Earlier this week, I tweeted that that I couldn't think of any way the the new Audi A3 could be better. Yeah, I know that an S3 would be "better" from a performance standpoint and that an RS 3 would be simply amazing, but those are technically different cars with slightly different goals. As is, the 2015 Audi A3 2.0T Quattro hits its own mark, achieves the goals of its class so precisely.
It's a car that tries to do a lot of things -- to push the envelope in multiple directions -- and, for the most part, does all of these things quite competently. It's a fairly comfortable daily driver and one of the few premium compact cars that does small without also feeling cheap. In this turbocharged, all-wheel-driven, Sport package-enhanced trim, the A3 delivers a just enough of a performance dose for assertive driving on public roads. And though it's packed to the gills with technology, the intuitive MMI infotainment system helps drivers to not be overwhelmed or distracted by the bells and whistles.
The future of Audi is modular
The A3's Multi Media Interface (MMI) infotainment system is powered by Nvidia's Tegra 2 processor and features crisply rendered 3D topographical map data for the navigation system and snappy, sharp menus. You'll hardly ever catch this system so much as stuttering as it jumps back and forth among navigation, audio, and telephony. As OEM infotainment goes, this is cutting-edge stuff and it will only get sharper thanks to a modular hardware design that will allow the automaker to stay on its toes when updating the tech in future revisions.
Right now, it's packing the Tegra 2 and 4G LTE connectivity, but next year it could be rocking a more powerful brain or a faster connection. In a world where automotive product cycles were once measured in decades, Audi can update the A3's tech every few months. Now, that doesn't necessarily mean that you'll be able to roll into your Audi dealership and update your car's hardware, but it doesn't totally rule out such future post-release improvements either.
Similarly, the Audi's underpinnings and powertrain are modular systems. The chassis uses the Volkswagen Group's Modularer Querbaukasten (modular transversal toolkit in English, or MQB for short) architecture that also underpins the next iterations of the Volkswagen Golf and Jetta. MQB vehicles share components across a wide variety of platforms, so the underpinnings of the fully electric VW eGolf, for example, aren't dissimilar to the next Jetta TDI, which will look familiar to a mechanic who's put a wrench to this Audi A3 2.0T right down to the engine mounts.
Theoretically, this makes maintenance and repairs easier and less expensive by making life simpler for technicians and mechanics. This also helps to keep costs down for VW and Audi, makes manufacturing and development easier, and hopefully means that we'll see more iterations (cabriolets, crossovers, hatchbacks, and wagons) of these vehicles.
It's no surprise that being a modular car built on a VW modular platform that the A3's 2.0-liter direct injected and turbocharged engine is basically the same engine you'll find in a 2015 VW GTI. The new engine features optimizations to its construction that improve thermal management, reduce weight, and increase responsiveness over the previous-generation VW Group 2.0T engine. The new four-banger's maximum output is stated at 220 horsepower (that's 10 more than the hi-po Golf) and 258 pound-feet of torque (which is the same).
The engine is mated to a six-speed S Tronic automated dual-clutch transmission (just like a GTI's DSG) that gives the driver the choice of automatic, sport auto, and manual shift programs. When equipped with the optional Sport package, steering-wheel paddle shifters are added to the mix.
However, unlike its VW cousin, the 2015 Audi A3 2.0T features the automaker's Quattro drivetrain that splits power among all four wheels for better grip and traction than the standard front-drive setup. This version of Quattro does not feature Audi's torque-vectoring Sport Differential.
In its place, you get a sort of electronic torque vectoring system that performs like a limited slip differential by adding brake force to the slipping wheel (or the inside wheel when cornering) to send power to the other end of the axle's open differential. For the A3's sometimes-sporty-mostly-casual mission, this setup gets the job done, and, hey, if a brake-diff is good enough for a McLaren, it should be good enough for this little Audi.
On our example, which is equipped with the optional Sport package, the driver can select between four drive modes (Dynamic, Comfort, Individual, Auto) that adjust characteristics of the vehicle's performance. Dynamic and Comfort are at opposite ends of the spectrum; the former boasts heavier feel from the electric power steering and sharper powertrain responsiveness thanks to its tweaked throttle map and transmission program. The latter relaxes these systems for a more comfortable drive. Individual allows the driver to mix and match the settings for the steering and powertrain individually, while Auto let's the Audi's computers figure it out based on driving conditions.
The difference between the Dynamic and Comfort modes is immediately noticeable, particularly where the acceleration is concerned. It's possible to sometimes catch the car lazing around in too high a gear and in the wrong part of the torque curve in Comfort mode, which can lead to just a bit of hesitance when you need to accelerate to pass. However in Sport mode with the same amount of throttle input, the entire vehicle feels more alert and alive and will spring forward with an enthusiasm that at one point had me literally saying, "Now that's what I'm talking about!" aloud...even though no one else was in the car. Keeping the turbocharger spun up and ready to go will have that night-and-day effect on the performance of the car and the driver.
The performance sweet spot
The non-adjustable suspension isn't enhanced by either the Drive Select system or the addition of the Sport package. The ride is controlled and just a tad firm (thanks possibly to our Prestige package's addition of larger 18-inch wheels with lower profile summer tires), is mostly tuned to be quite comfortable for daily driving. Bigger bumps will still bounce your passengers, but there isn't a bone rattling harshness to the bumps and there is enough suppleness to slowly roll over lunar surfaces of the poorly maintained roads in my Oakland neighborhood without much drama.
On a twisty road, the A3's performance is pretty good. The chassis tends towards neutral, predictable performance with a hint of pushing understeer and a dash of roll when driven hard. Even in its Sport mode, the electric steering feel isn't great, but at least it's responsive. Thankfully, the Quattro system and the responsive 2.0T make up for the A3's lack of a hard edge with generous grip that inspires confidence and plenty of grunt for the small sedan.
No, it's not the sportiest car that I've driven, but that's not really this car's mission. Enthusiasts can choose to wait for the upcoming S3 or RS 3 variants that up the power and performance, but the A3 does a great job of hitting the sweet spot as a comfortable daily driver with just a hint of sporting aspiration. It's the sort of car that you can happily commute in all week and then flip a switch and get a few grins on the weekend without feeling like you've paid for more performance than can reasonably be used on public roads.
I spent most of my time in the sportiest setting, talking to myself like a character in a "Fast and Furious" film, but you'll probably want to spend some time in the Comfort or Auto modes if you want to reach the EPA's estimated 24 city, 33 highway, and 27 combined mpg estimates.
New MMI controller
Push the Start button after settling into this A3's "Sport" driver seat and a bright, crisp display slides out of a slot in the dashboard putting Audi's gorgeous MMI infotainment system near the driver's eyeline. Shut the car down and the screen retracts. You can also press a dashboard button to show and hide the screen manually, leaving the dashboard looking clean, uncluttered, and distraction-free.
The screen isn't touch sensitive, but down on the center console you'll find Audi's new MMI controller. This setup separates the toggles for the system's four main modes (navigation, radio, media, and phone) from the large MMI control knob. These are accessible via two toggles that are nudged up and down, though they look like a bank of four buttons.
The control knob itself is quite large now and features a touchpad built into its face that allows the driver to draw letters with a fingertip when inputting addresses or search terms into the navigation system, which at times seems faster than inputting characters by twisting the knob and features really accurate recognition of my chicken scratch finger scrawls. (For some odd reason, I kept accidentally reverting to inputting the old Palm Graffiti characters when using the touchpad, which understandably confused the Audi. When I stopped pretending it was the year 2001 and just drew normal letters, the system functioned perfectly.)
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.