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 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.
2017 Acura ILX
2017 Acura ILX
2017 Acura ILX
2017 Acura ILX
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.
The refreshed Acura ILX also ends up a step ahead of the Audi A3 when it comes to cabin comfort and interior space. Acura has made some improvements in front-seat comfort, while legroom and kneeroom are quite good—good enough for a couple of six-footers. There’s also a plethora of cubbies and bins. And Acura’s subbed in thicker glass and details like noise-attenuating wheels, and all ILX models include active noise cancellation. Take a look at the Audi A3 and it’s a little tighter in most respects (although not nearly as tight in back as the Mercedes CLA). You don’t get the long-cushioned seats and softened console edges of Audi’s other models, there really aren’t many places to put smaller items, and things like power tilt-adjustable passenger seats or a heated steering wheel are omitted details. But the ILX isn’t ahead in all respects; in fact it’s inferior to the A3, we think, in anything pertaining to aesthetics and design. The A3 knows how to impress up in front, nevertheless, with a great design and nice trims higher up in the dash.
2017 Audi A3
2017 Audi A3 sedan
2017 Audi A3 sedan
2017 Audi A3 e-tron Sportback
We’re going to call safety too close to call between these two models at this time, as both have earned IIHS Top Safety Pick+ status (under tougher requirements that now require top ratings in both the small overlap frontal test and front crash prevention). Both of these models also miss perfect five-star federal scores in all respects but earn a five-star overall score. And in terms of the safety features that are important to help avoid other kinds of accidents, both can be optioned to include some impressive active-safety items ranging from active cruise to active lane assist (A3) and cross-traffic detection (ILX).
In features, the Audi A3 is the clear winner, and for the reason why you only need look at the center of the dash. Upon starting the engine, a beautiful, high-contrast standalone screen—for Audi’s MMI infotainment interface—neatly rises or retracts. It includes as much brilliant functionality as it hints, with Google Earth and Street View displays, read-aloud Twitter and Facebook alerts, and really well-integrated live traffic info—plus a super-fast onboard 4G LTE data connection. As for the ILX, it offers many of these things—including the new-generation version of AcuraLink services—but it’s not quite as neatly integrated, aesthetically. One final note: You do get more features for the money with the ILX; especially if you move beyond one of the base setups for the A3, the price differential between these two models grows exponentially, it seems.
If you’re looking for a Big Winner here, there isn’t one. As our full reviews for each point out, these two models each have some distinct strengths and weaknesses. The A3 has the ILX beat on features and overall cabin ambience, even though neither is head-turning from the outside. If you’re price-pinched, the base ILX setup screams out as a good value in a sporty-driving (if also somewhat anonymous) small luxury sedan. And if you’re willing to pay nearly A4 money on a quite compact small sedan, the A3 e-tron and S3 versions of the Audi offer a lot more to love.
The bottom line? The A3 comes across as the more polished of the two over the long run, but there's something to be said for the ILX's reputation for reliability and its significantly lower price of entry.