Audi's previous-generation A3 took a stab at the entry luxury market by delivering a Euro-style wagon treatment to U.S. buyers. While the boxy hot hatch inspired a cult following, it wasn't exactly a mainstream hit, which forced the German carmaker back to the drawing board for the next-gen 2015 Audi A3.
At least outwardly, the new A3 takes an entirely new approach to the challenge of building a compelling German car that starts at under $30,000. The A3 is now a sedan, swapping the hatchback setup in favor of a more conventional 3-box silhouette. But does the interior live up to the sharp exterior, and even more importantly, does it perform well enough to earn the respect of the young enthusiast buyers it's targeting?
What's New for 2015?
The Audi A3 is all new for 2015.
What We Like
Premium overall feel, despite a somewhat stark interior design; satisfying driving dynamics, especially when equipped with the 2.0-liter engine; leather and panorama sunroof come standard
What We Don't
Small trunk; dashboard feels blank due to out-of-the-way buttons; adding a few options can quickly transform this into a $40,000 car
The base 2015 Audi A3 1.8T is powered by a turbocharged 1.8-liter inline 4-cylinder that produces 170 horsepower and 200 lb-ft of torque. The 1.8-liter engine can only be mated to a front-wheel-drive transmission and is rated at 23 miles per gallon in the city and 33 mpg on the highway for a combined fuel economy Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) figure of 27 mpg.
The pricier 2.0T model comes with Quattro all-wheel drive and gets its motivation from a turbocharged 2.0-liter inline 4-cylinder that produces 200 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque. The 2.0T's fuel economy estimate in the city is actually slightly higher, pulling an EPA rating of 24 mpg. Highway and combined fuel economy figures of 33 and 27 mpg, respectively, are the same as the 1.8T.
Standard Features & Options
The Audi A3 comes in two major configurations: 1.8T and 2.0T, each of which can be ordered in Premium, Premium Plus or Prestige trim. Both turbocharged, 4-cylinder engine options meet a 6-speed dual-clutch transmission.
The 1.8T Premium ($29,900) offers leather, a 12-way power adjustable driver's seat, xenon headlights with LED running daytime lights and 60/40-split folding rear seats.
Stepping up to the 1.8T Premium Plus ($32,800) adds an aluminum interior-trim package, keyless start, dual-zone climate control, heated seats and 18-inch wheels.
The 1.8T Prestige ($38,700) trim offers full LED headlights with a 14-speaker, 705-watt Bang & Olufsen sound system, navigation, Audi's Multi-Media Interface with gestural inputs and exterior appearance add-ons.
Move up to the 2.0T Premium ($32,900) and you'll get the same options bundled with the bigger, more powerful engine and Quattro all-wheel drive.
The 2.0T Premium Plus ($35,800) and 2.0T Prestige ($41,700) round out the available packages with the same equipment found on the 1.8T.
Additional options include a Technology package with active lane assist and adaptive cruise control ($1,400), a Sport package with more aggressively bolstered seats, Audi drive select and paddle shifters ($550) and rear-passenger thorax-side airbags ($350).
Thanks to refinements to its chassis and airbag setup (which includes driver and front-passenger, knee and side airbags with inflatable curtains), the Audi A3 earned a Top Safety Pick from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, with Good scores across the board.
The A3 has not yet been rated by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Behind the Wheel
Though its interior comes across as somewhat smallish, the A3 feels well-proportioned and has sufficient rear room to encourage prolonged drives with four passengers, largely thanks to the car's more conventional C-pillar, which doesn't emulate the coupelike look that's currently in fashion.
The 1.8T takes a bit of throttle input to get it going off the line, and aggressively mashing the right pedal can chirp the tires (mostly due to the relatively short first gear and the front-wheel-drive layout). Once moving, the 1.8T is sufficiently equipped for passing maneuvers, though the engine sometimes feels like it has to work hard to keep up. That's a likely explanation for the 1.8T's lower city fuel economy rating compared to the 2.0T.
Step into the 2.0T, and the increased power becomes immediately noticeable. Grunt off the line is strong, and during our test drive there was no hint that our summer tires would squeal while accelerating. Aided by all-wheel drive, the 2.0T model handles twisty roads with strong grip and surefooted direction changes. Body control is excellent, making the A3 feel every bit as capable of attacking a canyon highway as a highly tuned sports car.
Ride quality is better than you might expect, thanks in part to Audi's avoidance of run-flat tires, which tend to transmit more shocks to the car's cabin.
Thanks to the extensive use of aluminum, which helps attain a curb weight of 3,175 pounds (1.8T) and 3,362 pounds (2.0T), acceleration and handling benefit significantly: Both models are mean canyon carvers, and the 1.8T model can hit 60 miles per hour in 7.2 seconds, while the 2.0T version does the deed in an impressive 5.8 seconds.
Other Cars to Consider
Acura ILX -- This Japanese underdog undercuts the A3 with its $26,900 starting price but can't quite live up to the Audi's performance levels.
BMW 228i -- BMW delivers a compelling little package with their new 2-series, though this coupe starts at a higher price of $32,100 in 228i form and gets an even pricier starting point of $43,100 for the 235i.
Mercedes-Benz CLA250 -- The latest Baby Benz goes head-to-head against the A3 and starts with an identical MSRP of $29,900. Though arguably more stylish than the A3, the CLA250 isn't quite as dynamically satisfying to drive.
In our eyes, the Audi A3 is a great little car that leads the charge of small, entry-level luxury sedans. We'd suggest skipping the base 1.8T model and going directly to the 2.0T version, which offers the added bonus of slightly better fuel economy. While it may be tempting to go for broke with options, you'd do just fine with the $35,800 Premium Plus package, which offers a good number of features without breaking the bank.