According to the automakers, entry-level luxury is the hot new segment, and the all-new A3 sedan is Audi’s entry. Audi says the A3 will offer German presence and German road manners, but with a very un-German price: $30,795, including destination charge, about what you’d pay for a nicely-equipped Honda Accord. With a price that cheap, we were eager to find out of the A3 is a real Audi or just a watered-down wannabe.
|Engine: 1.8L with 170 hp & 200 lb-ft of torque. 2.0T offers 220 hp & 258 lb-ft of torque.
Transmission: Six-speed dual clutch automatic.
Fuel economy: 23 MPG city, 33 MPG highway for 1.8L or 24/33 for 2.0T.
Price: Starts at $30,795 and tops out at $45,445.
Driving Dynamics That Deserve the Audi Badge
We’ve come to love Audis for the way they go down the road and our first priority was to see if the A3 drives like a proper Audi — and man oh man, does it ever. We spent the bulk of our time in the 2.0T model, which features Audi’s two-liter four-cylinder turbocharged engine and Quattro all-wheel-drive. The 220 horsepower rating is deceptive; it’s the 258 lb-ft of torque, delivered flat from 1,600 RPM to 4,400 RPM, that gives the A3 its scoot — 0-60 in 5.8 seconds according to Audi, which feels about right to us. Sadly, there’s no stick-shift available, but the A3 comes with the next best thing: the six-speed S-Tronic dual-clutch automatic, which does its usual fine job of serving up the right gears for both relaxed and aggressive driving. Unfortunately, A3s without the Sport Package lack paddle shifters, so overriding the tranny means taking your hands off the steering wheel.
And that’s something you won’t want to do, because the A3 is brilliant in the corners. The steering feels responsive and light (at least by hunkered-down German standards), body control is outstanding, and the tires seem tuned to run out of grip just a split-second before the driver runs out of nerve, transitioning to gentle understeer. We managed to confuse the center diff a couple of times, with the car bucking briefly and rapidly as power was shifted between front and rear axles, but for the most part the A3 is simply wonderful — so wonderful, in fact, that we wonder how the heck Audi is going to ramp up the experience for the upcoming 290 horsepower S3.
We also briefly sampled the less-expensive 1.8-liter version, which shares its 170 hp/200 lb-ft turbo engine with Volkswagen and comes exclusively with front-wheel-drive. It offers the same basic driving experience as the 2.0T, but dialed back a bit. The A3 1.8T is about a second and a half slower to sixty and somewhat less dynamic in the corners, but still plenty powerful and big fun to drive. Curiously, the front-drive 1.8T is slightly thirstier than the 2.0T: EPA estimates are 23 city/33 highway for the smaller engine versus 24/33 for the bigger one, with both cars requiring a diet of premium fuel. Future engine offerings will include a diesel and a plug-in hybrid.
Clean, Conservative Style
Our drive-lust satiated, it was time to take in the rest of the Audi A3. We started with the shape of the body, which looks to us a lot like a downsized A4. Audi’s designers stressed the racy rake of the C-pillar (the post between the back doors and the rear windows), which they say is inspired by the TT coupe, but we found the A3’s squared-off shape to be reminiscent of the Audi Quattro hatchbacks of the 1980s (not to mention the Quattro Concept from the 2013 Frankfurt Auto Show). The A3’s conservative curves may not be as drool-worthy as the Mercedes-Benz CLA, but they pay benefits in rear-seat access and headroom.
The A3’s interior is a bit of a head-scratcher, though. At our press preview, Audi touted the importance of a high-class interior in a car like this; buyers shouldn’t feel like they are buying a cut-rate Audi (and with a $31k starting price, that’s what they have good reason to expect). True enough, Audi has loaded up the A3 with good stuff: Leather upholstery (instead of the faux-leather found in most entry-level German luxury cars), dual-zone climate control, a power driver’s seat, a sunroof, and an infotainment screen that retracts into the dash when not in use — all are standard on the entry-level model.
