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As we swooped up a curving mountain road, shielded from the bright, spring sunshine by tall Redwoods, CNET editor Antuan Goodwin and I discussed the signature driving feel of Audi cars. Appropriately enough, we were driving the 2015 Audi A3, the new sedan replacing the older A3 small wagon. The words light and easy came to mind. Quattro-equipped Audis also inspire confidence in their handling.
This new A3 exhibited these qualities, and seemed to further refine a driving ideal to which Audi engineers are working.
As Audi's new entry level car, the A3 starts at a price just under $30,000, yet the car doesn't feel cheap. Although sharing its MQB platform with the Golf, it is much, much more than a rebranded Volkswagen.
The suspension, made up of MacPherson struts in front and a multi-link architecture in the rear, felt springy and compliant, soaking up the rougher spots in the road and letting the car lean a bit when we took the turns at speed. The steering could be set to Dynamic or Comfort modes with Audi's DriveSelect feature. In Dynamic it gained a tiny bit of heft compared to the more vague Comfort setting, but remained light, as has been characteristic in other Audi models. The steering was also reasonably responsive, although not quite as sharp as the Ford Fiesta ST I had just been driving.
Getting near the edge of grip in the turns, which took some speed, I brought up the power and the Quattro all-wheel-drive system did the rest. I could feel how the system let the rear wheels dig in to fight understeer.
We had a good amount of power to work with in this car, as it had a direct injection turbocharged 2-liter four-cylinder engine. Audi rates the output at 220 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque, a significant increase over the previous generation of this engine. That version of the A3 will go for $32,900. The real entry level A3 is front-wheel drive and comes with a 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine, also using direct injection and a turbo, producing 170 horsepower and 200 pound-feet of torque.
Audi also promises a number of A3 variations to come later, including a Cabriolet, a sport-oriented S3, and a plug-in hybrid A3 E-tron.
For the 1.8 and 2.0 A3s, only one transmission is available, Audi's S-Tronic, a six-speed dual clutch. Sometimes called an automated manual, this type of transmission engages gears using a clutch, similar to a manual transmission, but it has two clutches controlled by a computer. It combines the convenience of an automatic with the efficiency of a manual.
Following Audi's easy driving characteristic, in normal mode the transmission shifted quietly and smoothly, generally seeking higher gears to improve fuel economy. When I put it in Sport mode and got on the power, it let the engine speed climb towards red line, holding higher gears as long as I kept the accelerator mashed. Using the paddle shifter, the transmission snapped off gear changes as quick as I could want them.
Audi's DriveSelect feature will be available as an option on the A3. It lets you choose among Dynamic, Individual, Comfort, or Automatic modes. However, its worth in the A3 is minimal, as it only affects steering and drivetrain, but not suspension or anything else. I enjoyed the Dynamic steering mode, but I could activate the transmission's Sport mode from the shifter, without having to engage DriveSelect.
Although Audi may not bring all its tech to bear on the A3's driving gear, the car benefits from the company's latest cabin technology, even going beyond the electronics in larger, more expensive models. At the core of the A3's electronics is an Nvidia Tegra 2 processor. Audi has been very forward-thinking in its manufacturing strategy, finally achieving something every automaker needs to do, decoupling the cabin electronics from the life cycle of the vehicle.
Automakers tend to run on a three- to five-year product cycle, which has meant three- to five-year-old electronics in the cabin. The A3's processor sits on a modular board, so when those 2018 A3s start rolling off the line, Audi can plug in the latest processing hardware, and load its latest infotainment software.
On a similar front, Audi boasts that the A3 is the first production car to hit the streets with a built-in 4G\LTE data connection. That fat mobile data pipe could lead to over-the-air software updates for infotainment functions. Buyers will get six months 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/30-gigabyte plan.
At launch, the car benefits from this data connection for Google Earth integration with navigation, online destination search, and built-in apps. I have been impressed by Google Earth integration in previous Audi models, but it gets even better in the A3. Street view is built in, as in previous models, but you can also save Street view photos to use as reference for destinations.
