With the traditional entry-lux cars moving quickly into a higher size/price class (fun fact, the current BMW 3 features more interior volume than the original 7-series), automakers are scurrying to deliver cars that appeal to a younger sort of professional. As we noted last fall when we drove a Euro-spec A3 in Ireland, Audi's hoping to rekindle the sales-conquest magic of the original B5-platform A4 with their new A3 sedan. They've also got to counter the threat of the Mercedes-Benz CLA and BMW's just-launched 2-series.
Furthermore, the A3 marks the Stateside debut of Volkswagen's much-touted new MQB architecture, a transverse/FWD-based component package meant to underpin everything from the SEAT Leon hatch all the way up to VW's upcoming 7-passenger crossover.
The car we drove in Ireland was spec'd in a manner we knew we weren't going to see in the States. As such, we reserved our final take until we got into a vehicle actually meant for our shores. Now we have.
The example we grabbed was a 2.0T Quattro Premium Plus model in scuba blue, complete with 18-inch wheels, a zazzy, expensive-looking sunroof, and fancy 4G connectivity paired with the latest generation of Audi's MMI system. The sportier models, with their 19-inch wheels and Audi Drive Select adjustable performance package, will become available later in the spring.
What's it like to drive?
Say you've got an 18-inch length of 3/4-inch square aluminum tubing handy. Something with a decent wall thickness. Say you find yourself compelled to do your best Lou Ferrigno-in-green-body-paint impression, holding it in front of you and attempting to twist, bend and otherwise rend it with your bare hands. It's surprisingly stiff, no? That's the A3. It's light and rigid; doesn't torque or twist over on itself. Light on its tires. The MQB cars we've sampled have all been excellent in this regard; lightweight versions of Alfred Krupp's famed perfect ingot.
Yet unlike the involving GTD and GTI -- and also unlike its larger siblings, the A6 and A7 -- the Audi's missing something intangible. It tackled Skyline Boulevard with alacrity; it didn't complain on the switchbacks in and out of Silicon Valley. But it's lacking a road-going verve that VW Group vehicles on either side of it have in spades. It's not that it lacks reasonable athleticism; the 2.0 certainly delivers enough power for the mission at hand.
Some Haldex-equipped VW Group products have had a tendency to feel weighty and more sluggish than they should; we've noticed the same feeling tends to dog Haldex Volvos. The A3 doesn't suffer in this regard, though it doesn't offer the same sort of AWD pleasure as Subaru's fine new WRX.
Part of it is the transmission mapping. While we've long been fans of the way Volkswagen's twin-clutch gearboxes exchange cogs, there's a flaccidity engineered into this one better suited to around-town putting than hearty country jaunts, leaving you to fiddle with the console-mounted shifter in the absence of paddles. And though the feel of the unit is price-point appropriate, it's neither as convenient as a paddle setup nor anywhere near as satisfying as rowing a manual.
We suspect the Sport package, with its shift paddles and Audi Drive Select, will do a fair bit to correct the power-delivery shortcomings, but at this price (around $42,000, as tested), shouldn't paddles be standard, especially given the lack of a manual option?
Do I want it?
In its prelaunch hoopla, Audi's been touting the A3 as a vehicle that obviates any need to compromise. Yet Ingolstadt seemed so obsessed with checking every box on what's undoubtedly an exhaustive and very important list, they forgot to build in the ineffable spirit that separates the decent cars from the great ones. As such, it is indeed a compromise, excising the dynamic vigor and largely incomparable interior design that've brought legions to the brand over the past decade or so.
MQB is a collection of bones upon which a stellar car can be built; the hot Golfs prove it. But with VW doing more compelling interiors in cars that retail for $10K less and with really interesting, enjoyable vehicles like the new Volvo V60 cutting into the higher end of the A3's price bracket, it feels as though Audi bet the farm on interior tech and the four rings on the nose.
If that's enough for you, you won't be disappointed. It's just not quite enough for us.
2015 Audi A3 2.0 TFSI Premium Plus
Base Price: $36,695
As-Tested Price: $41,995
Drivetrain: 2.0-liter, 220-hp, 258 lb-ft turbocharged I4; AWD, six-speed dual-clutch sequential manual
Curb Weight: 3,362 lb
Fuel Economy (EPA City/Highway/Combined): 24/33/27 mpg
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