2015 Audi A3Wed, 15 Oct 2014
What kind of watch do you wear?
Especially today, when wearing a wristwatch is practically obviated by the near-ubiquitous use of cellphones, the timepiece found on one's arm makes a statement about how people perceive themselves.
A sport watch from Nike or Garmin would seem to indicate enthusiasm for athletic pursuit. Inexpensive fashion statements from Nixon or Nooka could signify a love of high design. Splashing out on a true luxury timepiece from Rolex, Bell & Ross or Breitling serves as a sort of human plumage display to connote, "I have thousands of dollars – at least – of disposable income."
Any yet, every one of those mechanized bracelets is less functional than the iPhone or Galaxy in your front pocket.
A similar lesson can be seen in the world of luxury cars – and it's especially poignant in the hot entry-level premium segment that Audi's A3 has made its home. Looked at under the harsh lens of the non-premium car market, there are clearly vehicles that offer more – or at least equal – in terms of performance and feature-set than does the $29,900-base A3. That said, just as that vintage Omega Seamaster says something on your wrist that that admittedly more versatile Casio G-Shock does not, for some of us, piloting the sleekly designed Audi point-of-entry makes a kind of sense that the larger, more powerful and equally surefooted Subaru Legacy 3.6R, for example, does not.
For a lot of you, the introduction above is Marketing 101 – so why do I bring it up? I mention it because, in response to our First Drive of the A3, a ton of you commented along the lines of "not enough car for the money" or "why wouldn't I just buy a Jetta?" Those are fair points in their own way, but they really serve to underscore that for the A3 – or the Mercedes-Benz CLA, or the Acura ILX, etc. – to really 'make sense,' you have to care about the brand.
And it shouldn't surprise you to learn that a lot of people do. Even as early as this summer Audi PR was busy typing up press releases to trumpet the company's staggering growth, with a good portion of that the attraction of new buyers by way of the A3. Mercedes-Benz has painted a similar story with the CLA, so it's clear that there's some merit to this recipe of: fresh looks, premium positioning and a starting price around thirty grand.
For me, that formula becomes a lot easier to understand if the sheetmetal wrapper is irresistible, or at least quite unique. Before I was loaned the A3, I actually assumed that the CLA had a big leg up in that regard.
This new A3 has a tidy design, to be sure, but for me it's not nearly as evocative or compelling as that of its front-driver rival from Benz. As I showed the small Audi off to friends around Ann Arbor, MI, though, and talked with more than a handful of interested strangers about the car, the overwhelming feedback I got was that the A3 was, to paraphrase, "gorgeous."
That the A3 wears the unmistakable hallmarks of its more expensive brand-mates is probably the key here. Shield grille (remember when that was controversial?), sharp character lines along the body, liberal use of LED lighting elements, and an aggressive wheel-height-to-bodyside ratio all speak volumes. Again, I consider the A3 to be among the most conservative designs from the company in the last few years, but my 30-something-professional peer group apparently can't get enough of it.
The A3 wears the unmistakable hallmarks of its more expensive brand-mates.
You could almost convince me that the A3 exterior and interior were designed by the same individual, as that clean, unfussy (and vaguely boring) character is found in the cabin as well. Audi has really worked to consolidate control of its systems and clean up its user interfaces in the process.
On the positive side of that, I found that functionality offered by this iteration of its MultiMedia Interface infotainment system is very high, and the controls simple to understand. Notably, the touchpad on the top of the central control dial is remarkably clever at understanding inputs, and all menus are both easy to read and to navigate.
The central display pops out of the dash in a way that a few of you have taken issue with in other cars, but the fact that it can be stowed flush into the dashtop should help assuage that peccadillo. Harder to fix is the expanse of black plastic from the driver's eyes forward – those not interested in ultra minimal interior design might be tempted to call this sleek space "boring" or worse.
For me, though, the only unforgivable offense was my tester's optional "chestnut brown / black" interior color scheme. Either trim color would be fine on its own, but the brown in question is sort of light and chocolaty, and its combination with the black finish looks like the worst kind of wrong-shoes-with-suit faux pas that I can imagine. Before you ask, no, I am not a fashion daredevil.
