The new baby Audi is here | This is a solid first-step into the luxury car family for many buyers.
The entry-level luxury market has always been important for automakers. A consumer who enters the brand with the most humble product may end up staying with the brand for the rest of their motoring careers, moving up within the model line whenever their lease or financing terms are up for renewal. It is no longer ridiculous to see a high-end nameplate reaching downwards to more affordable targets – market share is the name of the game here. Not only are these automakers looking for conquest buyers, increasing revenue simply by sheer volume is the other reason. As a result, the compact luxury segment is now incredibly crowded with very competent choices, all good for their own reasons.
Audi, in North America, has traditionally relied on the A4 to be the entry-point to their brand. The first-generation “B5” A4 was an interesting entry from the Volkswagen group at the time, competing with the slightly tepid Mercedes-Benz C-Class (W202 generation) and the benchmark BMW 3-Series (E36 generation). Its trump card was the available Quattro all-wheel-drive system which put in good favour with drivers in the Snowbelt. The styling was fresh and signaled the start of Audi’s resurgence, with three successive generations, in the B6, B7, and the current B8. The B8 is a little different in that it has grown in nearly every dimension. The smallest North American offering being as large as it is has created a bit of a hole in Audi’s lineup. Cue the A3, new for 2015.
Available in Europe for some time (dating back to 1996), the A3 was the compact offering across the pond. Itself having also grown, Audi deemed it appropriate to take the reins as their entry-level North American offering. The result, at first glance, would suggest they just took the A4 and ran it through the photocopier at 90%. But, the big differences are under the skin. Still hot off the presses, I picked up a 2015 Audi A3 2.0T Progressiv, with the S-Line package.
The family resemblance to the A4 really cannot be ignored – I can imagine people not familiar with the brand mistaking the A3 for its slightly bigger brother. No longer available in hatchback form (bring back the hatchback!), the front sees scowling headlamps (with LED daytime running lights around the upper edge) around the signature Audi grille. It is a typical clean Audi design, but Audi didn’t stray far from the formula that’s worked so well across the line. The side profile is also classic Audi, reminding me a little bit of the B7 A4. The rear end is where the styling stands out a little more – a short rear deck leads into a set of pointy taillights, also with LED accents. Dual exhaust tailpipes round out the hardware out back. The S-Line package includes a set of very attractive 18” ten-spoke aluminum wheels (with 225-section tires) that complement the overall clean design very well.
Inside, the comparison continues with the A4. Front seat space is more than adequate for most, but rear seat legroom is where the A4 wins. The A3, with its plunging roofline cuts into overall headroom. Knee room is adequate for two, but tight for three. That’s about where the similarities end, as the A3 dashboard takes a more radical turn towards more progressive and modern design. The air vents that live in the dash are finished with bright aluminum rings that stand out. Turning the rings opens and closes the vents with a remarkably high-quality feel. Then, as you turn the key to start the car, the 7-inch screen pops up out of the top of the dash. It looks a little like a seven-inch tablet grafted onto the top of the dashboard. It’s the little things like this that can help get the younger demographic into the showrooms. Thankfully, you can retract the screen back into the dashboard, making the interior quite barren – a little like a car from the 1990s. The centre console is classic Audi, with its large control knob and various functions surrounding it. Available as an option, one could gain the ability to type in text entries into the Audi MMI system by writing out letters with your fingertips.
“Clean” is the word I’ve used several times so far, and that continues to be the case inside the A3. The touch-points – all the stuff you see and regularly interact with that matter – are all of high quality. It’s some of the stuff you don’t see that can show where Audi had to cut some corners to bring the price down. The plastic behind the headrests, for example, are incredibly hollow-sounding. Though it is just one example, the chances of real people actually noticing such shortcomings is pretty low. My Progressiv tester, which isn’t the base model, was still lacking a reverse backup camera and parking sensors. These two items, often available on cars costing much less, are reserved for the top-end Technik trim. The available S-Line package gives you an excellent flat-bottom steering wheel – the leather is soft and feels excellent in your hands. Shift paddles come with the upgraded steering wheel and are likewise very nice to use.
Under the hood is the 2.0L TFSI, lifted straight from the A4, A5, and A6, complete with Quattro (standard with the 2.0L) and their excellent S-Tronic direct shift gearbox. It puts out 220 horsepower at 4500rpm and a healthy 258 lb-ft of torque from 1600-4400rpm. Those familiar with this powertrain will feel right at home, and thanks to the A3’s lighter curb weight, performance is very peppy – 0-100km/h is reached in 6.2 seconds. Audi’s S-Tronic gearbox in this application is a great compliment to the flat torque curve produced by this motor with its quick and crisp shifts. It’s interesting to note the parts-bin selection when building up the specifications of the A3. Riding on the Volkswagen MQB platform, it lifts its motors from the Golf and GTI, and borrows the Haldex all-wheel-drive system from the Golf R. It’s important to keep in mind that this is a reactive all-wheel-drive system that only sends power to the rear axle on demand, unlike the A4 which sends power around in different proportions all the time. In practice, it is hard to notice the difference.
Thanks to the low weight and pedestrian powertrains, the A3 also does a pretty good job when it comes to efficiency. Audi Canada, at the time of this writing, currently doesn’t provide any fuel efficiency estimates for the A3, but Audi USA suggests 9.8L/100km in the city, 7.1L/100km on the highway, and 8.7L/100km in a combined cycle. It’s important to remember that the American testing procedures may be different, and your mileage may vary. Nonetheless, I was able to average 8.8L/100km over about 600km in mixed city and highway driving. These are excellent numbers considering the power output and all-wheel-drive availability. The A3 will accept 55L of premium fuel.
The A3 can start at a rock-bottom $31,100 for a base front-wheel-drive 1.8L TFSI model. This places it under a lot of mainstream midsize sedans, making entry into the Audi brand quite tempting if you can forego the generous equipment levels offered by the mainstream products. My 2.0 TFSI Progressiv tester starts at $39,400 and comes with the S-Line package, worth $1,500. That gets you the unique 18” wheels, flat-bottom steering wheel, and some aluminum trim around the interior of the car. This totals up to a MSRP of $41,700. Many luxury automakers price their entry-level cars – when you check off some desirable option boxes – right around $40,000. The A3 is no exception. I find the most interesting aspect about the A3 is how closely it competes with the new Mercedes-Benz CLA-class. That car is Mercedes’ ultra-stylish, entry-level choice, and even boasts the same torque output! Pricing out a CLA250 4MATIC similarly produces a MSRP of $43,770. Ultimately, I think it may come down to individual taste – are you an Audi person or a Mercedes-Benz person? I personally prefer the cleaner look of the A3, compared to the CLA250.
For what it’s worth, several people stopped me on the street to ask about the A3 (“What is that?”) and what I thought of it. My answer mentioned items like the high-quality feel, clean design, and solid powertrain. What I can see happening is: buyers, at least up here in Canada, would rather have a slightly smaller car that came with more bells and whistles, rather than a base-level car one model up. Will the A3 be a success for Audi? I think so. With some aggressive incentives to bring people into the showrooms, I think we will be seeing a lot of A3s on the streets of Toronto. This is a solid first-step into the luxury car family for many buyers, and Audi shouldn’t have any problems keeping them within the brand if they can keep this up.