One of the most novel means of setting a destination is something Audi calls Picturebook. During a demonstration, I watched an Audi staff member flip through geo-tagged photos on the car's LCD. Selecting a photo brought up a map showing where the picture had been taken. That location could be set as the car's destination at the push of a button. The Audi staffer then selected a photo from his phone and synced it with his Audi account. The phone sent the photo to the Audi server, then the car downloaded it, making it available for navigation.
Along with previous apps for fuel prices and parking, Audi adds Facebook and Twitter into its electronics with the A3. Rather than use these social media apps to look at pictures of cats, though, their focus in the car is mostly about where you are or where you are going. Canned posts let the driver update his newsfeed with the car's location or destination. There is also a feature that lets the driver create custom templates based on data that might be available in the car. The car can also read aloud updates to the driver's own social media feeds.
Touchpad and toggles
The infotainment in the A3 plays out on a very thin 7-inch LCD that motors up from a hidden slot in the dashboard. A3s without the navigation option will still have the same apparatus, with the same size bezel, but the LCD itself will only be 5.3 inches.
Audi makes a big ergonomic leap forward with its console-mounted controller. Instead of the old hardware, which had a dial surrounded by two sets of four buttons, Audi turns one set of buttons into two toggle switches which select navigation, phone, radio, and stored media. In other Audis I found myself trying to remember which was the navigation or media button, so I could operate them by touch. I found the toggle switch functions much easier to remember.
The center dial gets a touchpad embedded on its surface, which let me trace letters and numbers for alphanumeric input, or use gestures to browse the onscreen map and swipe through album covers. Audi will likely be using a similar controller on its other models at their updates.
In Europe, you can get an Audi app that lets you play music from an iPhone or Android device in the car through a Wi-Fi connection. Much better than Bluetooth, this connection lets you browse and select music from the device using the car's dashboard interface. Audi is bringing this app to the US with the A3 launch, and will also include a host of other features. The app will essentially be a gateway to an online account linked to the car.
During this drive in the A3, we also got to experience the optional Bang & Olufsen audio system. Impressively, this system's 14 speakers are powered by 705 watts, quite a bit of hardware for the relatively small confines of the A3 cabin. I got a taste of the system's excellent clarity and balanced frequency response as we drove along the California coast and around wooded mountains.
One area where Audi has not advanced is with its proprietary music interface, a plug in the console which accepts adapter cables for iOS devices and USB drives. Audi includes a 30-pin iOS device adapter standard, and I was told buyers could order an adapter cable for Apple's more recent Lightning connector. As it stands, there are no USB ports in the car.
What I did not get to test during this preview drive of the A3 were the available LED headlights or some of the driver-assistance features. The A3 can be had with adaptive cruise control, lane-departure prevention, and a blind-spot monitor.
Everything but the beauty
With the 2015 A3, Audi continues to impress. The company is doing just about everything right, working with efficient drivetrain tech and engineering for easy and comfortable driving. At the same time, the company is a real innovator in its dashboard electronics. Audi doesn't give the A3 an adaptive suspension, but that feature isn't a requirement among the premium compact set. The engine update, getting more power out of the 2-liter, was becoming overdue, as competitors are already there.
The lack of any USB ports is a disappointment, but the Wi-Fi connection for device connectivity and music playback is an even better substitute, as it offers the convenience of wireless. The car's native 4G connection enhances the app and navigation features, and from my talks with Audi personnel, it sounds like they have big plans for adding more data-driven features.
The one area where I was least impressed with the A3 was its exterior design. Given how very nice the A5 and A7 look, I was hoping for something equally attractive in the newest odd-numbered Audi. Instead, we get a fairly conventional little sedan with a chunky trunk. While I wouldn't call it ugly, it is certainly no head-turner. And despite its superior content, that will hurt it when it faces off against the new Mercedes-Benz CLA250, its most direct competitor.