Since its introduction in the U.S. back in 2006, Audi’s entry-level A3 compact has been offered only as a four-door hatchback. Though very practical, that body style was often viewed with disdain by contemporary American buyers, as it was primarily associated with cheap little “econoboxes.” And with a starting price of $25,000 – with a front-drive, 4-cylinder powertrain – the little Audi wasn’t exactly cheap. Whether that stunted sales in this country can only be speculated, but the A3 didn’t do as well as most competitors’ entry-level cars, which were often the biggest sellers in their respective lineups.
That’s all about to change – at least the body-style part. For when the redesigned 2015 A3 goes on sale in April of this year, it will debut as a traditional compact four-door sedan.
If “compact four-door sedan” sounds a lot like the description of the existing Audi A4, you’re not just imagining things. And if you think Audi may be slicing the compact pie a bit too thin, you should first consider that this is a rapidly growing segment, and also know that the two cars – while they look quite a bit alike – might appeal to somewhat different buyers.
Size and price are probably the most significant differences, though the slight decrease in the latter wouldn’t seem to make up for the more substantial decrease in the former. But that’s just at first blush.
When Mercedes-Benz introduced the $29,900 CLA last year, it put the three-pointed star within reach of a whole new class of buyers. More than just the “pricelogical” advantage of its sub-$30,000 base sticker, it undercut the former entry-level car – the C-Class – by nearly six grand. And at this cost level, that’s significant.
Audi is taking a similar approach with the A3 and A4, though the spread is a little tighter. To wit:
Size: The A3 is 10 inches shorter overall than an A4, and about seven inches shorter in wheelbase.
Price: The front-drive A3 1.8T starts at $29,900 (sound familiar?) vs. the front-drive A4 2.0T’s $33,800 – so a difference of about four grand. For all-wheel-drive versions, the A3 2.0T starts at $32,900, the A4 2.0T at $34,700; a difference of only about two grand. (Note that the base front-drive A3 has a smaller engine.)
Aside from a smaller overall package, it doesn’t seem as though buyers sacrifice much to the price savings. The A3 struck us as roomy enough for a quartet of average-size folks, and a really great drive for just about anyone.
Although larger drivers may find the cockpit a bit snug, the standard power leather seat can be moved far back to summon quite a bit of legroom. The only problem with that is what it does to rear-seat legroom, which virtually disappears. But there’s enough headroom in back for those up to about 5’10, and legroom is adequate as long as the person in front isn’t much over six feet.
Visibility is a mixed bag. It’s great to the front corners thanks to thin roof pillars. But thickish side pillars – the mass of the left-side one amplified because it’s so close to your head – block quite a bit over the shoulder. Aiding in this regard is newly available blind-spot alert. Relatively thin rear pillars are appreciated, though we found it odd that a rearview camera isn’t standard, but rather an option that’s grouped with front- and rear-obstacle detection.
Climate controls consist of rotary temperature and fan-speed knobs along with three pushbuttons for mode; all are within easy reach. The audio system has a separate on/off/volume knob, but everything else – including audio and infotainment functions – is controlled through Audi’s now-traditional MMI system that consists of a large console-mounted knob with surrounding buttons and a dashtop screen. Although we found this generation of MMI to be more user-friendly than some in the past, we think most folks would be well-advised to spend several minutes pressing buttons (as we did) in a study of trial and error – the “Back” button quickly becoming your best friend – as even some basic functions aren’t likely to be obvious. Even once learned, they’re also not quick to execute, often taking multiple steps (and thus a long look from the road) to perform some simple functions.
Interior storage is a bit disappointing, partly because none of the areas are very big. Both the glovebox and console box are quite small, and the only other interior storage is a small forward console bin, two console cupholders, and small map pockets in the doors. Trunks aren’t big, either, as the 1.8T’s is a moderate 12.3 cubic feet, while the 2.0 T’s is just 10.0 cubic feet due to the all-wheel-drive’s rear differential and associated hardware. On the 1.8T, at least, there are two large and two small bins under the floor surrounding a collapsible spare tire, and the rear seat backs fold nearly flat, though they rest about four inches above the level of the cargo floor. There’s also a pass-through. Gooseneck lid hinges dip into the load area, but are covered.
The A3 is available with the expected class features, plus some that might not be. It comes standard with leather upholstery and sunroof. Options include rear-side airbags, adaptive cruise control with stop-and-go function, lane-keep assist, and 4G LTE connectivity.
Interior appointments are typical of an Audi: good-quality materials with an understated (some might say bland) overall look. The dashtop and armrests are nicely padded, and though door tops also wear padding, it’s almost hard to the touch. Only some silver trim breaks up the expanses of black. Although some might prefer more pizzaz, it comes off as very businesslike, and certainly in tune with the price and purpose.
And the A3’s purpose is really that of a compact sport sedan – and it fills that purpose very well. Its tidy size and relatively light weight make it feel more nimble and “flingable” than most in this class, and whether front drive or all-wheel drive, the engineers have hit upon a great ride/handling balance. Although we never encountered any good-sized potholes (something that will be unavoidable once we get to test one here in Chicago), both versions absorbed typical road bumps with little fanfare and a muted thud. And when the road got twisty, they exhibited little body lean and quick – if a bit lifeless – steering response. Those wanting a sportier feel might prefer an A3 with the upcoming Sport Package (stiffer suspension and bigger wheels), but we found the base set-up to be right on target.
Powering the 1.8T is a 170-horsepower 1.8-liter turbocharged four, while the 2.0T has a 220-horsepower 2.0-liter turbo. Both come standard with a 6-speed automated-manual transmission that works much like a traditional automatic. However, shifts are more noticeable than in most other automatics – which feels more sporting than annoying – and downshifts are impressively quick. Furthermore, power delivery is quite linear, which isn’t the case with many turbos. Audi quotes 0-60-mph times of 7.2 seconds for the 1.8T, 5.8 seconds for the 2.0T. Those seem reasonable based on our tests. In full-throttle takeoffs, there’s only a hint of turbo lag before power comes in strongly. The only hitch we noticed was that in the front-drive 1.8T, that power would chirp the front tires, and then the traction control would kick in to dial it back for a moment. We found that turning off the traction control replaced that momentary sag with a little more wheelspin, but you have to turn it off every time you restart the car, so it’s not really a good solution. EPA ratings are 23 city/33 highway for the 1.8T, 24/33 for the 2.0T. Both require premium-grade fuel.
One of my all-time favorite sedans is a first-generation Audi A4 1.8T quatto with a stick. We had one as a tester when it first came out in 1997, and it was a revelation; that car just felt … alive. And for me, it was the perfect size. Subsequent A4s have grown a little larger and moved a bit upscale, but with the exception of the regrettable lack of a manual transmission (and the complicated audio system), the new A3 took me back to those golden moments. If you’re shopping this league – and you favor the sportier side of the market – it strikes me not only as a must-see car, but also a relative bargain. And that may be enough to put the entry-level A3 in its rightful place as one of the more popular cars in the Audi lineup.