If you believe that bigger isn’t necessarily better, then smaller needn’t be worse, right? The auto industry has tinkered with this concept—that is, tried to build small but premium and therefore profitable cars—for a long time. It’s been a struggle, especially here, where hats are 10 gallons and soft drinks are 24 ounces.
But the Big Three from Germany are taking a serious run at it. They have to; as their cars get larger, more complicated and expensive, they need new, smaller, simpler models to backfill their lineups and bring in customers with less than six-figure paychecks.
Audi’s player on this squad is the A3, re-born as a compact 2015-model-year sport sedan. To drive home the smaller-is-not-less point, the A3 comes in three trims modestly labeled Premium, Premium Plus and Prestige. Fortunately, the car lives up to these implied promises.
We’ve been running around in a Premium A3 with the 2.0-liter, 220-horsepower turbomotor and quattro all-wheel drive ($33,795 base) plus $3,400 in add-ons. These include heated front seats, wing mirrors and windshield-washer nozzles, a music interface with an iPod cable, gorgeous Aluminum Style cabin trim, the latest version of Audi’s excellent MMI computer controller with navigation, and shiny Glacier White paint. At $37,195 all in, this A3 feels the equal of Audis costing twice as much.
It’s just that there’s less of it. The A3 looks like an Audi whose bumpers have been gently squeezed together. It’s 10 inches shorter than an A4, yet it has almost the same cabin space. Clearly, from the trunk to the engine bay, the slide-rule team worked hard to wring the most out of each millimeter—and then the stylists swooped in to make everything pleasing to the eye and the touch. The alloy bezels around the front air vents are almost Bentley-worthy.
Underway, the less-is-more theme continues. These days, 220 horsepower is not a heck of a lot, but this A3 weighs only a few grocery bags more than 3,300 pounds, so the performance is (or can be) sparkling. The S-tronic transmission is a dual-clutch, automatic gearbox with six forward speeds and no middle pedal. It operates in either “D” or “S” mode, and D-for-Drive might as well be labeled “Eco” because it’s a play for fuel economy. That’s fine, especially since S-for-Sport is so entertaining. (Interesting that there’s no middle ground; we noticed this in a recent Mercedes-Benz, too—the drive choices were only Eco and Sport.)
To shift into Sport mode, pull the lever back one notch, but be careful: Returning to “D” requires pulling the lever backward again; push it forward, as logic might dictate, and you’ll hit neutral and sit there revving effortlessly but going nowhere. Nudging the lever sideways engages the manual override, and then we can pick gears by hand. If ever a car wanted shift paddles on the steering wheel, it’s the agile A3, but they’re unavailable. (Surely the coming amped-up S3 model will have paddles, along with more power and even sharper reflexes.)
On the highway or country roads, the A3 is pure joy, the sort of car that makes a lot of others feel fussy, nervous or porky. In town and in stop-and-go traffic, however, the S-tronic gearbox isn’t as smooth as a fluid-drive automatic transmission. Gear changes come abruptly; that’s a quick-shifting computer operating the clutch, not an educated human foot.
No big deal. It seems counter-intuitive, but Sport mode smooths things out in town, while on mountain roads it makes the A3 crackle with energy. Switch off the stability control—or not; it’s hardly intrusive—and the AWD lets us aim the car with the throttle. Even so, passengers are treated to a comfortable, compliant ride.
You Web-needy Millennials may be disturbed by the A3’s lack of telematics, but since it is a rolling Wi-Fi hotspot, just bring your own devices. If by chance it’s driving you’re interested in—along with entry-level but genuine luxury, and high-quality German design and engineering—it’s hard to beat the A3. Then, assuming your ownership experience has been a happy one, it’s hard to imagine that you’d look anywhere else than Audi when it’s time to trade up. So far, the plan seems to be working.