Audi’s all-new “entry level” 2015 A3 is a sweet little car that comes with a pretty big price tag. Sure, it starts at $29,900, but that can easily soar past $40,000. My tester, an A3 2.0 quattro in Prestige trim started at $41,350. Add the $800 Sports package and $895 destination and it hits an eye-popping $43,045. You can spend more – $550 for metallic colors or $1,400 for an Advanced Technology Package that includes active lane assist, forward collision warning and adaptive cruise control – which takes it to a wince-inducing $44,995. Now you shouldn’t be surprised that the 2015 Audi A4 2.0 quattro Prestige starts at $45,895; but the top price of an A3 is already deep into A4 territory – a sobering thought when ticking option boxes.
Now if you can get past the price, let me explain a few things.
The all-new 2015 Audi A3 is basically a Volkswagen Golf wearing a smart Armani suit. The 2015 A3 and 2015 VW Golf are the first two vehicles in the U.S. market built on VW’s much-anticipated, multi-billion euro platform called MQB, which stands for Modularer Querbaukasten, translating from German to “Modular Transversal Toolkit.” It’s a big deal because it’s supposed to underpin hundreds of new models across VW’s vast multi-brand empire for years to come. From the beginning, it’s able to support front- and all-wheel drive architecture as well as hybrid and pure electric powertrains (such as the e-Golf).
The base front drive A3 has VW’s 1.8L direct-injected turbo 4-cylinder engine making 170 hp and 200 lb-ft of torque. I drove it, hated it, and immediately asked to drive the model with the 2.0L direct-injected turbo 4 making 220 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque – the same sweet (slightly less powerful) engine in the 2015 VW Golf GTI. Mated to the only transmission offered – a 6-speed S-Tronic dual clutchautomatic – it’s a firecracker. Fast, direct, fun to drive and supremely sure-footed with Audi’s signature quattro all-wheel drive system.
Dual-clutch transmissions can be a clunky affair, but the VW group has sorted these things out well for many years. That said, the creep forward at stop is pronounced and it’s not as buttery smooth at the ZF 8-speed automatic used by BMW in most of its products and upper-tier Audis. But it’s easily as good as the 7-speed dual clutch Mercedes uses in the CLA250, the direct competitor to the A3.
The EPA rates the 2.0L quattro setup at 24 mpg city, 33 highway and 27 combined. My tester’s computer showed 20.6 mpg on a combination of about 40% highway and 60% city driving. It sucks down premium unleaded.
Just about everything in the A3 is executed well. From the signature Angry Bird-inspired LED running lights to the sharply creased sheet metal, this little car looks good from every angle. The A3 appropriately telegraphs Audi’s DNA and nothing about it screams that it’s a rebadged VW (because it isn’t). It may share the MQB platform and the drivetrain, but what you see is pure Audi.
The same can be said about the inside. Audi does about the best interiors in the auto business, although the competition has caught up over time. The A3′s interior looks terrific — from the tablet-style pop-up infotainment display to the turbine-inspired round vents, it’s a feast for the eyes. Most of the surfaces you see and touch are good (not top) quality plastics and soft to the touch, but some hard plastic lurks, particularly in the door panels, below the arm rest, the seat backs and some lower fascia.
This particular model had all the bells and whistles. I particularly liked the Google Earth navigation maps and the 705 watt Bang & Olufsen 14-speaker surround sound. Both were standard on the 2.0L Prestige. Audi’s latest-generation MMI (multimedia interface) was easy to use with the center controller and dedicated buttons. My iPhone 5S synced easily with the system and calls were clear.
The power sports seats are comfortable but don’t have a memory function. They do, however, have a hand-adjustable thigh support – something my 6’1″ frame appreciates very much. Unfortunately, the seat controls are so close to the door that you may have to open the door to adjust the seat! And the damn seat belt doesn’t have a stop for the buckle so the buckle falls to the bottom of the belt every time you take it off. You have to jam your hand down to the tight crevice between the B-pillar, the seat and the floor – evoking flashbacks of 127 Hours – to find it each time you buckle up. What were they thinking?
This car is loaded with all the bells and whistles: Full LED headlights and taillights, automatic headlights and rain-sensing wipers, dual zone automatic climate control, front and rear parking sensors, back up camera with guide lines, full-color MMI display, SiriusXM Satellite Radio, real-time traffic and weather, HD radio, 4-G connection w/Wi-Fi hot spot, auto-dimming rear view and side mirrors, leather seating surfaces, power heated (but not cooled) seats, digital compass, panoramic sunroof, tilt/telescope steering wheel, keyless entry and ignition, a dizzying array of safety features including countless airbags and air curtains and electronic nannies for braking, stability control and blind spot moniters.
And if you’re like me and you’ve experienced the intoxicating, magical capabilities of adaptive cruise control (now with advanced stop & go), then no new vehicle purchase could be complete without it. Simply tick the box for the Advanced Technology package – it only adds $20/month to the lease.
But you know what you can’t get on an A3 – no matter how much you pay? You can’t get a HomeLink garage controller so you have to clip an ugly remote to your visor. HomeLink is available on a Mazda 3 or a Kia Forte, but not an Audi A3?
Driving the A3 is a breeze. The electric power steering is fast and tight even though it lacks some of the feedback you might get from now-antiquated hydraulic units. It darts in and out of traffic with ease. The body is rock solid so quick maneuvers don’t feel like the mass is moving in the opposite direction. The turbo spools up quickly leaving little room turbo lag (except at very low speeds) as the engine pulls and revvs happily to the red line. Quattro cements the little car firmly in place, so the high winds we experience in the desert don’t blow it away or pull it dramatically off track.
The A3 is easy to park and the turning radius is very tight. The parking sensors and backup camera are very handy but sometimes the cross-path and other warning noises can get annoying. I’ve been heard shouting at the car to shut up, but that’s just me.
Overall it’s a terrific driver’s car, more engaging and better rendered than the Mercedes CLA250. I also think that its lines will age better.
All this gets me back to the price of a prestigious German badge. You can get far more for your money from a non-luxury or near-luxury brand. For example, the all-new 2015 Acura TLX, a bigger car, about the size of an A4, starts at $30,995. A fully-loaded TXL with a 3.5L 290 hp V6 engine, 9-speed automatic transmission, SH-AWD and the top Advance Package that includes far more luxury features and advanced technology than the A3 or A4 – is $45,595.
The average transaction price of an A3 is probably closer to $36,000 (not coincidentally the about same as the base A4). That’s still $4,000 more than a top-spec VW Golf GTI and enough for a base A4.
Is it worth the the steep premium to drive a small car with the four interlocking rings of Auto Union proudly affixed front and back? You do get a better standard warranty – 4 years/50,000 miles – and sales/service at an Audi dealer is probably much better than a non-luxury brand. For most people, it all comes down to the deal. As long as the lease payments are low enough, people naturally gravitate to the fancy German label. So far, the A3 has been a huge hit for Audi and it’s the main reason Audi’s sales are up dramatically so far this year. I bet your local Audi dealer could find a terrific A3 deal for you too!