Pros: Choice of two great engines, upscale vibe inside and out, confident driving character.
Cons: A redesigned A3 is around the corner, the Volkswagen Golf is similar, newer and cheaper.
The 2012 Audi A3 illustrates that age-old tension between luxury and value. On the one hand, the A3 occupies an exclusive niche: it's the only compact hatchback with a premium German badge that you can buy in the US, as BMW and Mercedes have kept their rival models overseas. But on the other hand, the A3 is yesterday's news. It's based on an older version of the Volkswagen Golf's platform, while the Golf itself uses newer hardware and is far more affordable. So the A3 offers luxury cachet, for sure, but value? Not so much.
Let's forget about Volkswagen for a minute, though. How does the A3 stack up against other cars in its price range? Despite the A3's advancing age, we have to admit that it still delivers a compelling package for the money. You can drive off in a base A3 2.0T with the manual transmission for around $28,000, and there's really nothing else like it. Cheaper four-door hatchbacks lack the A3's brand image, while entry-level luxury sedans like the BMW 328i are less versatile and considerably harder on your wallet.
Since our job is to focus on practicality rather than prestige, we still say the GTI or Golf TDI make for better choices. After all, they offers the same engines as the A3 in an updated package, and VW charges thousands less. But the A3 makes a premium statement that the Golf never will-and it does so at one of the lowest prices of any luxury vehicle. Now that we think about it, maybe what the A3 really illustrates is that luxury and value can coexist.
Comfort & Utility
The 2012 Audi A3 keeps it simple with just two trim levels: Premium and Premium Plus. Each is available with both the gasoline and diesel engines.
The Premium comes standard with 17-inch alloy wheels, foglamps, the "S line" exterior styling package, leather upholstery, manual front seats with adjustable height, dual-zone automatic climate control and a 140-watt audio system with both an auxiliary input and an SD card reader.
The Premium Plus adds different 17-inch alloys, xenon headlamps, a multifunction steering wheel with available shift paddles (automatic transmission only), a power driver's seat with adjustable lumbar and Bluetooth connectivity.
A Bluetooth Value package adds Bluetooth, the multifunction wheel and the power driver's seat to the Premium trim. Additional options include a dual-pane sunroof, a Sport package (featuring 18-inch wheels, a sport-tuned suspension and sport front seats), a Convenience package (Bose audio, rear parking sensors and other niceties), and Audi's Multi-Media Interface (MMI) with navigation and either a six-CD changer or an iPod input.
The A3's standard front seats provide firm support on the highway, but they're surprisingly low on lateral support for cornering. If you plan to drive your A3 with any kind of enthusiasm, we strongly recommend anteing up for the Sport package, which contributes better-bolstered seats.
Happily, drivers of all sizes should be able to find an agreeable position thanks to the tilt-telescopic steering wheel and standard height adjustment. The gauges behind that wheel are of the classic analog variety, with Audi's distinctive font employed for the numerals. Materials quality throughout the cabin is very good, particularly given the A3's sub-$30,000 starting price, but there's an older, mid-2000s feel inside the A3 that you don't get in newer models like the A4.
The A3's back seat doesn't want for headroom, but a combination of limited legroom and a low bottom cushion gives the rear quarters a somewhat claustrophobic feel. That's not unexpected in a compact hatchback, though it's worth noting that we've found the newer Golf's back seat to be somewhat more accommodating.
Cargo space is about average for a hatchback of this size, measuring 19.5 cubic feet behind the rear seatbacks and 39 cubic with the seatbacks flipped forward.
The aging A3 has managed to stay current in many ways, but it's missing a USB port, and it only offers iPod connectivity with the expensive navigation system. Also, we're surprised that Bluetooth is an extra-cost option. But if you're willing to pony up for the MMI infotainment system, you'll have one of the highest-tech little hatchbacks around. Notably, this version of MMI features a dash-mounted control knob. If you want a console-mounted knob that falls readily to hand, you'll have to step up to at least the A4 (or wait for the next A3). But we've come to appreciate MMI's relatively intuitive operation, no matter where the knob resides.
Performance & Fuel Economy
The A3 2.0T is powered by a turbocharged 2.0-liter inline-4 that runs on gasoline, while the 2.0 TDI gets a turbodiesel 2.0-liter inline-4. The former is rated at 200 horsepower and 207 lb-ft of torque, while the latter gets 140 horsepower and 236 lb-ft of torque.
The gas engine has more options, featuring either a six-speed manual transmission or a six-speed dual-clutch automated manual and your choice of front-wheel drive or Quattro all-wheel drive (the latter offered only with the automatic). The diesel engine comes standard with front-wheel drive and the automatic.
In brief, you can't go wrong with either motor. The venerable 2.0T provides sprightly acceleration even in a larger vehicle like the Volkswagen Tiguan, so it's no surprise that the A3 2.0T moves out smartly when prodded, surfing on a wave of smooth turbocharged torque. The standard stick shift wins nostalgia points, but the automatic is one of the best of its breed, so you can't go wrong on transmissions, either. As for the diesel, it packs a serious low-rpm punch thanks to its high torque rating, and although the A3 TDI ultimately isn't a fast car, it feels plenty energetic around town.
On the fuel-economy front, the TDI easily takes the crown with its EPA rating of 30 mpg city/42 mpg highway. The 2.0T gets as high as 21/30 mpg with the six-speed manual, but drops to 22/28 mpg with the automatic, and 21/28 mpg with all-wheel drive.
The 2012 Audi A3 comes with standard stability control, four-wheel antilock disc brakes and eight airbags (front, front-side, rear-side, full-length side-curtain).
The government has not crash-tested the A3 lately, but the independent Insurance Institute for Highway Safety gave the A3 its highest rating of "Good" in every crashworthiness category.
The A3 feels identifiably older than Audi's latest products from behind the wheel, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. Although the A3's steering has electric power-assist like most new luxury cars, there's an endearing mechanical honesty to the way this Audi goes about its business. The car's handling limits are high, especially with all-wheel drive and the Sport package, yet the ride remains supple and reasonably quiet. The A3 may be based on the previous-generation VW Golf, but that's really not a bad place to start.
Other Cars to Consider
Volkswagen Golf TDI and GTI: If you want the same engine choices in an updated product, look no further than the cheaper Golf TDI and GTI. Note, however, that all-wheel drive is only available in the expensive, performance-oriented Golf R.
Lexus CT 200: Don't look to the Lexus for competitive performance, but do check it out if fuel economy is high on your list. The CT 200h makes for an interesting alternative to the A3 TDI.
Mazdaspeed3: If you want to stimulate your adrenal glands, the Mazdaspeed3 hatchback will leave any A3 in the dust with its serious turbocharged power and focused suspension tuning.
We think the A3 looks best when its value quotient is highest, so we recommend looking at the entry-level A3 2.0T with the six-speed manual. It'll be hard to find a nicer all-around vehicle for under $30,000, even at the A3's advanced age.