It has been decided that the world needs more small luxury cars, and regardless of whether this particular need is a pressing one in the United States, the demand from the global market has allowed for the pleasant side effect of vehicles like the 2015 Audi A3 sedan to trickle across the Atlantic. While it might seem modest compared to what currently passes for compact luxury in America, the new Audi A3 is actually roughly the same size as the 2000 A4, which is the four-door automobile that put the German brand on the map for luxury customers.
With enough size to be useful, but at the same time compact to the degree that its entry-level position in the Audi lineup makes sense from a pricing perspective, the 2015 Audi A3 is an intriguing proposition for anyone who wants the prestige and comfort of a premium car without having to satisfy the gradual window sticker creep that has swollen MSRPs alongside the widened flanks and lengthened wheelbases of formerly-diminutive A4s and 3 Series sedans. I had the chance to sample the new A3 in Silicon Valley, California, and came away suitably impressed by the effort expended on the part of Audi in developing this appealing automobile.
All-New Architecture, Familiar Drivetrains
The 2015 Audi A3 sedan (a cabriolet and a hybrid-only hatchback will eventually also be sold in the U.S.) rides on Volkswagen / Audi’s new MQB platform, a design which can be sized appropriately for a wide range of crossover and car nameplates and which is also prominently featured as the bones of the upcoming 2015 Volkswagen Golf. While its chassis might recent, underneath the hood we can find a mix of the fresh and the familiar: a pair of turbocharged, four-cylinder motors displacing 1.8 and 2.0-liters, respectively, will represent the bulk of A3 orders, with the larger of the two pulled from the A4 sedan’s engine bay (a turbodiesel four-cylinder will also be made available later in the car’s production run). The car’s transmission is also an old friend: a six-speed DSG dual-clutch automated manual is standard with each version of the A3.
There’s quite a performance gap between the base 1.8-liter edition of the 2015 Audi A3 and its 2.0-liter sibling, and it’s not just in terms of how quickly either car will reach 0-mph from a standing start. The 180 horsepower, 1.8-liter motor (which also produces 200 lb-ft of torque) comes exclusively with front-wheel drive, and when driven back-to-back with the 2.0-liter sedan and its standard quattro all-wheel drive the differential in terms of poise and confidence is unmistakable. Ask the quattro car to hustle through the treacherous, up-down corners of a mountain road and it rises to the task with admirable precision. Make the same request of the front-puller, and its much less willing to rotate, to turn-in with bite, or to feel as stable mid-corner.
The torque advantage enjoyed by the 2.0-liter motor (220 horses and 258 lb-ft) obviously comes into play as well, especially when the A3’s DSG transmission is shifted into Sport mode, which holds each gear longer so as not to upset the vehicle with an ill-timed selection. While the larger engine's power band is sufficiently broad, Sport mode in the 1.8-liter translates into more time spent near the redline of the raspy four-cylinder, which is an experience nowhere to be found on my compact car wish list. Add in the fact that both motors return identical fuel economy (23-mpg city / 33-mpg highway), and considering the mere $3,000 that is costs to upgrade to the all-wheel drive model, the choice seems clear.
Lots Of Tech, Starker Presentation
Audi has become synonymous with excellence when it comes to the care and detail with which the passenger compartments of its automobiles are assembled. In contrast, the cabin of the 2015 Audi A3 demonstrates the only real evidence of the cost-consciousness associated with producing an affordable premium car. This is not to say that the A3 feels cheap, because despite the presence of several hard plastic surfaces (in areas unlikely to be encountered by human hands, natch), Audi designers have managed to imbue the car’s interior with relatively upscale materials.
The presentation, however, is barren, with a flat and featureless dashboard broken up only by an array of small toggle switches mounted underneath the standard LCD screen that rises up out of the center stack (where it can also be concealed when not needed). This is a side effect of placing much of the Audi A3’s controls on the console, including the rotary MMI control (now with an integrated touchpad that can recognize handwriting for easier interaction with the infotainment system) as well as all of its associated buttons. Another aspect of the A3’s control presentation that I wasn’t too pleased with was the preponderance of blanked-out switches, which are a constant reminder to owners that yes, there are more goodies that you could have ordered, but didn’t, presumably because you ran out of money.
Aside from the somewhat spartan nature of the 2015 Audi A3’s interior styling, however, the passenger compartment itself is quiet and comfortable up front. Rear accommodations are snug, but a large sunroof – standard with the car – lets in considerable light. There are also distractions aplenty available via the A3’s available 4G LTE Internet connectivity, which feeds a long list of connected services including news, weather, and a mobile wireless hotspot.
Nature Finds A Way
True compact luxury is a relatively new space for automakers operating in America. Following the initial Audi A3 hatchback’s lack of sales traction and eventual withdrawal to Europe, vehicles like the more affordable Buick Verano and the Acura ILX have moved in to lure budget-conscious shoppers who want a taste of the good life. Then there’s the BMW 2 Series (nee 1 Series), which has been servicing – in small numbers - the compact coupe-and-convertible crowd for a number of years.
Despite reservations that might be harbored about paying a premium for what at first blush seems like less car, kicking the 3 Series, A4, and Mercedes-Benz C-Class upstairs in terms of size and prestige has created a vacuum at the entry-level. And, as any biologist will tell you, nature finds a way of filling this evolutionary breathing room with something new. The 2015 Audi A3’s strong resemblance to other members of the Audi lineup, appreciable performance (in 2.0-liter form), and affordable sub-$35k pricing give it an advantage over brand-sabotaging rivals like the poorly-executed Mercedes-Benz CLA-Class. By leveraging its lineage and staying true to the core characteristics that have propelled Audi’s strong growth over the course of the past decade, the new A3 emerges as the leader amongst entry-level luxury contenders.