Driving through San Francisco on a sunny day past a typically packed Dolores Park, I couldn't help but blast the stereo in the 2015 Audi A3 Cabriolet, treating everyone in the vicinity to a blast from the past with Asia's Heat of the Moment. I wouldn't have done it in a hardtop, but a top-down convertible demands exhibitionism, in this case turning me into the world's self-appointed DJ.
The A3, offered as a compact sedan, sportback and the soft top Cabriolet version, sits at the bottom of Audi's line-up in the US. The base price for the convertible comes in at $35,600, although the Prestige trim package brought the cost of my example up to $45,525, with destination. An A3 Cabriolet in the UK will run you only £26,085, but will come with a 1.4-liter engine instead of the 1.8-liter in the base US car. Likewise, in Australia the base A3 Cabriolet also comes with the 1.4-liter engine, and a price of AU$52,861.
Last year, CNET's Antuan Goodwin reviewed an Audi A3 compact sedan with Quattro all-wheel-drive and the available two-liter engine, and could find no major criticisms of the car. I felt a bit let down when I got behind the wheel of this A3 Cabriolet, as it was stuck with the smaller engine and front-wheel-drive. After waiting the 20 seconds for the top to go down, however, the magic of open-top driving made everything all right.
The 1.8-liter four cylinder engine in the Audi A3, with direct fuel injection and a turbo, makes 170 horsepower and 200 pound-feet of torque, decent numbers for the displacement. Power goes to the front wheels through a six-speed dual-clutch transmission offering fully automatic and sequential shift modes. I found the power delivery satisfying, although there was a moment of hesitation when I floored it from a stop. When manually shifting or using the transmission's Sport mode, I could hear a little growl from the engine as the revs climbed, but my sense of the A3 Cabriolet was more fun cruiser than aggressive sports car.
Of course, the smaller engine means better fuel economy, with 24 mpg city and 35 mpg highway. The city figure would likely have been higher if Audi gave the A3 Cabriolet an idle-stop feature to save gasoline at stop lights. Through a course of driving that encompassed dense urban streets, 65 mph freeways and twisty mountain roads, using all the transmission modes, I came in at 27.5 mpg. The A3 Cabriolet weighs about 200 pounds more than the A3 sedan, but strangely, it turns in slightly better average fuel economy.
If you want fuel economy up in the 30s, Audi offers a diesel version of the A3, but not in Cabriolet form.
From a design perspective, I really don't like four-seater convertibles. The A3 Cabriolet's lumpish top adds nothing to the styling, although Audi mitigates it somewhat with a silver windshield frame that combines with an exterior cabin wrap-around trim piece for a more cohesive look. Impacting practicality, the soft top greatly reduces trunk space, bringing the capacity down to a measly 7.1 cubic feet. You will have to put the groceries in the rear seat.
Those rear seats are tight, especially in knee and hip room, but access is easy as the front seats slide far enough forward. The soft top, when up, does a good job of blocking out road noise, too. I was surprised that the Prestige trim did not include power adjustable seats, but I tended to forget such deprivations when driving with the top down.
LED headlights came with the A3 Cabriolet as part of the Prestige package, as well as a blind-spot-monitoring system with LED warning lights in the side-view mirror casings. The back-up camera offered trajectory lines to help me maneuver. Available as part of the Advanced Technology package, which was not included on this car, are adaptive cruise control and lane-keeping assist.
The ride quality in the A3 Cabriolet was about the best I have experienced in a car with a fixed suspension. Despite the car's small size, its suspension soaked up bumps and humps with excellent comfort. More impressive, the ride was not overly soft.
Getting the A3 Cabriolet on a twisty mountain road, I blame the open-air driving experience for getting me in a rowdy Audi driving mood. Using the transmission to get the revs high, I extracted what power the 1.8-liter had to offer and pushed hard into the turns. The electric power steering made for exceptionally light wheel turn, too light by my standards, but very responsive. At the same time, the suspension held the car steady as I pulled through the turn apexes.
At $800, the very reasonably priced Sport package would have added a sport-tuned suspension and Audi Drive Select, the latter feature offering programs for sport and comfort. However, without Quattro or an adaptive suspension, the drive programs can only do so much.