Dashboard is a Downfall
But we didn’t notice any of these things when we first plopped our well-fed rear ends in to the A3. What we saw was the broad expanse of black plastic on the dash, split only by the thinnest line of aluminum trim, and a row of blanked-off switches above the climate controls. We liked the detailed texturing on the center stack and we loved the fancy jet-intake air vents, but they only served to throw the largely unadorned dashboard into bleak contrast. We’re used to Audi’s brand of austere luxury, but we have to wonder how this will strike first-time buyers who have already sat in a Mercedes-Benz CLA or a Lexus IS — or even a Buick Verano. It’s not a great first impression.
That’s unfortunate, because the more potential buyers look, we think, the more they will like. Audi poured serious money into the A3’s infotainment system. The pop-up screen is ingenious; it makes the Mercedes CLA’s fixed screen look like a tacked-on afterthought. The system is powered by an NVIDIA CPU/GPU, which provides lots of computing horsepower for crisp graphics and sharp animations (and makes it cheaper for Audi to upgrade the system in future years). The basic stereo includes satellite and HD radio; a 14-speaker 705-watt Bang & Olufsen system is optional. What it lacks is a simple USB port. You can still stream music from your phone over Bluetooth, but if you simply want to charge your device, you’ll need a $65 cable from Audi… or a $15 cigarette-lighter adapter from Best Buy.
Latest In-Car Tech Looks As Good As It Sounds
The optional navigation system includes handwriting recognition for the MultiMedia Interface (MMI) dial controller, allowing you to program a destination by tracing letters on the top of the dial with your finger, plus next-turn directions displayed on a color screen in the dash. But the hot setup is the MMI Navigation Plus ($2,600 on the mid-level Premium Plus and standard on the top-line Prestige), which includes 4G LTE wireless Internet connectivity that provides Google Earth satellite imagery for the navigation system, Google voice searches, the ability to find a destination by uploading a photo to the car (using GPS location info embedded in the picture), and, of course, a WiFi hot spot. Wireless service is free for the first six months, and priced at $99 for 6 months and $499 for 30 months thereafter.
We’ve always found the back seat of the A4 a bit tight, so we braced ourselves for the worst in the A3. But we were surprised: The A3 has only a smidge less rear-seat legroom than the A4 (a smidge measures one-tenth of an inch), and while headroom in the A3 is 14 smidges less than the A4, we still found it plenty comfortable, and much easier to get in and out of than the Mercedes CLA. Trunk room is similar to the A4 at 12.3 cubic feet — at least it is on the 1.8T. 2.0T models have a larger fuel tank; that and the bulk of the all-wheel-drive system shrink capacity to just 10 cubic feet.
Lots of Bang (and Olufsen) for Your Buck
So how much Audi do you get for $30,795? Quite a lot, actually: along with the aforementioned leather, power driver’s seat, dual-zone A/C and sunroof, the basic A3 1.8T Premium model features automatic bi-xenon headlights, rain-sensing wipers and eight airbags (including driver and passenger knee airbags; thorax ‘bags for the back seat are optional at $350). The $33,695 Premium Plus model adds upgraded interior trim, heated front seats, and keyless ignition, while the $39,595 A3 Prestige gets LED headlights, MMI Navigation Plus, that earth-shattering B&O stereo, and S-Line body trim.
All three models are offered with either the 1.8T/front-drive and 2.0T/Quattro powertrains, with the latter priced $3,000 higher. Most German cars feature a raft of expensive options, but the A3 keeps things reasonable: An A3 Prestige 2.0T with all the boxes ticked (including extra-cost metallic paint, two-tone interior, Sport package, lane departure assistance and adaptive cruise control) tops out at $45,445. Compare the A3 to a comparably equipped Mercedes CLA250, and the Audi comes up around two grand cheaper.
The A3 is Audi at its best: a car that speaks softly with a powertrain and chassis that carry a big honkin’ stick. The sober interior styling may not win over potential Mercedes buyers, while the driving purists to whom this car appeals most will be disappointed by the lack of a manual transmission. Overall, though, the A3 delivers just about everything we want (and expect) from an Audi in a small, attractively-priced package. We’re sold.