In the ongoing luxury automotive saga, Audi is the Who to BMW’s Rolling Stones and Mercedes-Benz’ Beatles. It’s the alternative. Edgier. An iconoclast. And as Audi launches its new small A3 model globally, its chief antagonists have also lavished focus on their respective mini-luxes, the 2 Series and CLA, all with great expectations. This is an entirely new conflict in the luxury ranks. So forget about Downton Abbey. Here is the drama to watch this season.
In brand character and design, Audi cannot out-German its German competitors. It can’t be more self-indulgent than Jaguar. And if it were more precise in assembly than Lexus, there would be little upside and few would notice. Audi must be the alternative to the establishment, a zig to its rivals’ zags.
In this sub-3 Series, sub-C-Class, sub-A4 zone, Audi and its German stagemates are all pulling the trigger almost simultaneously, which nets a supreme opportunity for Audi: a first-ever level playing field. The company has always had to play catch-up, whether defining products in a class or simply in raw sales results. Audi’s sales expectations are going to run high from the A3’s corner of the market, even exceeding numbers posted by the larger and more mainstream A4. Add up all the plotlines and it makes the A3 the most significant, crucial Audi launch in years. Perhaps ever.
For North America, the new A3 is powered by either a 1.8-litre, turbocharged four-cylinder gasoline engine making 170 horsepower for the front-wheel-drive version (priced from $30,795 in the US, inclusive of $895 destination charge), or a 2-litre, 220hp edition of the same engine for Quattro all-wheel-drive models ($33,795, US). Both engines are evolutions of the current four-cylinder family shared by Audi and Volkswagen. Global markets have powertrain choices of TDI diesel engines right from launch. A diesel will come later this year to North America, where transmission choice is limited to one, a six-speed dual-clutch automatic.
On the road, the A3 strikes a dashing, well-sorted balance between sharp reflexes and smooth manners. Hustled at a pace that few buyers would ever inflict on their own new car, the A3 proves entertaining and capable beyond its intentions, especially in 2-litre Quattro form. Genuinely inadvisable speeds are attainable on challenging switchbacks and canyon roads, where the Haldex all-wheel-drive system works invisibly, as do the nearly unflappable brakes. The higher-performance S3 version arrives later in the year with about 300hp from a heavier-breathing four-cylinder engine.
Despite the A3‘s goodness under the skin and Audi’s underdog posturing, the company is playing a conservative hand in the design department. The A3 looks remarkably like the larger A4, albeit with a stubby, shorter rear deck, by about 10in. Pleasing, but predictable. Whether the intended younger target buyer will embrace such conservatism remains to be seen, but understand this: younger consumers may prize boldness in their dress, music and social media footprints, but when they lay down loads of cash, that bravado has a way of going missing. And in a generation that grew up amid housing foreclosures and banking collapses, there is a trend in highly reserved financial behaviours that echoes the generation that came of age during the Great Depression of the 1930s. They may act daringly, but they spend sparingly.
So where Mercedes’ CLA strikes a haughty pose and the BMW 2 Series hits you with a muscular coupe profile, the A3, while smart and tidy, dares little. This is an intentional posture, and a distinctive one within this aspirational ring of the luxury Olympics. Not that Audi is bothered by the critique.
“Audis need to have a familial resemblance to our other models because that’s what has worked for us in the recent past and is what we believe will work for us going forward,” says Audi of America chief executive Scott Keogh. “We don’t need to make a garish over-the-top statement car for young buyers. Young people want high quality. Look at enduring, modern design and then look at the A3. I think we hit the mark right.”
Looking long-range, the A3 is also where Audi will mint A4, A5, A6 and A8 buyers of the future.
Audi interiors have long been exemplars of thoughtful, elegant and functional design, a legacy the new A3 continues, What strikes a driver first, though, is a pleasing three-spoke steering wheel, two large analogue gauges and four round, chrome-trimmed vents. This trim rotates precisely and with the satisfying metallic click of a dive-watch bezel, indicating that the vent is closed. Minor in the grand scheme of things, but cars at double the A3’s price should strive for such tactile refinement. The ball-shaped shift knob atop the lever deviates a bit from other automatic Audis that have bar-like handles, but pleases the hand, nonetheless.
Where the A3 will likely shine versus the 2 Series and CLA is on utility. The Audi’s compact back seat may offer sufficient leg- and headroom only for compact adults, though the conventional sedan roofline eases ingress. The CLA’s sloping roof limits head space and access, while the 2 Series’ lack of rear doors requires a feat of contortion. This is potentially a key differentiator. The young professionals that Audi hopes to win want to be convinced they can bring the whole gang along for the ride, even if they don’t.
Despite being at the lower end of the luxury market, the A3 in no way feels built to a price – a charge that has been levied against the CLA. Trim, switches, everything a hand touches feels substantial. Standard equipment on the base model includes leather seats, a very large sunroof, bi-Xenon headlights, LED daytime running lamps and taillights and Bluetooth connectivity. The buyer can of course option it up like a miniature A8 sedan, with adaptive cruise control, Active Lane Assist and a sophisticated Bang & Olufsen audio system.
Audi offers a bevy of high-technology features, chief among them an embedded 4G LTE wireless network that enables wi-fi hotspot operation for mobile devices. Google Earth operates with remarkable smoothness within the navigation system, helped by high-power graphics driven by Nvidia chip sets. The navigation and multifunction menus are rendered in a 7in, high-resolution display that extends the dominant A3 narrative of high-quality simplicity. The industry’s best multimedia interfaces are straightforward but powerful things, and the A3’s system falls squarely among them.
The first A4 of 1995 combined sophistication, roominess and an S4 hot rod version that can still draw sighs of longing from enthusiasts. Subsequent A4 generations swelled and crept upmarket, leaving the entry level in Audi’s North American portfolio vacant. The new A3 has been designed explicitly to reclaim the ’95 A4’s vacated mantle. How closely is Audi sticking to the ’95 A4 recipe? The two cars’ proportions are virtually identical in every way.
The sedan is intended to be the volume-leading variant in the A3 lineup, tipped to deliver more sales than convertible and hatchback body styles (the latter reaching North America only in E-tron plug-in hybrid guise). That is in addition to the S3 and TDI versions. With so many model variations, the A3 is a multi-act opera all its own – regardless of the larger drama with BMW and Mercedes-Benz – one that should command the stage for some time.