With sales of small luxury cars expected to quadruple in coming years, their makers are all jostling for a slice of this profit-rich pie.
To Audi's enduring credit, it stuck with the four-cylinder compact-hatchback luxury segment in the United States long after the Mercedes-Benz C-class hatchback and the BMW 318i had come and gone, even though the A3 hatchback never made a big splash here. Refashioned as a sedan to satisfy Yankee and Chinese tastes, the new A3 will almost surely outsell the cultish hatchback. But a drive of the 2015 Audi A3 raised the same questions that dogged its predecessor: Will Americans -- and especially enthusiasts -- go gaga for a petite, discreet, VW Golf-based Audi that will cost roughly $5,000 to $15,000 more than an already-smoking 2015 VW GTI?
Answers will take shape beginning in June. That's when the 2015 Audi A3 eases into showrooms, starting at $30,795 for the front-driver with a 170-hp, 1.8-liter turbocharged four and $33,795 for an A3 Quattro and its stellar 220-horse, 2.0-liter turbo four. As with most modern luxury cars, those enticing base prices aren't worth the billboards they're printed on. The optioned-up A3s we tested ranged from $36,645 for one front-drive model to $43,540 for a Quattro whose $8,450 Prestige Package featured an aurally stunning, 705-watt Bang & Olufsen audio system.
Those front- and all-wheel-drive sedans will be joined through late summer and fall by a roughly 290-hp S3, an A3 cabriolet, and a diesel TDI version. A hatchback arrives in 2015, but only as a plug-in hybrid.
Spanning 9.7 fewer inches than an A4 and riding a pert 103.8-inch wheelbase, the A3 will share its modular MQB platform with up to 60 Volkswagen Group models, including the Golf and the forthcoming Passat and Audi TT. That tranverse-engine platform helps spark the sheer brilliance of the '15 GTI. A six-speed dual-clutch S-Tronic automated gearbox with a striking ball-topped lever also had us envisioning a frolicsome good time, despite the absence of a manual option.
The body's finely drawn aluminum hood and integrated rear ducktail spoiler are exterior highlights, along with the segment's only available full-LED headlamp and taillamp arrangement. However, although the Audi's tasteful details reward close inspection, the A3 tends to disappear on the road. Sure, "understated" is Audi's thing, but where Mercedes' dramatic CLA is an instant conversation starter, the luxury-loving denizens of Silicon Valley barely stopped texting to glance at the A3.
Trunk space is scrawny, especially the Quattro version's mere 10 cubic feet. The BMW 2-Series coupe holds 38 percent more cargo, and the CLA250 has a 30 percent advantage. (The 1.8T A3 model holds 12.3 cubes). Two wheelie bags pretty much fill the Quattro's shallow space, though the rear seats fold to accommodate more.
The mildly luxurious, tech-laden interior fares better, except for the dash's overlarge expanse of soft black plastic, which recalls the rim of a flying saucer from planet Hyundai. An available Aluminum Style package stripes the doors and dash with a trompe l'oeil panel effect and includes knurled metal surrounds on vents. A pinkie-thin display screen rises from the dash to brighten the minimalist scheme. It is brimming with features from Audi's latest, blazing-fast MMI system, including a drawing pad, 3D animations, and -- via an AT&T-based Audi Connect system -- the industry's first 4G LTE cellular connection. The upgradeable, app-loving Audi Connect lets users stream video, link smartphones to the car's data plan and powerful onboard antennae, and perform cool functions such as Picture Navigation: Use a photo via the onboard Google Street View, or have a friend send a snapshot, and the nav system can set a destination based on the photo's geo-coordinates. It's the perfect stalking tool for the Instagram generation. For the first time, the MMI system incorporates useful console toggles, rather than hard keys, to select main functions.
The back seat ekes out reasonable space for a pair of taller adults, with a half-inch more headroom than the slope-roofed CLA. Inboard B-pillars are scalloped within footwells to help backseat Bigfoots climb out. Because its airy sunroof, leather trim, and Xenon headlamps are standard, Audi claims a $3,000 price edge over a comparable CLA250. And yet, you can't get a backup camera.
Buyers hypnotized by the four-ringed Audi badge may be content with the base 1.8T version, despite its Audi-estimated 7.2-second run from 0 to 60 mph and visually undersized 17-inch wheels. But flooring the 1.8T's throttle from a stop induced so much front axle tromp that the traction control system shut off the fuel supply at precisely 2,800 rpm. "Inexplicable" is the only word for this premature incapacitation: What kind of front-wheel-drive car can't control wheel hop with a mere 170 hp? And a driver shouldn't have to turn off traction control to get a seamless start.
The Quattro combined surer grip from its 18-inch wheels (19s are available) with the lovable 2.0-liter engine, which rockets the A3 from stoplight to 60 mph in about 5.8 seconds. The front-axle tromp was no better here, though, as the all-wheel-drive Haldex system takes its time in putting power to the rear.
Impressively, both A3 versions qualify as a Partial Zero Emissions Vehicle (PZEV) in all 50 states.
Aside from some intrusive tire noise, the A3 does a fine job mimicking the Germanic-fortress feel of larger Audis. Bumps are coolly dispatched, with ride quality surpassing that of the CLA250. Available Drive Select lets users tailor throttle, transmission, and steering through Comfort, Dynamic, or Individual modes.
Although the A3 tries its damnedest to look and feel like a larger, pricier sedan, it's also handicapped by that approach: The Audi generates exhilarating speed and grip aplenty, but not enough in the way of driver engagement. The steering is dead accurate, but the A3 plots a stoic, insensate course through curves, its tires doing most of the work. A front-biased curb weight that tops 3,500 pounds in well-optioned Quattro guise doesn't help. An optional, stiffened sport suspension, which wasn't available for testing, lowers the A3 by 0.6 inch and may have lifted our handling impressions.
Driven in "D," the S-Tronic tranny is also too determined to short-shift its way to fifth or sixth gear to save fuel, often leaving the A3 in the wrong gear for action-packed driving. Operating in "S" mode or manhandling the shift paddles helps keep this overachieving engine in its sweet spot. Brakes are strong, but the pedal is occasionally grabby at lower speeds.
As the new junior partner in Audi's sedan lineup, the A3 likely borrows enough design and technology from its corporate superiors to meet an enthusiastic reception from social-climbing brand fans. But when it comes to a small car for enthusiasts, the S3 can't get here fast enough.
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