First Drive: 2015 Audi A3 [Review]

Its dimensions and pricetag may be small, but the A3 is big, big fun.

In Silicon Valley, computer chip designers have strived through the years to make their creations smaller and smaller, while at the same time adding more capabilities. The same can be said of those who built the 2015 Audi A3.

Now in its third generation, the A3 is set to prove that Audi can do small without compromising in the luxury department. And with the German automaker squeezing every bit of technology into the car that is physically possible, they flew us to Silicon Valley to show what they and their partners, including Google, Nvidia, AT&T, Bang & Olufsen and others, have been up to.

New and Improved

Previously a hatchback, the A3 has been "completely redesigned and specifically tailored to the sedan preferences of the American market," Audi says. Given the outgoing model's modest sales volume, that statement likely translates to "we realized that Americans don't like hatches, so here's a sedan."

With its new bodystyle, the A3 is now positioned as a direct rival to the stylish Mercedes-Benz CLA-Class in the rapidly expanding entry-luxury segment - coincidentally (or not), the two share a $29,900 MSRP before destination charges. The A3 also acts as something of a spiritual successor to the original A4, mirroring the trim dimensions and playful nature of that car.

In the near future, expect the A3 lineup to gain TDI Diesel and sporty S3 versions of the sedan, as well as a drop-top, two-door Cabriolet model. And with a nod to old habits that die hard, a hatchback will return next year in the form of the A3 Sportback e-tron plug-in hybrid.

For now, power for the A3 sedan comes from a choice of two engines. The base powerplant is a turbocharged 1.8-liter four-cylinder making 170-horsepower and 200 lb-ft of torque, while those seeking more output can opt for a turbo 2.0-liter four that's good for 220 ponies and 258 lb-ft of twist. The 1.8T is available exclusively with front-wheel-drive, while Quattro all-wheel-drive is standard with the 2.0T. Using a Haldex clutch pack system, the latter drivetrain provides all-wheel traction on an as-needed basis as opposed to the traditional all-the-time system.

Both mills are mated to an "S-tronic” six-speed dual clutch automatic gearbox. A traditional manual transmission will not be available, but at least steering wheel-mounted paddle shift levers are optional for buyers craving an extra degree of control.

The A3's suspension breaks no new ground, instead relying on a tried-and-true MacPherson strut kit with A-arms in front and a four-link independent rear suspension. Dynamic behavior can be tailored to the driver's tastes with the available A3 Sport line's Audi Drive Select system, which offers a selection of throttle, transmission, and electronic steering settings. Choices include Auto, Dynamic, Comfort and Individual modes.

Honey, I've shrunk the A4

Underpinned by the MQB modular architecture that also serves as the basis for the 2015 Volkswagen Golf, the A3 arrives looking every bit like a downsized A4 - Audi's traditional Singleframe grille adorns the front end, while the tasteful (but very familiar) flanks are embellished by upswept character lines. Despite the déjà-vu-inducing sheetmetal, Audi says that not a single body panel is shared with its other sedans.

Bi-xenon headlights are standard - LED units can be spec'd should the buyer desire - while LED taillights are found around back. Also standard is a large sunroof that, despite being billed as panoramic, doesn't stretch the full length of the roofline in true panoramic fashion.

Driver-centric, the interior is very much an Audi in design and in the parts it uses. The traditional leather-wrapped steering wheel is complete with all the controls found on the A3's bigger brothers, and the centerstack keeps with the theme of providing high-quality objects that are both functional and fun to look at. A well-bolstered and power-adjustable driver's seat, along with a manually set passenger front seat, furnished good support during our day with the A3. The rear seat offers a snug fit - two passengers will definitely be much more comfortable than three - and is equipped to fold down for expanded access, should a larger or longer cargo space be necessary.

As small needn't equate to basic, the A3 includes many of the same luxury items as Audi's more expensive models, including an ultra-thin and retractable MMI display and options like MMI Touch, which lets users input navigation destinations and control other functions via "handwriting” on a touch pad. The real technological tour de force is AT&T's 4G LTE cellular connectivity suite - it includes some of the fastest connection speeds we've seen in a vehicle, and entails read-aloud Facebook and Twitter alerts as well as Google Earth and Google Street View mapping services.

Drive time

We haven't had this much fun in a sport sedan in a long time. The Quattro setup allows the A3 to track much like a go-kart - it puts you on the road and keeps you there, grabbing, gripping, and braking just the way you would expect it to. Though we found the brakes a touch grabby when starting out, we quickly became familiar with their feel and the appropriate pressure to use them effectively.

Steering from the electromechanical speed-sensitive system offered good feedback while the suspension supplied tight handling with a firm Teutonic ride that makes it every bit as exciting as its A4 sibling. With not a bit of side-wallow, it gripped properly with attitude through the turns, exactly the way we like it. On the downside, we noticed a fair amount of road thrum from the low-profile tires.

The 1.8T is a smaller engine that apparently has not received that memo yet. High revving, it picks up and goes, goes, goes as quick as you'd like it to. Heading on to the interstate sees more than enough power to merge into fast moving traffic without worry; Audi claims the zero-to-60 mph sprint occurs in 7.2 seconds. For most people living out of the snowbelt, the 1.8T with FWD might be all they ever need in the way of motive power.

Acceleration from the 2.0T engine is also impressive, with 60 mph arriving from a dead stop in 5.8-seconds. The combination of 50 additional horsepower and 58 lb-ft of torque does supply an appreciable amount of pep, but not so much that it overwhelms the power of the 1.8T. Perhaps that's partially attributable to its 200-pound heavier curb weight, a byproduct of the Quattro AWD system. Regardless of the motor it was hooked up to, the six-speed S-tronic transmission provided quick shifts with no hunting for gears.

The EPA estimates the 1.8-liter is capable of 23/33 city/highway mpg along with 27 mpg combined. Surprisingly, the more powerful 2.0T is slightly easier on gas, earning a 24/33 mpg rating and 27 mpg combined. To save Americans from themselves, the top speed of both is electronically limited to 130 mph.

Leftlane's bottom line:

Audi has caught on to America's aversion to hatchbacks. The result of this realization is a quick course correction, a proper sedan that is also a blast to drive.

With a wide array of powertrain, luxury and technology options, the A3 offers something for everyone at an attractive entry price.

2015 Audi A3 1.8T base price, $29,900. As tested, $34,895.

2015 Audi A3 2.0T base price, $32,900. As tested, $37,195.

With options including: Audi MMI Navigation Plus, $1,900; Cold weather package, $500; Aluminum Style Package, $450; Audi Music Interface, $350; Destination fee, $895.

Photos by Mark Elias.

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