- Quick, nicely weighted steering
- The best in-dash interface (MMI)
- Super-flexible, efficient engines
- Tiny back seat
- Road noise
- Not quite a luxury car
The 2015 Audi A3 and S3 put more pressure on "premium" small sedans, with real prestige in their badges and real potential in their spec sheets.
The 2015 Audi A3, and its sportier S3 sibling, are Audi's weapons in its attack on the growing market for small luxury cars. As existing nameplates like Audi's A4 keep getting a bit larger [which the industry terms 'bracket creep'], it means the A3 is almost exactly the same size as the first Audi A4 of 20 years ago, then a compact but now considerably larger.
The car that's all new for 2015 is the first A3 sedan U.S. buyers have seen; up through 2013, any A3 was the five-door hatchback version known as the Sportback. (There was no 2014 Audi A3, by the way.) In the U.S., sedans notably outsell hatchbacks, so now an A3 Sportback model will only be available as a limited-volume "e-tron" plug-in hybrid model, set to launch by the end of 2015.
An A3 Cabriolet goes on sale soon as well. But until then, the A3 is only a four-door sedan, offered with several different powertrains. They include the A3 1.8T with a turbocharged gasoline engine, the A3 2.0T quattro with a large turbo engine and all-wheel drive, the A3 TDI turbodiesel, and the sporty S3 (covered separately).
These models compete directly with the new, curvaceous, and wildly successful Mercedes-Benz CLA 250 and an updated Acura ILX, as well as possibly the BMW 1-Series two-door sedan.
The 2015 Audi A3 is as quintessentially Audi in appearance as any other model, almost to the point of conservatism. You have to look closely to differentiate it from the A4, despite completely new sheetmetal and a distinctive angle to its rear pillars. From the available LED headlights, to the emphatic, spare grille, to the gentle roll of the roofline into the stubby trunk, it's Audi from head to toe and couldn't be anything but.
But the interior of the A3 and S3 ventures subtly into new aesthetic territory for Audi. More of the VW roots show through in the horizontal dash, though it's differentiated well with round vents, a trio of small climate-control knobs, and by a new MMI controller on the console and by the LCD display that rises from the dash—a uniquely German solution to infotainment that hits a fragile note in the cockpits of Benzes and BMWs, too.
The corporate heritage gets clearer in the powertrain lineup chosen for Audi's American A3 customers. Front-wheel-drive 1.8T models, with their 170-horsepower, 1.8-liter engine, and 2.0T quattro (all-wheel-drive) models, with a 220-hp, 2.0-liter engine, are both direct-injected, and with their low 1,600-rpm torque peaks and quick responsiveness they both do a great job in fooling us to believe they're larger-displacement engines.
They're both hitched up to a six-speed dual-clutch (DSG) automated manual gearbox (no manual gearbox is in the plans), and otherwise these models are pretty conventional in layout -- with transverse-mounted engines, front struts, and a four-link independent rear suspension. The electromechanical, speed-sensitive steering is excellent here -- precise and well-weighted.
The 2015 Audi A3 TDI is fitted with a 150-horsepower 2.0-liter turbodiesel four-cylinder engine that produces 236 lb-ft of torque, driving the front wheels through the dual-clutch gearbox. It's offered only with front-wheel drive.
The most coveted edition is the S3. With an uprated version of the same 2.0-liter turbo four and standard all-wheel drive, the S3 should be good for 296 horsepower, and for a 0-60 mph time of about 4.8 seconds -- a performance benchmark just two-tenths of a second shy of the CLA 45 AMG, which sports almost 60 more horsepower. 1.8-liter models take a little over seven seconds, while 2.0T models take a little less than six seconds, although between these two engines, because of different gearing, it's more of a wash in real-world driving.
The A3's cabin is a bit of a throwback, if you've spent time in the current A4 sedan or Allroad wagon. The new four-door's just 175.5 inches long, and it rides on a 103.4-inch wheelbase. That's more than a half-foot longer overall than a Benz CLA, though the wheelbase is longer on the A3, by more than an inch. The Audi's also marginally wider, and it's notable from the back seat how the A3's doors and roofline make its petite back seat more accessible than the one in the CLA. There is, however, quite a bit of road noise in the A3's cabin, and trunk space is rather small.
Audi says it's maximized interior space and boosted crash performance by moving the front wheels forward by about 1.5 inches. The A3 doesn't rely on body along to protect passengers, though: it has pre-collision restraint prep, simulated torque vectoring on the front wheels via its anti-lock brakes, and a passel of optional safety technology, including blind spot monitors and adaptive cruise control that maintains a traffic crawl with a tap of the cruise's resume button.
The 2015 Audi A3 1.8T will start at $30,795, while the 2.0T quattro model starts at $33,795; both are sold as A3 Premium models—which, technically, leaves room for a value-leader base model at some future time. Leather upholstery, a power driver's seat, dual-zone automatic climate control, and the panoramic sunroof are standard across the model line; base models also include Bluetooth audio streaming, HD Radio, satellite radio compatibility, bi-xenon headlamps, LED daytime running lamps, and a rain/light sensor.
Audi's MMI system is also standard, with a 7-inch-diagonal, 0.5-inch-thick retractable screen displaying information from audio and phone systems--and navigation, when it's purchased. MMI now has a wide touch surface on its controller knob, for fingertip text entry--just write out letters, Palm Pilot style, and MMI translates them into destinations or other data.
Audi Connect will be a key upgrade for the connected class. For a subscription fee, A3 drivers can tap into a 4G/LTE data network that delivers Google Earth maps and other rich feeds to the car--which can even store photos of destinations for use as favorites. Audi Connect enables service to as many as 8 devices, and can stream music from them via local wireless networks it creates. It can all be rendered through a 14-speaker Bang & Olufsen audio system with 705 watts of output.