Volkswagen AG is supposed to be the German car company for the masses, but even its premium brother, Audi, is looking to gain market share by going slightly down market.
The latest A3 ostensibly starts at $29,900, a magic price point when it comes to a marquee with a luxury name like Audi.
The A3 nameplate has been around for years, but this generation arrives in the U.S. as a small sedan rather than its historical form as a scrunched five-door wagon.
I’d always felt the wagon version was underappreciated in America and was crestfallen to see that the A3 has taken a more common turn as a compact four-door. I spent a week with a 2015 model, gauging how luxurious an Audi can be at a lower price. Does a less expensive Audi mean a cheap Audi?
Of course, you can’t actually get the A3 for less than $30,000, considering the destination charge of almost $900. The base model has a 1.8-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine with 170 horsepower and a six-speed dual-clutch transmission.
That model offers front-wheel drive rather than Ingolstadt, Germany-based Audi’s familiar Quattro all-wheel-drive technology. It doesn’t have a standard navigation system. Standard comforts do include leather seats, a panoramic sunroof and xenon headlights.
My test car had the more robust 2.0-liter turbo engine, with 220 horsepower. It’s an all-wheel-drive model, a crucial point for many cold-weather buyers. The 2.0 model starts at $32,900, and my test car came in just under $39,000 with options.
Therein lies one of the problems with luxury brands, whether you’re buying a $33,000 vehicle or one for $133,000: Options have a tendency to spiral the price upward in sudden sweeping gusts. In this case, the $2,550 premium-plus package got me better seats, 18-inch tires, heated mirrors and extra aluminum accents. (I could have done without and bought a new mountain bike instead.) Audi’s navigation system is fabulous, but it costs $2,600.
Go gangbusters and you could option an A3 to more than $44,000. By comparison, the upmarket A6 sedan starts at $43,100. It’s worth mentioning that Daimler AG’s Mercedes-Benz and Bayerische Motoren Werke AG’s BMW have their own lower-price entrants. Mercedes’s new front-wheel sedan is the $29,900 CLA, which I reviewed in January, and BMW now sells a $32,750 version of its famed 3 Series.
While the A3’s form has changed, it’s still not a big car. At 14.6 feet (4.5 meters) long, the A3 is slightly shorter than a 2014 Honda Civic sedan. The wheelbase is 103.8 inches.
Fortunately, the A3 is a dapper looking thing. A deep crease runs the length of the body between the windows and door handles, making the car look longer. The Audi grille takes up most of the real estate on the front and is offset with aggressive side air intakes. Small does not mean subtle.
The turbo engine isn’t so restrained either. This four-cylinder is found in a number of Audis, including the A5 coupe, Q5 SUV and Allroad wagon. It’s particularly well suited here, because the A3 weighs less than the others. Audi gives a curb weight for the 2.0 of 3,362 pounds (1,525 kilograms).
It’s a decently efficient engine: I saw 31 miles per gallon in a mix of highway and stop-and-go driving. The official EPA numbers are 24 mpg city and 33 highway, and premium fuel is recommended.
The problem with the 2.0-liter’s turbo system is that it can seem high-strung. Lay your foot too heavily on the gas pedal while motoring about town and the turbo turns bellicose, announcing itself with sharp forward surges. It takes a ballet dancer’s footfall to keep the A3 smooth in city driving.
The car, too, can feel jittery in that way of short-wheelbase vehicles. The suspension handles pits in the road just fine, but a bridge joint sets the car atremble. It’s more of a hummingbird than a hawk. It eagerly changes directions and zings down narrow roads, but keeping it soaring smoothly on the freeway takes discipline.
In regular driving, more torque seems to go the front wheels than those aft, and the A3 is no sports car. But the AWD was welcome on a very rainy day, and I powered through sheets of standing water on the freeway, keeping a steady, moderate throttle.
Much of a car owner’s experience is informed by the interior, especially when it comes to entry-level luxury. You may note the exterior when you get in and out, but it’s the inside where you actually spend the long minutes or hours that make up a daily commute.
Is there something pleasant to look at when you’re idling at stoplights? How do the knobs and steering wheel feel under your hand? In the end, do you feel the price of the car is justified by that interior?
The A3’s cockpit has a few very real disappointments, but they are mostly overcome by the keen design sensibility that Audi uses as its calling card.
The elements most clearly missing are any soft coverings on the dash or windowsills. Those areas are soft-touch plastic, a clear example of cost savings. The dash is clean and uncluttered, however, with four classily wrought air vents.
The second problem is the cluttered center console, the cramped space dominated by the transmission shift selector and infotainment controls. My passenger inadvertently brushed the volume knob and channel selector several times, changing radio stations or suddenly blaring music. There’s no place to put your phone and the cup holders are rammed against the dash.
Nonetheless, the A3’s interior is grown-up Audi, with a fabulous steering wheel and perfect fit and finish. A thin, computer notepad-sized navigation screen elegantly rises from the dash when the car is turned on. In all, it falls short of total luxury, but it’s far better than, say, a dash overtaken by a digital touch screen, like Cadillac’s ham-fisted CUE system.
We’ll be seeing more iterations of the A3, as the company is introducing the sportier S3 model, a diesel version and a convertible.
As for the hatchback version which I so dearly miss? It’s reappearing in 2015 as a plug-in hybrid. How back to the future is that?
The 2015 Audi A3 2.0T at a Glance
Engine: 2.0-liter four-cylinder with 220 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque.
Transmission: six-speed double-clutch automated manual.
Speed: 0 to 60 mph in 5.8 seconds.
Gas mileage per gallon: 24 city, 33 highway.
Price as tested: $38,945.
Best feature: Look how easy this is to park!
Worst feature: Complaints from the rear seat when you make your oversized buddies cram back there.
(Jason H. Harper writes about autos for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)