2016 Acura ILX A-SpecEnlarge Photo
As the luxury market grows, driving a car with a luxury badge has become as much a way of affirming you're on a path toward affluence and success as it is one that you’ve arrived. So it’s no surprise that most of the established luxury brands have extended their reach downward, to cars that aren’t just a little smaller but a bit more affordable, too.
And if you're shopping for a vehicle that will buy you into the luxury fold, yet still be affordable and sensible-sized for urban lifestyles, the Audi A3 and Acura ILX should certainly on your list.
There are alternatives on the market—like the Mercedes-Benz CLA—that are flashier and more flamboyant; yet both the ILX and the A3 offer plenty of more conservative, elegant overtones (and undertones) to do the badge justice.
In both cases, it's worth pointing out that you're not getting quite the pedigree you might find in either of these brands' more expensive models. These two compact sedans do share some of their underpinnings with mainstream vehicles. The A3 follows its own design but is built on some of the same underpinnings as the latest Volkswagen Golf and a host of other upcoming VW products. And it shares some of its powertrains (and their transverse layout) with VW’s small car lineups. Yet the A3 offers all-wheel drive throughout the lineup—a key difference for those in snowy climates. The ILX, which is closely related to the Honda Civic, on the other hand, is offered only in front-wheel drive form.
You can see a bit of the Civic in some angles of the ILX’s design, even though it doesn’t share a single inch of sheetmetal and its much more lavishly trimmed dash follows entirely different contours. Like much of the rest of the Acura lineup, it plays the conservative card on styling—although it's missing a little of the magic that the TLX and RLX carry in their proportions. Meanwhile, you have to look closely to differentiate the A3 from the larger A4; it’s a scaled-down take on the A4 in some respects, and about the same size and proportions as the first A4 from 20 years ago.
These two models skirt the line between comfortable, tech-savvy, and value-oriented on one side, and give you just enough of a tease of sportiness and an engaging drive on the other side. Between the basic versions of the A3 and the ILX, we think the ILX is the clear winner, though. That’s in part because Acura has gone and finessed what used to be the top engine on the ILX—a 201-hp, 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine—with direct injection, and now made it standard for 2016. As well, they’ve added a standard seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission, and the two function harmoniously when the roads turn hilly and curvy. In the A3, you have a choice between a base front-wheel-drive or an all-wheel drive model, both of which utilize the same 2.0-liter, 220-hp engine for 2017. A dual-clutch automatic gearbox is the only transmission.
Once you move up to any of the specialty versions of the A3, the Audi becomes much more appealing. The most coveted version of the A3 family is the S3. That model instead gets a 296-hp version of the 2.0-liter engine, improved handling and braking, and a 0-60 mph acceleration time of less than five seconds. The A3 was offered in a high-fuel-economy TDI diesel form, too, but a major diesel emissions scandal has forced Audi parent VW to pull diesels from the American market with no return in sight. Among overtly "green" alternatives, the A3 is the champ, too, however. Newly available, there's an A3 e-tron plug-in hybrid model that’s tailpipe-emissions-free for 16 miles in one mode, then an efficient sporty hybrid for 380 miles of total range—and 35 mpg combined when it's running only on gasoline. Both of these premium A3 models come at a steep price premium, though.