Audi strengthens its entry-level hand with new A3
EDITOR WES RAYNAL: I like the new 2015 Audi A3. It’;s zippy. Hate that cliché but it fits this car.
This is a big step forward compared to the last A3. The exterior changes aren’;t huge until you park the new one next to an old one. Then you can see the differences. For now, the U.S. the latest A3 is available only as a sedan. The interior is simply arranged, build quality is typical Audi, that is to say very nice, and quite Germanically dark.
I’;ve always been a fan of VW’;s corporate 2.0-liter turbo 4-cylinder. It packs good power and torque for this car. Yes, I like the dual-clutch gearbox as well. I might be the lone wolf on that, but shifts are crisp and quick.
I believe this is the first car I’;ve driven riding on the ballyhooed MQB platform. We’;ve written often about it: It’;s modular and thus cheaper to produce, and cars as small as the Polo and as large as the next Phaeton ride on it, or some version of it, not to mention various Skodas and Seats and whatever other companies VW Group purchased since I started writing this note.
Early impressions are that the car rides nicely, and that’;s saying something on the roads around here.
I want to drive it some more.
DIGITAL EDITOR ANDREW STOY: Germans — even VW — have kind of a tough time pulling off entry-level cars at a reasonable price. The Audi A3 sedan is no exception, though it shows a lot of potential for the Audi die-hard who can’;t spring for an A4.
The platform is damn impressive; flog this A3 and it really comes into its own — the DSG and turbo combo work perfectly together, and I have high hopes for MQB after spending time behind the wheel. It’;s insanely stiff without beating you to death on every bump and pothole. More impressively, it doesn’;t get upset by those bumps and potholes, just crashing through them and getting on with the business of going fast. I was consistently surprised by how easy the Audi was to blast around in even on our horrible late-winter city streets; I’;d love to get this thing on a road course and just hammer it.
Outside, the A3 looks like a little A4 — nothing wrong with that at all. I’;ll break from Wes when it comes to the interior, though. I’;m accustomed to rather bleak trimmings from lower-priced German cars, but the Audi A3 dash is like a telescope image of deep space; just inky blackness that goes on forever, punctuated occasionally by a bit of bright trim. There’;s enough empty space in the center stack that it appears the radio got ripped off or something. The center console gets a texture which resembles some kind of woodgrain, but it too was black and so subtle it didn’;t break up the look in the least. Maybe it’;s just the combo or the trim package our tester came in (though it already has several thousand in options), but the interior just looks super cheap, even though everything necessary to do the job is present.
I’;ll have to spend some time playing with option packages and color choices, but as-tested, the Audi A3 is a delightful driver let down by its rental-car interior.
ASSOCIATE EDITOR GRAHAM KOZAK: As I noted when the A3 and its siblings emerged last year at the Los Angeles auto show, there’;s a lot about this cleanly styled compact that seems familiar — and not just because it shares lines and cues with the rest of the Audi lineup. It’;s virtually identical in size and proportion to the original Audi A4.
That’;s not a bad thing. The first A4 is such a straightforward, mature-looking car that you’;d hardly believe it came out in 1994 after a casual glance or 2.
But a lot has changed in 20 years; Audis are still being built on VW platforms, but the marque’;s lineup is broader than ever and there are always new segments being discovered/invented that demand a new sort of vehicle. Like the entry-level premium-compact segment, or whatever marketers are calling it. That’;s where the A3 comes in.
Since Audi has always had a fairly comfortable relationship with FWD cars, another front-driven transverse-engined member of the family isn’;t going to stir up much enthusiast anger (not to say that this new MQB system isn’;t incredibly important for the company — only that the average consumer’;s eyes will glaze over after hearing the words “modular vehicle architecture).
Maybe that’;s why Audi is really pushing the 4G LTE connectivity thing when promoting this car, probably because they figure that’;s what younger buyers are looking to hear.
It’;d be a shame to focus on the little fold-away infotainment screen that comes standard with this car, though, because the poweplant, quattro all-wheel drive system and steering setup conspire to make it a joy on the road. And it’;s hard to pay attention to the road when you’;re distracted by the built-in Twitter alert function.
I’;m normally not too keen on paddle shifters in non-sport model versions of cars, because they rarely provide more than the illusion of control. But here, dealing with a generally very good dual-clutch, I wouldn’;t have minded having gear selection at my fingertips. This really only applied to the selectable “S” mode, which really just seemed to hold onto gears for 1,000 rpm or so longer than “D” before jumping up unpredictably. In this setting, I think I could have done better than the car’;s computer.
I was not as disappointed in the interior as Andy. In fact, this is (short of material quality, which wasn’;t great but wasn’;t terrible) almost exactly what I want in a car. Call it bleak, call it stripped-down, but I’;d hesitate to call it cheap — it’;s a design strategy that’;s working out pretty well for Apple, and I think it could work for Audi. Press the button to make the infotainment screen slip into the dashboard when you’;re done flipping through radio stations, and you’;re left with a clean, minimalistic expanse of…nothing, except for a few buttons. It’;s the anti-Acura. And that’;s great.
Even so, I was frustrated to find that this car did have a few grand in options on it, yet still lacked basic features like automatic climate control and a backup camera. We’;re repeatedly told that the purpose of building “affordable” entry-level luxury/premium sedans is to attract new, younger buyers to the marque. Advanced in-car connectivity is great, but it seems unfair to demand $ 1,900 on top of the Premium trim’;s $ 34K base price to unlock the system’;s navigation capabilities.
I could talk about how you could build a loaded Kia Optima SX Turbo for around 9 grand less; it would have more features and a higher output, and it’;s not bad to look at. Likewise, the mature Ford Fusion can be had with AWD. But neither car would drive like an Audi — and let’;s face it, neither would be an Audi.
