Whether or not America knows it, luxurious small cars are everything right now. The Mercedes-Benz CLA-Class, BMW 2-Series and even the oddball Buick Encore are all testament that better does not always mean bigger. And Audi is about to blow the little-lux-car market wide open with its new family of A3 models — the first of which will be a sedan model tailor-made for the U.S. market, which I've just driven.
The A3 is the first new Audi built using Volkswagen’s MQB chassis, the building blocks that underpin all sorts of other small VW group products like the Mk 7 VW Golf/GTI, the upcoming 2015 Audi TT and many more. The A3 will be offered here in no fewer than four variants: the four-door sedan you see here starting in April, followed by a two-door A3 cabriolet and Q3 crossover this fall. Early next year, a five-door “A3 e-tron” plug-in hybrid model join the party. Diesel engines and a sportified S3 sedan model will also arrive this fall, the latter we already drove last year in Monaco.
How small are we talking? The A3 is nearly seven inches shorter than the slinky Mercedes-Benz CLA-Class, and casts nearly the same shadow as Audi’s original A4, which was introduced way back in 1995 and went on to become Audi’s best seller for most of the years since. Compared to the 2014 A4, the A3 is 10 inches shorter, about an inch narrower and the roof is about an inch lower. As such, the A3 represents something of a return to form for an entry-level Audi.
Audi’s timeless, carefully stewarded design language looks as attractive in shrink-wrapped form as it does on the two-and-a-half-foot-longer A8L saloon. Certain lines have been sharpened or softened, and the short decklid’s integrated ducktail saves it from the dreaded tack-on spoiler. But the A3’s most effective visual trick is the rising wedge line in the lower body side, which rises and catches light that broadens toward the rear fender arch, imparting a sense of forward thrust to the car’s haunches, like a wave beneath a surfer.
Unlike some competitors, the streamlined cabin of the A3 feels convincingly upscale even at its most basic levels, with panel/gap tolerances and materials befitting a true luxury brand. It’s a snug space, but thanks to a standard moonroof, which Audi describes as “panoramic” even though it only covers the front seats, it is not claustrophobic. While there are occasional hard plastics, Audi has a way of making even that stuff feel un-cheap. Classy metal trim pieces are sprinkled throughout the cabin, and the $450 Aluminum Style package puts knurled metal rings around the air vents.
The A3 comes in three flavors: Premium ($30,795), Premium Plus ($33,695) and Prestige ($39,595). All come with standard leather upholstery, a 12-way power driver seat, dual-zone climate control, rain-sensing wipers, and a retractable screen for the entertainment/nav system. Upgrading to the Premium Plus adds 18-inch wheels (up from the standard 17s), decorative aluminum inlays, heated seats, and keyless starting. For another $5,900, the Prestige package brings LED headlamps and an S-Line exterior appearance package, as well as a Bang & Olufsen surround sound audio system with 705 watts.
Knowing that the A3’s demographic will be among the most tech-savvy of all its buyers, Audi is introducing the business’ first 4G LTE connectivity system here, which, besides turning the car into a mobile hotspot, enables quick loading of Audi’s Google Maps-based navigation system, audio streaming and potentially much more. On particularly cool new feature is “picture navigation,” which allows someone to take a geo-tagged picture, send it to your car and have the nav unit set it as a destination. AT&T provides the bits, with plans costing $99 for six months and 5 gigs/month of data, or $499 for 30 months/30 gigs of data.
The standard front seats are good, if not great, lacking in side/shoulder support during aggressive cornering, and the standard leather is hardly glove-soft. If you’re a hot-shoe, we’d recommend springing for the $550 sport package, which brings sport seats, steering wheel shift paddles and Audi Drive Select, which tailors shifting, throttle mapping and steering effort to the driver’s liking. The rear seat can't help feeling tight, but is reasonably comfortable for a pair of sub-six-footers. It also splits and folds to expand the A3’s trunk space from 12.3 cubic feet (10.0 with Quattro all-wheel-drive).
At this point, the A3 sedan comes only in front-drive A3 1.8T and all-wheel-drive 2.0T Quattro forms, the latter costing exactly $3,000 more, comparably equipped. Both engines are paired to six-speed dual-clutch automatic, and idle without a trace of shudder. The 1.8-liter’s 170 hp and 200 lb-ft of torque will more than suffice for folks upgrading from, say, a VW Jetta or a Mazda 3, though it can feel sluggish around town. Fortunately, there’s a Sport mode that raises shift points and executes predictive downshifts in corners to place the car in the meat of the powerband as you exit. Unfortunately, we didn’t a chance to sample any A3 with the Sport package.
Considering that Audi will also offer the grippy S3 for dedicated performance buffs, the A3 2.0-liter Quattro performs better than it needs to. With 220 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque, the direct-injection turbocharged 2.0-liter four-pot offers not only more powerbut the grip to handle it. We drove two examples, one with the standard 17-inch wheels, and the other with 10-spoke 18-inch wheels and found both lively and quick in a straight line — Audi estimates a 0-60 mph of 5.8 seconds for the 2.0T, vs. 7.2 for the 1.8T. As in the 1.8T, the DSG transmission brings the car to life, particularly in Sport mode.
The 18-inch wheels and their lower-profile 40-series tires provide noticeably more ultimate grip in corners; mild mid-corner bumps that upset the car with 17-inch wheels handled as if they’re not even there. The only source of unwelcome noise comes from the wind, which creeps in above 70 mph.
Curiously, fuel economy is actually better with the heavier, more powerful 2.0T Quattro model, which achieves 24 mpg city / 33 mpg highway, compared with the 1.8T, which is rated at 23/33 mpg. Both figures are right in line with the auto-equipped BMW 228i (23/36) though a few mpgs less than the Mercedes CLA (26/38).
Easy to look at, a blast to drive, eminently intelligent, and soon to be available in a variety of styles, the A3 proves that great premium cars can indeed come in A-segment packages. Things are about to get interesting in Smallville.
Disclosure: The manufacturer provided transportation and lodging for this review.