As another quirk of the A3 Cabriolet, Audi leaves voice command out of the cabin electronics, I assume because the cabin microphone normally gets mounted in the headliner. I missed that feature when trying to enter a destination while on the road. However, Audi's tech interface includes a touchpad embedded into its dial controller, with which I could trace letters for street names or business searches. This interface works exceptionally well, as it let me input alphanumeric characters accurately while keeping my eyes on the road.
One of the first cars to get a 4G connection, the A3's navigation system uses the data to power Google Earth integration with the navigation system, Google search for destinations and an array of services including weather, fuel prices and parking availability. The parking feature works with data-connected parking garages and showed me which garages had available parking.
The Google Earth maps in the navigation system showed me a top-down satellite view of my immediate surroundings, a very cool feature, enhanced with street view, letting me see a photograph of a destination I set. Relying on the data connection, the maps couldn't update when I drove out of cell range, instead showing a pixelated fuzz but retaining topographical features. I could also turn off the Google Earth imagery and get the locally stored maps, which show 3D rendered buildings and look as good as any from other automakers.
The A3 Cabriolet includes Facebook and Twitter integration, and the MMI Connect app, using your smartphone to add Internet-based radio stations, a car finder and remote destination searches. Missing are useful third-party apps such as Yelp, or music services such as Spotify, Rdio or even Pandora. Audi has been slow to integrate third-party apps, especially in comparison to BMW.
As for Android Auto or Apple CarPlay, the A3 will likely not get those features until the next major update, which should replace the current cabin electronics with Audi's Virtual Cockpit, seen in the new TT and Q7 models.
There was no CD player in this A3 Cabriolet, a feature I did not miss. In the console box I found the Audi Music Interface port, a proprietary audio device connection requiring adapter cables for iOS and USB devices. Annoyingly, Audi doesn't seem inclined to use the more common USB port for audio devices, and lacking the Apple Lightning connection adapter cable, I could not plug in my iPhone 5S. There is a USB port in the console box, but it works only as a charging port.
I was able to play music from my iPhone through the car's stereo with Bluetooth streaming, but that low-fidelity connection did not do the Bang and Olufsen audio system in this car justice. That system, using 13 speakers and 625 watts of amplification, delivers excellent frequency response, but its detail is so good that it reveals the flaws of low bit-rate tracks. While I enjoyed treating the sunbathers at Dolores Park to my DJ skills, I was also cringing at the quality of the playback.
Even in its base configuration, the 2015 Audi A3 Cabriolet is pricey. Add the excellent cabin tech package, and you are easily pushing 40 grand. But this car offers such a good on-the-road experience, especially considering the joy of open-top driving, that it justifies itself.
The available two-liter engine would add significant power, without much of a fuel economy sacrifice, and the Quattro all-wheel-drive system would improve handling as well as wintery weather capability, but I found the base front-wheel-drive and 1.8-liter engine to be more than adequate. As a four-seater convertible, I wouldn't expect to spend a lot of time racing the A3 Cabriolet along backroads, anyway.
Audi offers truly brilliant connected electronics for the cabin, and your passengers will be impressed by the Google Earth maps on the navigation system. Having parking information in the dashboard can also be a great help in urban areas. The lack of voice command in the A3 Cabriolet is a definite drawback, and more third-party apps making use of the car's 4G connection would be nice. The cabin tech interface comes in a generation behind, as Audi will be updating its lineup with its Virtual Cockpit over the coming year.
The lack of a USB port for audio devices is the A3 Cabriolet's biggest flaw. Sure, Audi offers cable adapters for iOS devices and USB drives, but I would rather plug my iPhone cable directly into the car. Bluetooth streaming is very convenient, but lacks the quality of a cabled connection.
Audi's driver assistance features are worth considering, especially adaptive cruise control if you take a many road trips. However, the tiny trunk space will limit your suitcase size. The A3 Cabriolet is at its best on a sunny day on a scenic road with the top down.
|Model||2015 Audi A3 Cabriolet|
|Powertrain||Turbocharged direct-injection 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine; six-speed dual-clutch transmission|
|EPA fuel economy||24 mpg city/35 mpg highway|
|Observed fuel economy||27.5 mpg|
|Navigation||Optional with live traffic|
|Bluetooth phone support||Standard|
|Digital audio sources||Internet streaming, Bluetooth streaming, iOS integration, HD radio, satellite radio|
|Audio system||Bang and Olufsen 625 watt 13 speaker system|
|Driver aids||Blind-spot monitor, back-up camera|
|Price as tested||$45,525|