That last characteristic – driver involvement – is not high on the A3's list of strengths.
Conversely, I don't have a lot to be salty about when it comes to the A3 combination of a turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine, six-speed dual-clutch transmission and Quattro all-wheel drive. 220 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque are deployed aggressively from the 2.0T, offering sinuous acceleration from a standstill, with a throttle that is responsive without feeling like a hair trigger. I didn't have the same jerky, low-speed issues with the S-tronic dual clutch that Mike Harley did when he was in the A3, either. For me, the transmission was a capable, quiet assistant most of the time, and willing to let me bomb around, playing with the manual mode when I wanted more involvement.
That last characteristic – driver involvement – is not high on the A3's list of strengths. The car is relatively quick, good handling on twisty roads, stable on the highway and reasonably quiet at most speeds and throttle positions. However, it doesn't offer tactility from the steering wheel or from the chassis, nor any real emotional punch from a roaring soundtrack. Pushing the car around was rewarding in terms of chassis composure and in-corner grip, but I felt a bit more like a passenger with access to the steering wheel than an integral part of the handling experience.
Harkening back to your comments on the First Drive again, I can note that tons of you called out the lack of a manual transmission as a huge disappointment with this A3. Believe me, I feel your pain, and I do wish a hand-shaker were at least optional here. But, and this is critical: adding a stick shift to this car wouldn't really fit with rest of its sit-back-and-let-me-drive personality, either. The A3 is a car that might amuse hardcore driving enthusiasts, but won't tempt them to fall in love.
This is the entrée to a motive meal that will whet the appetites of virgin 'sporty sedan' buyers everywhere.
What we have here is composed, conservative performance. A perfect match for the exterior/interior design, really, and the entrée to a motive meal that will (and should) whet the appetites of virgin 'sporty sedan' buyers everywhere. It's no wonder they can't keep them in dealerships.
My problems with the A3 are probably closer to the problems already raised by our commenters. The thrill of driving a car with the Four Rings out front isn't enough for me to justify what I'd have to spend to own this A3.
My Quattro-equipped 2.0T A3 (remember that a front-driver with the 1.8T engine is the base model) starts at $32,900 and came to me equipped with a reasonable $3,745 worth of options. Assuming you needed to have AWD, that's in lockstep with CLA pricing, and within a grand of the similarly sized 228i xDrive coupe from BMW. All three of those cars ask potential owners to make similar investments in brand prestige, but I'd argue the BMW does so with the biggest payout in terms of driving reward. (Yes, I understand, two fewer doors; but the practically worthless rear seats of the 2 Series are about as roomy as the practically useless rear seats of the A3 – the CLA rear seats are on a whole different level of useless, with some eight-fewer inches of legroom.)
People that will love this Audi package should far outnumber those slightly disappointed that it isn't something a bit more passionate.
When it comes right down to it, though – and I'm looking at you, I'll-never-buy-an-automatic-transmission guy – the people that will love what Audi has packaged together with the A3 far outnumber those of us who are slightly disappointed that it isn't something just a little bit more passionate. We will continue to buy Minis and WRXs and GTIs and feel like we've gotten the better end of the deal, when perfectly sane individuals are entirely satisfied the quality of their brand-new Audi.
I mean, after all, doesn't it look great in the driveway?
Vital Stats2.0T Quattro
- Turbo 2.0L I4
- 220 HP / 258 LB-FT
- 6-Speed DCT
- 0-60 Time:
- 5.8 Seconds
- Top Speed:
- 130 MPH
- All-Wheel Drive
- Engine Placement:
- Curb Weight:
- 3.362 LBS
- 10 CU-FT
- 24 City / 33 HWY
- 4 Years / 50,000 Miles
- Base Price:
- As-Tested Price:
By Seyth Miersma
See also: Audi hints at A9 flagship ahead of LA Auto Show, Is Audi readying hardcore final edition R8?, Audi to lap Hockenheim in driverless RS7.