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.
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.
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.
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.
|Model||2015 Audi A3 sedan|
|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)|
|Price as tested||$43,345|