First Drive: 2015 Audi A3

With the 2015 Audi A3, you’re getting a car that was designed to be the best that it absolutely could be – not a three-quarter scale model of a cooler car.

Entry-level car design is usually rather lazy. Take the new slew entry-level luxury cars as perfect example.

Mercedes simply recycled the looks of its $73,000 CLS with its all-new American entry-level car, the CLA. BMW has aimed a bit lower, as its 2 Series looks merely like a miniature of its $40,000 4 Series. Then there’s Audi. Unlike its home country compatriots, it’s gone another way.

Rather than replicating the lines its jaw-dropping $65,000 A7, which would have been fine in its own right, Audi designers sculpted a self-described “cold and clinical” automotive form that amazingly combines Bauhaus-inspired lines and sensual natural anatomy into one cohesive car.

The result is the 2015 A3. And just like its distinctive staggering exterior suggests, it’s an impressive thing indeed.

Exterior

The drama of A3’s exterior design, and its details, may not be readily apparent to an onlooker at first glance. Get close, though, and the care taken in sculpting the car becomes quickly apparent.

The attention to exterior exactness is exquisite. The lines are incredibly sharp and deserve to be not only studied but also felt. Audi encouraged us journalists to run our fingers along the lines of the A3. I urge you to do the same.

The lip running over the wheel arch, for example, is a detail most people might never notice. It’s a detail line most automakers would skip. Audi didn’t, though, and that should tell you something.

The panel gaps, too, are awe-inspiring. There’s not a missed line or a misaligned part on the A3. Going from steel, to aluminum, to plastic around the body. Designers kept the shapes uniform.

And what a form it is. It’s compact, sure, but it doesn’t look it. It looks broad and brawny. The A3 looks as though the designers were asked to sculpt an RS3 and when they finished, Audi brass just put an A3 badge on the back. There’s nothing entry-level about the A3’s looks.

Roadrunner

Just like its full-tilt performance RS3 looks; the A3 doesn’t go like a base model either.

The 2015 A3 is offered in two models. At the base level, there’s a front-wheel drive version with a turbocharged 1.8-liter TFSI four-cylinder engine that makes 170 horsepower and 200 pound-feet of torque. Above that, there’s the four-wheel drive quattro model powered by a turbocharged 2.0-liter TFSI four-cylinder producing 220 hp and 258 lb-ft.

Both engines are mated to a six-speed S tronic dual-clutch transmission. This surprisingly quick-shifting transmission and torque-y engine set will send the A3 to 60 from a standstill in 7.2 and 5.8 seconds respectively, and onto an electronically limited top speed of 130 mph.

The Audi A3 is actually just as cool and well designed as the R8 supercar.

The drivetrains are delightfully powerful and efficient. The 1.8T is rated at 23 mpg city, 33 highway, and 27 combined. The 2.0 quattro is estimated to achieve 24 city, 33 highway, and 27 combined.

While the FWD 1.8T model feels a bit too much like Audi meets Volkswagen Golf for my taste, the 2.0 quattro model is all Audi.

Nudge the shifter down into Sport mode and the A3 2.0 will rear back and push passengers into the standard leather seats and rush past the federal speed limit incredibly quickly.

As it propels the A3 well past 60 mph, the S tronic transmission shifts with crisp, sporty shifts that give the driver a sense that they’re driving something much more than a $33,000 compact sedan. As I buried the pedal in the floor, my mind was flooded with images of piloting the Audi RS7. The A3 moved quickly, but also nimbly.

2015 Audi A3 engine macro

Cornering, too, is another high point of the A3. The quattro system allows the driver to push through turns far faster than the front-drive model. Even with all-weather tires, I never felt like the A3 was going to lose its connection with the road. The suspension and chassis deserve much credit here. Bumps are smoothed while lateral rigidity is retained. It’s an exquisite drive.

Come into a corner too hot, though, and the A3’s marvelous brakes quickly come into play. Some journalists described the braking as “grabby,” but I felt the braking force confident and near perfection.

Spare interior

Stating Audi is the global king of interiors is like saying cantaloupe is delicious: everyone unanimously agrees. Audi interiors have historically married simple, refined, and robust design with technology and comfort.

The A3 continues that legacy – but just.

The A3 interior is very nice to behold and materials are as sturdy and visually sharp, as with all Audis. I worry, though, the interior is almost too spare. Sometimes less is more. In this case, though, less is perhaps less.

The dash is the only indication that the A3 is indeed the entry-level Audi.

There are very few buttons on the center stack, just above the dual climate control, which leaves plenty of blank spots for would-be features. There’s virtually nothing going on in front of the passenger. The panel that covers the vitals of the retractable ultra-thin infotainment screen looks cheap, and doesn’t fit nearly as cleanly as the exterior panels.

The dash is the only indication that the A3 is indeed the entry-level Audi.

I’ll admit these might be niggling complaints. Over all, the A3 is a wonderfully comfortable place to be. The seats don’t give much lateral support during hard cornering but never leave you feeling fatigued. Road noise – at any speed – is almost non-existent. Even without the hugely powerful, optional Bang & Olufsen sound system, the A3 bumps bass-y tunes with the best of them.

Technology

If design and power weren’t enough to get you behind the wheel of the A3, the technology should do the trick. But rather than digging through the tech minutia, let’s look at the broad strokes, which are wildly impressive.

Audi includes its outstanding MMI infotainment system standard on the A3; a touchpad built into the top of the control knob makes it extremely intuitive.

The A3 will be the first car to the U.S. market to offer a 4G LTE wireless Wi-Fi hotspot from AT&T. It will also include an exclusive Google Earth-powered navigation system.

2015 Audi A3 front drivers full

Customers will also be able to spec the A3 with plenty of features usually saved for the $60,000 range, including the aforementioned 705-watt Bang & Olufsen sound system, adaptive cruise control, and reverse camera.

Unfortunately, the A3 – just like the R8 – still only offers a 30-pin USB connector. To hook up anything newer than an iPhone 4S, you’ll need to stop by the Apple store on the way home from the Audi dealer and get an adapter.

Conclusion

The 2015 Audi A3 is brawny to behold, a chuckle to kick into corners, and tremendously tech-savvy. But how does it hold up to the other entry-level Germans, specifically the Mercedes-Benz CLA-Class and the BMW 2 Series?

The 2 Series is only a bit of a competitor, as it offers only two doors to the A3’s four. Go dollar for dollar, though, and the A3 will surely beat the 2 Series in most arenas.

The A3 is perhaps best compared to the CLA. But where the CLA is a downsized version of the CLS, the A3 is its own creature. Though I think the CLA’s interior bests that of the A3, it’s far less usable. Plus, the A3 offers far more tech than the Mercedes. And if there’s anything we know at Digital Trends, it’s that tech is king.

If you disagree, there’s another place where the Audi trounces the Benz: drivability. The CLA is best standing still, like a paperweight. Its powertrain is unsure of itself and leaves much to be desired. The A3 is smooth, powerful and efficient. It’s what you actually want in an entry-level German sedan.

With the A3, you don’t have to sacrifice usability or technology or design. You’re not spending $35,000 just to join the Audi club. You’re getting a car that was designed to be the best that it absolutely could be – not a three-quarter scale model of a cooler car.

So where another automaker might have to trick you into being interested in its entry-level model, Audi instead built an all-round brilliant car and graciously slated it at the bottom of its Stateside lineup.

Highs:

  • Exterior exactness and detail
  • Engine acceleration and efficiency
  • Taught but forgiving suspension
  • Quiet interior
  • Strong, fade-free brakes
  • A plethora of tech features

 Lows:

  • Too Spartan of an interior
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