Audi's S tronic six-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission. That may not seem like a lot of power, but it comes on surprisingly strong and zips the A3 1.8T from zero to 60 mph in a respectable 7.2 seconds. In practice, it feels a lot quicker — and if you keep the transmission in Sport mode, different algorithms designed for sportier performance will keep the turbo engine in the sweet spot to allow for aggressive driving. Get hard on the accelerator and the steering wheel will pull left and right thanks to some surprising torque steer; the 1.8T will even chirp the tires from a standing start, so it's by no means slow. The A3 is a rare instance where a car's base engine is actually desirable.
There's a more powerful engine to upgrade to if you choose: a turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder that's mated only to Audi's Quattro all-wheel-drive system, also through the six-speed S tronic automatic. No manual transmission is offered in the A3. It's pumping out a robust 220 hp and 258 pounds-feet of torque, which is good enough to slash a full 1.4 seconds off the A3 1.8T's zero-to-60 time. The 2.0T feels noticeably faster and thanks to the all-wheel drive, torque steer is not a problem. Quattro does add 187 pounds to the A3 and takes out 2.3 cubic feet of trunk space, but the benefits to people living in inclement climates are real. Fuel economy is nearly identical for both models, 23/33/27 mpg city/highway/combined for the 1.8T, and 24/33/27 mpg for the 2.0T; neither of which is particularly impressive — the diesel model will improve on these numbers.
Driving the A3 around the hills of Silicon Valley revealed a remarkable little car, one that exhibits astonishing ride quality even fitted with optional 18-inch wheels and summer tires; 17-inch wheels with all-season tires are standard. Body control is exceptional. The A3 rides like a much bigger car, exhibiting none of the harshness, bucking or choppiness that often comes with short-wheelbase vehicles. Road imperfections are met with a well-damped, muted whump with no unsettling motions transmitted to the driver. The A3's suspension tune may be the car's best quality; it truly rides like a luxury car.
Handling, on the other hand, is less exemplary. The A3 features electrically assisted power steering, and it is best described as joyless. Very little is communicated to the driver, and the effort is so light that it almost feels like operating an arcade game with minimal force-feedback. Sporty, it is not. Things improve somewhat if you check the box for the Sport Package, which includes the electronic Audi Drive Select. This allows the driver to switch between four modes — Dynamic, Comfort, Individual and Auto — each adjusting the steering effort, transmission behavior and throttle response curves for a sportier or more luxurious experience. The decreased power-steering assist of Dynamic mode makes a big difference in how the car feels, imparting a better sense of control over the steering, but feedback to the driver remains scant. My driving partner and I found ourselves backing off of aggressive driving in the A3 on twisty forest roads as there simply was little reward to it — other than making ourselves ill. Here's hoping the upcoming sport suspension package (available later) improves this.
Inside, the A3 displays the typical high-quality materials, assembly and design for which Audi products are known. There are a few cost-cutting measures, though, such as the lack of individual map lights, buttons on the rear doors that lock but don't unlock the doors and a row of blank dashboard switches that remind you of all the options you didn't order. There are a few nice touches, too, such as a standard panoramic moonroof, a well-integrated optional multimedia system that folds into the dash when not in use, standard leather seat surfaces, automatic climate control and more. This gives it an edge over some competitors like the Mercedes-Benz CLA-Class, which offers none of those as standard equipment. If you want leather, a moonroof, bi-xenon high-intensity-discharge headlights or automatic climate control on a CLA250, you'll be paying extra for them.
There is adequate room in all dimensions for a driver and front passenger, even if the seats are a bit short and narrow. The Sport Package, which adds sport seats with manually extending thigh support, addresses the seat shortness. The backseat is a different story: Because there's enough room under the front seats for rear passengers' toes, legroom isn't awful, but the standard moonroof eats up rear headroom to a serious degree, making the rear seats uncomfortable for anyone approaching 6 feet tall. Surprisingly, the A3 has more passenger space than the Mercedes-Benz CLA250, despite being a dimensionally smaller car. Front seat passengers have 1.4 inches more headroom in an A3 versus a non-moonroof equipped CLA, jumping to 2.6 inches more when you compare two moonroof-equipped cars. Rear passengers have both an inch more headroom in an A3 and a whopping 8 inches more legroom. What it comes down to is that from any seat in the car, the A3 is more comfortable than the CLA.
