2015 Audi A3 2.0T Quattro review: 2015 Audi A3: So good, there's not much room for improvement

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The new MMI controller is ultimately easier to use, but takes a little longer to learn to use it than the old layout did. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

Surrounding the knob are four more shortcut buttons that correspond to contextual shortcuts indicated at the four corners of the screen.

The new MMI control scheme is quite a good evolution of the old MMI controller, but I get the feeling that it's been optimized for drivers who are already familiar with Audi's interface. For newcomers to the brand, the controls can be a bit confusing -- perhaps not overwhelmingly so, but my passengers had issues with the more spread-out controls, particularly the toggles for the infotainment mode changes. You'll first want to spend some time getting comfortable with this setup before you hit the road.

That said, I like really how the physical controller is, well, physical. The raised toggles for the mode changes makes them easier to feel when your hand is resting on the control knob, and the knob's detented rotation makes it easy to scroll three entries down in a list without fumbling. In turn, this makes it possible to use the MMI controller without ever looking down from the screen and the road. It just takes a bit of practice.

Voice and steering-wheel controls

The A3 gives the driver more choices for interacting with the MMI system. The voice command system, for example, is quite good. With just a touch of the microphone button on the steering wheel and a quick, "Navigate to address, 123 Main Street, Anytown, Any State." you'll be off and and navigating with turn-by-turn directions. The voice recognition system is very snappy for a car and doesn't leave you waiting while it processes, which makes me much more likely to use it.

You've also got steering-wheel controls at your disposal and a small, flexible, and functional information display in the instrument cluster that allows the driver to jump between turn-by-turn navigation directions, contacts for hands-free calling, and the current audio source with the ability to browse radio presets with a thumb roller.

One thing that I could not find on the steering wheel controls was a way to skip tracks when Bluetooth audio streaming. If I didn't like a song, I had to reach to the volume-knob-slash-skip-rocker all the way on the other side of the shifter on the transmission tunnel. It's a first-world problem for sure, but finding the awkwardly placed knob means taking my eyes off of the road every time I want to skip and it's not a problem that I've ever encountered before on a car with steering-wheel controls.

Bang and Olufsen and audio

Another bit of Audi tech that I'm not a fan of is the AMI connection for external devices. Where most automakers give the driver a simple USB port and auxiliary input, Audi still uses a weird, proprietary connection that requires the user to purchase and swap pigtails for Apple's 30-pin dock connector, USB, or a 3.5mm analog auxiliary input. (Our example came with two 30-pin pigtails!) I'm told that Audi will also offer a Lightning adapter, but with these AMI cables going for as much as $55, it can't be cheap.

What's even more frustrating is that the A3 does have a USB port in its armrest console, but it's for charging devices only and isn't connected to the MMI system for data. So close, yet so far, Audi.

Other audio sources include Wi-Fi audio streaming, Bluetooth audio streaming, satellite radio included for six months, and HD Radio. In the glove box, you'll also find a pair of SD card slots and the optical drive for CDs.

Our example was equipped with the optional Bang and Olufsen premium audio system that, with its 14 speakers and 705 watts of amplification, provided a serious boost to the sound quality of your audio sources. It's not as visually dramatic or as audiophile-friendly as the system that you'll find in the A7, for example, but it's damn good for this class and for the price.

Connected with 4G

Connected services aren't new for Audi cars, but the 2015 A3 is the first model in the lineup to be equipped with a 4G cellular antenna and SIM. That means that the MMI's ability to Google search, to layer 3D and satellite Google Earth information onto the navigation maps, and to access Audi Connect services has been turbocharged with a faster, always-on LTE network by AT&T.

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Audi's original party trick of integrating Google Earth satellite and terrain data into the navigation is smoother thanks to the fast LTE connection. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

When connected, drivers will have apps for fuel prices, weather updates, and parking. Facebook and Twitter integration allows drivers to send canned posts, updating his newsfeed with the car's location or destination. There's also access to Facebook places and events to quickly navigate to that party.

Buyers will get six months of free data, after which service provider AT&T hopes they will be so hooked they'll pay $99 for the 6-month/5-gigabyte plan or $499 for the 30-month/30GB plan. Everyone who I mentioned that price to groaned and complained about having to pay for yet another subscription.

Driver aid and safety tech

Standard safety tech for the A3 is pretty limited, but our Prestige model was equipped with a crisp rear camera and Audi's parking system plus. No, it won't park itself, but it does have front and rear sensors distance sensors and a visual overlay for the rear camera feed that shows distance markers and the estimated trajectory of the reversing sedan based on the angle of the steering.

Coupled with quick, low-speed steering and a short nose-to-tail length (when compared with the ever-stretching A4 sedan), the rear camera and sensors make the A3 a very parkable compact sedan.

We also had a blind-spot information system (called Audi Side Assist) and the LED headlights that adjusted their illumination pattern to match the angle of the steering wheel. Between the LED head- and taillights and the full interior LED lighting of the Prestige package, there was not an incandescent to be found on our example.

Available but not equipped is a $1,500 Advanced Technology package that adds forward collision warning, full-range adaptive cruise control, and lane keeping alert.

Pricing and competition

Maybe I spoke a bit too soon when I said that I couldn't think of anything to improve the A3, because clearly there were yet a few tech nits to pick. In particular, I really wish Audi would ditch that odd proprietary media cable and move to the industry-standard USB connection.

I thought that A3's move from a hatchback to a sedan would be more jarring, but, outside of a few tweaks, the A3 is a hugely satisfying, comfortable, and attractive car, particularly at our Prestige trim level, where the already good level of cabin luxury and finish is greatly improved, the exterior gains some S-Line character, and its infotainment and safety tech are bumped to the top of this class.

The 2015 Audi A3 2.0T Quattro S Tronic, as it is designated by the automaker, starts at $32,900, but all of the cabin and safety tech that I praised comes as part of an $8,450 Prestige model upgrade. We've also got $550 in for the Sport package that adds the Audi Drive Select system, sport seats, and paddle shifters. Our example's Monsoon Gray metallic paint is a purely subjective $550 line item as well. Add $895 for destination charges to reach our as tested price of $43,345.

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This version of the Quattro all-wheel-drive system lacks Audi's Sport Differential on its rear axle, but still offers plenty of grip and relatively neutral handling. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

The Audi's closest competitor is the Mercedes-Benz CLA 250: a gorgeous luxury compact that gives the A3 a run for its money where fit and finish are concerned. The Audi, on the other hand, has a performance edge and is, in my opinion, the more enjoyable driver despite the Benz's stiffer suspension. That Audi's tech offerings run circles around anything that Mercedes-Benz is offering right now seals the 2015 A3 as my pick as the best in this class.

Tech specs
Model 2015 Audi A3 sedan
Trim 2.0T Prestige
Powertrain 2.0-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder, six-speed dual clutch automatic, Quattro AWD
EPA fuel economy 24 mpg city, 33 mpg highway, 27 mpg combo
Observed fuel economy N/A
Navigation Audi Connect MMI navigation with Google Earth and Search
Bluetooth phone support Standard
Digital audio sources Bluetooth audio, WiFi audio, 2x SD cards, HD and satellite radio, available AMI connections for USB, 3.5 mm aux, and Apple 30-pin and Lightning connections
Audio system Bang and Olufsen premium audio
Driver aids Optional blind-spot monitoring, rear camera, parking proximity sensors (available, but not equipped: forward collision alert, lane departure warning, adaptive cruise control)
Base price $32,900
Price as tested $43,345

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