The launch of the 2015 Audi A3 highlighted a problem for the up-and-coming German brand. Out on the street, it's hard to tell its various sedans apart. Distinguishing among an A6, an A4 and the A3 we were driving takes more than a passing interest in design. It takes an unhealthy obsession with details.
To his credit, the A3's Canadian designer Dany Garand, acknowledges the problem. "We needed to create an identity for the brand," he says. "We wanted people to look at any of our cars and say, 'That's an Audi.' We're not sure we're there yet and it's something we'll look at as we move forward."
In some ways, this confusion might play into the hands of the A3 customer. Even Garand admits that to the casual observer, an A8 doesn't look three times as expensive as its new baby brother. Audi's entry-level sedan, which arrives early in 2014 both smaller and likely less expensive than the rival 2014 Mercedes CLA, could yet prove the most discerning choice.
The 2015 Audi A3 will be launched in the U.S. with four different engine options. The entry-level 1.8 TFSI will be joined by a 2.0 TDI turbodiesel and two versions of the 2.0 TFSI, one for the A3 Quattro and a 296-horsepower version for the S3 Quattro. All four engines will be mated to Audi's six-speed S tronic double-clutch transmission as standard.
We only had a chance to get behind the wheel of the 1.8 TFSI and 2.0 TDI models. The former produces 178 hp and 184 pound-feet of torque, with Audi claiming zero to 62 mph in 7.3 seconds and a top speed of 146 mph. It's a familiar Audi engine and does a decent job of imbuing the car with enough performance to justify its sporty aspirations.
The 2.0 TDI develops 148 hp and 236 lb-ft of torque, hitting 62 mph in 8.7 seconds from rest on its way to 137 mph. Its midrange performance is a match in the real world for the 1.8 TFSI and its quiet, relaxed gait should make it an ideal foil for U.S. drivers looking to cover big distances. Both engines are well served by the S tronic 'box, which also offers steering-wheel-mounted paddles for sequential shifts.
The sedan employs the A3's familiar setup of MacPherson struts at the front with an aluminum subframe, and a four-link rear suspension with a steel crossmember. All front-wheel-drive models also feature an electronic limited-slip differential, which is a by-product of the electronic stability control system. The steering features electromechanical assistance.
The 2015 Audi A3 is offered with a choice of three different suspension setups, plus the additional option of Audi's magnetic ride system (which wasn't available for us to drive). The "Sport" suspension lowers the car by 0.59 inch, while the S line car rides 0.98 inch below standard. Intriguingly, Audi chose not to equip any of its launch cars with the S line suspension, perhaps in response to criticism of the setup in the hatchback. In the U.K. at least, Audi dealers are offering A3s with the Sport and S line aesthetics but the standard suspension as a no-cost option.
To our tastes, the standard setup offers the best compromise if your local roads are anything but supremely smooth. Despite what Audi says, the A3 is not really a sport sedan (at least until the S3 arrives). Instead it's a capable and composed compact sedan that mixes fine ride quality with a high standard of body control. The car's low mass (the unladen weight of the 1.8 TFSI is just 2,855 pounds) also contributes to its agility and efficiency.
Audi's Drive Select system allows you to choose different electronic maps for the steering, gearbox and throttle, but in reality this feels little more than a gimmick. In Comfort mode, the steering feels disappointingly vague. Even about town, the increased weight of Dynamic feels like the better compromise.
A Beautiful Cabin... for Small People
This new sedan is the third iteration of the latest-generation A3. Two- and four-door hatchback models launched in Europe last year and a convertible is also on its way.
At 175.5 inches, it's 5.9 inches longer than an A3 Sportback but 9.5 inches shorter than an A4 sedan. It's also 5.7 inches narrower than an A4 and just under half an inch lower. More significantly for its impact on passenger space, the wheelbase is 0.4 inch shorter.
This latter statistic is telling. Anyone 6 feet tall and over will find the rear of the A3 a tight squeeze for both head- and legroom. The need to adopt a legs-splayed position also makes the middle perch all but useless for anyone other than children.
It compromises what is otherwise a hugely appealing cabin. The sedan shares its fascia with the hatchback and it's a masterpiece of minimalism. Most of the key functions are operated through a pop-up color screen, which makes for an elegantly simple dashboard. The quality is superb, and not for one moment do you feel like you're in the entry-level Audi.
The days when Audi reserved its best features for its flagship models are also long gone. You can plunder the gargantuan options list and specify your A3 with everything from a wireless hotspot to a Bang & Olufsen hi-fi and LED headlights.
At 15 cubic feet, the sedan's trunk capacity is actually 1.6 cubic foot larger than the A3 Sportback's, but it's also 1.6 cubes smaller than the Mercedes-Benz CLA and 2 cubes smaller than an A4's. It's well shaped, though, and the rear seat folds to increase its versatility.
A Better Gateway to Audi?
Driving this A3 brings up an obvious question: How does it compare to the Mercedes-Benz CLA? The Audi is smaller and most likely cheaper, but both in concept and execution, they're obvious rivals. Both trade interior space for compact proportions and sporting pretensions. Both seek to appeal to a younger generation of buyers and act as a stepping stone to premium brand ownership.
The A3 is in many ways a classic Audi. It looks instantly familiar (too familiar for our tastes) and has an interior with a design and quality that remains peerless. It's a car bereft of surprises, but we suspect Audi fans will like that about it.
For something unexpected, we'll have to wait for the S3 and its nearly 300-hp setup. That should deliver the kind of performance that will qualify this car as a true sport sedan. Until then, the standard 2015 Audi A3 is still plenty of sedan, provided you're not sitting in the backseat.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.
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