Ergonomics & Electronics
Audi has packed the A3 with the latest electronic equipment, including the first instance of a 4G LTE wireless connectivity system for sale in the U.S. It allows for connecting multiple wireless devices over an in-vehicle Wi-Fi network using the high-speed broadband connection the car has with the internet. Audi Connect has a number of functions through the Multi Media Interface display screen, including Facebook and Twitter access, RSS news feeds, internet radio stations, text-to-speech for e-mail and text messages, and even the ability to play high-definition videos on the central screen when the vehicle is stationary. This can be accompanied by an outstanding 14-speaker Bang & Olufsen stereo, which is part of several option packages or stands alone as a reasonable $850 option.
All of it works quite well, as Audi's MMI system is in my opinion the best luxury-brand multimedia system on the market. The simple rotary knob is surrounded by four buttons that correspond to the four corners of the screen, and a dedicated back button allows for quick, simple operation of the display screen without having to look at one's hands. It's quick, clear and easy to use. What more can one ask for?
Cargo & Storage
The A3 is currently only a four-door sedan, with the hatchback returning next year. This limits cargo space a little, with the A3 providing 12.3 cubic feet of trunk room, dropping to 10.0 cubic feet in Quattro-equipped models. The sedan does provide a standard 60/40-split folding backseat for longer items, if needed.
Audi has provided a decent list of safety equipment for the A3. It's not quite as advanced as in some of Audi's more expensive, larger models, but still comprehensive. Standard features include forward collision warning and Audi's Pre-Sense system that detects if the vehicle is in an emergency maneuver and prepares occupant restraint systems and the vehicle for a possible collision. Active lane assist and adaptive cruise control are optional, as is a backup camera. See the A3's full list of equipment here.
Value in Its Class
The new A3 starts at $30,795, including a destination charge, for a 1.8T front-wheel-drive car. The 2.0T jumps to $33,795 but includes Quattro all-wheel drive standard in addition to more power. Three trims are available: Premium, Premium Plus and Prestige with either powertrain. Premium is the standard trim and includes leather seating surfaces, multifunction steering wheel, panoramic moonroof, bi-xenon headlights with LED head- and taillights, and satellite radio. Premium Plus adds 18-inch wheels, keyless entry with push-button start, dual-zone climate control, a power passenger seat and iPod integration. Stepping up to the Prestige trim adds navigation, a Bang & Olufsen sound system, electronic safety aids such as a backup camera and blind spot warning, full LED headlights and sporty exterior trim. Some options like the navigation package with Audi Connect and the premium sound system are stand-alone features. Go crazy with the options list and you can easily top $44,000. Pick your own options for the new A3 here.
The new A3 joins the latest crop of small luxury sedans — the Mercedes-Benz CLA250, Buick Verano and Acura ILX — but there are some stark differences among the competitors. BMW makes a 1 Series, but it's only available as a two-door, while the others offer their entry-luxury models as a four-door. The Verano is the bargain of the group, with an entertaining turbocharged model that's well-equipped and comes in below $30,000. It's more spacious than the A3, faster and just as quiet, but not quite as upscale in either its build quality or styling. The ILX is another option but isn't anywhere as pleasant or sophisticated in its execution as the A3 (or the Verano or CLA250 for that matter). Saddled with anemic powertrains but similar pricing to the Buick, it's the choice if you absolutely have to have a Japanese-brand entry-luxury sedan, or if you're looking for a hybrid variant to maximize your gas mileage. The biggest and closest competitor is the new Mercedes-Benz CLA250, which matches up against the A3 quite well in price, specifications and capabilities. It also is front-wheel drive with optional all-wheel drive, has a single turbocharged four-cylinder engine, compact dimensions, upscale interior and plenty of options to drive up the price. On the downside, it's considerably more compact inside than the more upright A3, with passenger room even more scarce. Compare the A3 with its competitors here.
There's a distinct difference in the quality feel and sophistication of the German offerings versus the competitors; the same sense that makes one balk at paying $33,000 for an Acura ILX makes you think paying $33,000 for a decently equipped A3 is quite reasonable. The Buick and Acura feel like small cars made better, while the Audi and Mercedes-Benz feel like better cars made small. My pick would be an A3 1.8T equipped with the Audi drive control to firm up the steering. It's an impressive little car and will be an excellent introduction to the Audi brand if the company can attract the new buyers it wants.