The brand’;s aesthetic, feel and prestige still hold a lot of appeal, especially to aspirational younger buyers, and (grumblings about option and pricing schemes aside) the new A3 slots into Audi’;s already well-rounded lineup nearly seamlessly.
EXECUTIVE EDITOR RORY CARROLL: Audi has something here. It’;s not something I expect people to pay money for, but it’;s something. It’;s not that it’;s a bad car — it isn’;t. It’;s that the A3 will always occupy a weird spot in the U.S. By virtue of its 4 rings and price, it’;ll be considered a luxury car. By virtue of its equipment and size, it’;s in competition with a lot of Chevy, Ford, Honda types of cars that offer similar or better equipment for less money. Audi is depending on the 4 rings on the hood to do the work of making up the difference, and for a lot of people, it will.
The last A3 faltered in part because of Audi wouldn’;t sell the AWD version with a manual transmission. The firm wouldn’;t sell the big-motor version with the manual, either, which given how good their little turbo 4s are, wasn’;t as big of a deal. But the type of person who is going to go out of their way to buy a small, euro luxury wagon is probably an enthusiast or at least someone who cares about the car they drive. These people probably dismissed the idea of a FWD, stick shift A3 and the AWD automatic one. But it’;s not clear whether it would have been worth it for Audi to make and sell the right AWD, manual transmission car. I doubt it would have sold all that well, but I wasn’;t under the impression that any version of the A3 had sold well.
The 4-cylinder engine and the dual-clutch it’;s paired to get the A3 moving down the road alright, and the chassis and brakes are just fine, but it’;s not by any stretch of the imagination an enthusiasts’; car. So, who is this car for? The grown children of families with an intense brand loyalty to Audi?
ROAD TEST EDITOR JONATHAN WONG: The new Audi A3 and Mercedes-Benz CLA are now the gateway vehicles into the German luxury brands. At this price point, not only will they compete against each other, but premium versions of “regular” cars like the Honda Accord, Toyota Camry, Nissan Altima and Ford Fusion. That’;s something Mercedes-Benz brass weren’;t ashamed to admit, either, when I was at a drive event for the CLA250 last year. I will say that I think the CLA250 looks athletic and isn’;t a bad driver, considering it’;s a front-driver, but there were some glaring tradeoffs with it, such as the interior that featured a lot of plastic trims that didn’;t look exactly spectacular, and the rear door openings that were small because of the drastically sloping roofline.
As for the 2015 Audi A3, there are a lot fewer things that hint at it being the company’;s entry-level vehicle. Sure, there are a lot of dummy buttons on the center stack and there’;s a simplified version of the MMI controller, but I wasn’;t too offended by much else. In fact, build quality looks stellar to my eye, with nicely finished surfaces throughout the cabin, and on the outside panel gaps are tight and consistent.
The 2.0-liter turbo 4-cylinder sees duty under the hood of our test car, which explains the $ 33,795 base price. If the under $ 30K base price ($ 30,795 including destination costs) that I’;m sure you’;ll hear advertised often in the coming months catches your attention just know that’;s for an A3 with the 1.8-liter turbocharged engine that is pumping out 170-hp and 200 lb-ft of torque and not the 2.0-liter packing 220-hp and 258 lb-ft. Not surprisingly, our test car is quick off the line with peak torque available from just 1,600 rpm with no turbo lag to really speak of.
The dual-clutch rips off shifts in short order, but when you leave things in “D,” the gearbox tuning will short shift like crazy, which is annoying when you trudge through traffic. I prefer the shift programming when it’;s in “S” mode, which holds onto gears longer.
It does feel light on its feet when you toss it around. Steering is lightly weighted, but responsive to inputs. The suspension isn’;t too stiffly sprung to damp out small to medium bumps, nor is it overly soft. There’;s some body roll when taking a bend, but it’;s not an alarming amount. The all-season Continental tires are quiet and feel surefooted on the cold and damp roadways I traveled on during my weekend. Brakes are strong with firm pedal feedback.
As Graham points out above, it does remind me a lot of the older A4s when it comes to sizing. The design is unmistakable for an Audi vehicle with simple lines. Every time I walked toward this A3 in a parking lot, the large space between the top of the tires and top of the wheel arches bugged me. But then again, this is the A3 so it’;s not supposed to be super sporty-looking, and no doubt the higher ride height contributes to its nice ride quality.
But the A3 is a nice package overall, and everything on our test car besides the $ 450 aluminum style package is equipment I would want in my car to still put it over $ 36K.
What would I do? It’;s a tough call. I do like the S3 a lot with its sportier looks and kicked-up performance, but that’;s probably going to have a base price of around $ 40K. Or you could save up a slightly bigger down payment and get an A4 Premium with the 2.0-liter turbo engine connected to a 6-speed manual transmission that wears a base price of $ 35,595. With a couple of options packages, you would be around $ 40K and have a good old-fashioned manual transmission.
But if it was head-to-head between the CLA and the A3, I would go with the Audi every time.
Base Price: $ 33,795
As-Tested Price: $ 36,645
Drivetrain: 2.0-liter turbocharged I4; AWD, 6-speed dual-clutch sequential manual
Output: 220 hp @ 4,500-6,200 rpm, 258 lb-ft @ 1,600-4,400 rpm
Curb Weight: 3,362 lb
Fuel Economy (EPA City/Highway/Combined): 24/33/27 mpg
AW Observed Fuel Economy: 25.5 mpg
Options: Audi MMI navigation including Audi MMI navigation plus, driver information system, trip computer, MMI navigation high control panel ($ 1,900); cold weather package including heated front seats, heated washer nozzles, heated exterior mirrors ($ 500); aluminum style package including aluminum interior package, aluminum mistral silver inlays, high-gloss window surrounds ($ 450)
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