If the World Cup has taught us anything, it is that Americans have a hot/cold relationship with certain European traditions/trends. Some are intrigued by it, some of your more progressive friends might even adopt it as their own, but at the end of the day, we’re Americans, want trends and tastes to react to what we want. We want American football in 52 countries.
With that, consider Audi’s smallest (American) entrant, the A3. The German luxury automaker offers the even smaller A1 in Europe, but despite the steak-sauce-related name, such a small ride just wouldn’t play here. No, the A3 is the entry-level vehicle, which was a spot previously held by the A4, but as we’ll learn, with time, all things outgrow their place in the world.
When the A3 was still just a European creation in 1996, the A4 was not that large. Fast forward almost two decades and the A4 has grown tremendously. It has done so to compete with the Mercedes-Benz C-Class, Infiniti Q60, and–most importantly– the BMW 3 Series. Every subsequent generation gets a little bigger and a little roomier, so that they can claim it is that much better than the competition. We in the auto industry call this “generation bloat,” and after enough time, the vehicle gets so large that it grows out of its class.
That growth of the A4 has left a vacancy in the small sedan space, thus providing the need for the A3. As we have said, the A3 has
been around for years, but it has only been previously offered in the ‘States since 2005 (as a 2006 model) and as a hatchback. This choice relegated it to niche vehicle.
Like soccer, the hatchback is something that is nearly ubiquitous in Europe, but an outlier here. So Audi wised up, and instead of trying to convert the masses to something European that not everyone is into (but maybe gets really into every four years or so, then for gets), the German automaker now offers the A3 as a sedan.
One could argue that the new-look A3 looks much like a scrunched-in version of the current A4, or that it looks closer in size to the
first-generation A4 from the 2000s. Either way, the car visually conveys an air of performance. The front fascia wears the angry headlights and large grille worn by just about every other vehicle in the Audi lineup– not a bad thing. Where the compact setup suits the A3 is the short deck and apparently high belt-line, that leaving it feeling like a hyperbolic concept sketch for a larger sedan.
Inside, the A3 is much like its diminutive predecessor in that the cabin is rather spartan in the context of the rest of the Audi lineup. It is, after all, their “economy car.” But unlike the previous A3, which really drove home its lack of features, the 2015 A3 makes the most of its lot. Despite being a mostly plastic interior, the shapes, lines and texture of that plastic still give it a more upscale feel. The pop-up digital display in the center of the dash helps with that.
That screen is part of Audi’s MMI multimedia interface. The A3 provides relatively seamless smartphone integration, and once a phone is connected, it will even tell you when your battery is running low and other status updates. The irony is that there are only 12-volt “cigarette lighter”-style power outlets, and none of the USB power points that have become ubiquitous in small cars.
That is one of the few glaring omissions in the A3. We expected a performance-luxury-focused small car to feature things like a push-button start and backup camera, which it did not. While the push button start is more of a time-saver frill, but the backup camera is becoming more and more of an expectation with drivers. As the A3 has a high rear trunk and thick C-pillars (the pillar between the rear passenger window and the rear windshield), visibility for backing up is somewhat concerning.
But those are three negatives in a car that is otherwise sublime to drive, both in commuting and in performance driving. The base engine is a 170 horsepower 1.8-liter inline-4, routing power through a 6-speed automatic to the front wheels. Our test model features a 2.0-liter turbocharged inline-4 that makes 220 horsepower and 258 pound feet of torque. Power with this engine is sent through a 6-speed direct shift gearbox to Audi’s venerable Quattro all-wheel drive.
Under normal driving conditions, the transmission makes quiet, efficient shits, and there is enough torque and power to overtake someone on the highway, but it will not blow your hair back. But pull back on the shifter once to engage Sport mode, which quickens throttle response, and holds gears longer for more spirited acceleration. We expected there to be paddle shifters, but the center-mounted shifter featured a click-over switchgate that had up and downshifts.
Quattro all-wheel drive is front-biased, but when in Sport mode it feels more evenly placed. Carve up a backcountry road, and you’ll
be convinced you are driving either a rear-drive car or the most competent FWD short of a Mini Cooper JCW model.
Fuel economy for the 1.8T is 23 mpg city, 33 mpg highway. Our 2.0T Quattro test model achieves 24 mpg city, 33 highway. We observed 29.8 in combined driving of ver the course of a week.
Base MSRP for the 2015 Audi A3 is $29,900. A Quattro 2.0L model like ours starts at $32,900, and our test model with equipment selected fetched roughly $37,400.
The A3 really is the perfect daily driver. It wastes no interior space on rear passengers, so unless you are carpooling you will never thing about anything other than your drivers seat 5 days a week. On the weekends, the A3 will be the perfect car to open up on a winding road, and frankly, give more expensive luxury and performance cars a run for their (literal) money.