Audi’s all-new A3: What’s to like and what’s to love

It’s easy to define a brand based off of its flagship models. Audi’s new R8 V10 Plus and RS7 for example are absolutely incredible feats of engineering and both command immense presence. Although a flagship is supposed to demonstrate just these traits, more often than not it causes us to overlook the foundation of a brand, that is to say the entry-level models that warrant the attention and desire of the broader consumer base. Enter Audi’s A3, the newest and most affordable model in the stateside lineup.

In the gorgeous 75˚ early Palo Alto afternoon we, a lucky group of 20-or-so Audi enthusiasts, were told to meet at the luxurious Rosewood Sand Hill hotel where it was hard to find parking amidst the fleet of A3s and A8s lined up around the property. After a quick check-in and expected classy German hospitality, we were ready to go, although we were not quite sure to where. Parties were handed the keys to either the entry-level, $29,900 1.8T model or the slightly peppier $32,900 2.0T quattro all-wheel drive, both constructed off of Audi’s 6-speed S Tronic dual-clutch transmission. Although I, at only 20 didn’t quite meet the 25 year-old age requirement to test drive, I was more than happy to take shotgun with my father in the base 1.8T model reminiscent of the 1998 1.8T A4 I currently drive in regards to both engine and similar wheelbase (~11 inches shorter than the current A4). Also, given the under-30k price tag of this trim, it will likely lie right in my crosshairs when I graduate from USC in two years.

Seated in the car, the first thought I had was to thank the car’s designers for simplifying the center console. In my opinion, other models like the A5 and especially other manufacturers have, for some reason, been attracted to busying up the center console with flashy, glossy buttons from top to bottom with functions I rarely use or have little need for. In the A3 all controls and instrumentation were clean, intuitive, and accessible. It maintained a sweeping dash with a simple interior profile with a single row of buttons for climate control and its ancillary controls. Above this was a row of a few important items such as traction control and the MMI (Multimedia Infotainment) activator. Below, the ergonomic shifter takes up most of the real estate but the star of the show was the MMI navigation control device: a simple, easy-to-use knob allowed for easy navigation of the MMI. The face of the knob also held the secret to the handwriting-recognition software powered by MyScript. Tired of manually entering your destination by selecting one letter at a time? Now all you need to do is scribe with your finger each letter onto the knob itself and the computer will do the rest – a whole lot simpler and easy to use. The MMI system was gorgeous. With the press of a button the 7” flatscreen rises up from the dash in an elegant manner. Powered by the Nvidia Tegra chip (found in a number of high-performance phones and tablets as well as the Tesla Model S infotainment system), it allows for a wide range of uses like Facebook, Twitter, and my favorite, “Picturebook Navigation.” This nifty feature allows a friend to send you a picture of where they are and the navigation system will put you en route to that location by using the photo’s geographic metadata.

As a group we got going follow-the-leader style, taking point behind a beautiful A8 that made a beeline down the freeway a few exits, down an expressway and then through a number of residential areas until we reached our destination in San Carlos. Albeit a short 15-min drive, there was ample time to construct first impressions of the car’s performance. Although the drive was extremely smooth and engaging, the 1.8T was noticeably lacking the same power, acceleration (170hp, 7.2sec 0-60), and engagement we later found in the 2.0T (220hp, 5.8sec 0-60). As an automatic with a sometimes-anemic gearbox, the car pulled but not always with the excitement we were expecting especially with evident turbo lag until the 3,500-4,000 rev range. Nonetheless the 1.8T still made for a fun, casual drive. According to the driver (my father), the 1.8T FWD was smooth but easy to break the front tires loose with hard acceleration from a stop.

Upon arrival in San Carlos we were welcomed by a showcase of the top-of-the-line A3 and a host of Audi employees eagerly ready to escort us inside a completely transformed warehouse that was decorated in Audi livery A3 graphics. A delicious banquet was then served as we were able to walk around in awe, gawking at the display cars and mingling with other Audi enthusiasts as well as the people in charge of bringing the A3 from concept to reality. Employees present at the event included Beth Wykes, the US Product Manager for the A3/A4/A5/Q5 models, Andrew Lipman the General Manager of Communications, the “godfather” of Audi’s MMI, and people from Nvdia and MyScript as well. After a brief presentation by Beth Wykes detailing the car’s specifications, class-winning features and more, we were again left to our own vices to engage with the car as we willed. One of the highlights for me was undoubtedly the opportunity to experience the new Bang and Olufsen 705 watt, 14-speaker option. What better way to demo the experience than watching the Battle of Ramelle in Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan… My only concern with the system is that if I were to purchase it with my A3 going forward, I’d suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder anytime I turned the volume above 10%. In all seriousness and without even considering how affordable this package is, this B&O system is hands-down the most incredible auditory experience I’ve had in a car, making my current $300 speaker set up seem to have the quality and excitement of one of FDR’s 1930s fireside chats.

Getting ready for the drive back, we made a beeline for the 2.0T quattro model. Although this wasn’t the top-of-the-line prestige model, the larger displacement, 50 more horsepower and all-wheel drive made for a huge improvement (at a ~$3,000 expense). The 2.0T model was considerably more fun and responsive, with the quattro all-wheel drive doing a fine job keeping the extra power on the ground.  When driving in ‘sport’ mode (as activated by pulling down on the shifter), the ride was fun and spirited albeit still very obvious when the turbo kicked in. In both models however, the fit and finish of the interior was impeccably Audi: solid, no rattle, and a high quality feel and tight tolerance fit. The A3 is definitely a car where engineers can appreciate the ‘extra mile’ that the designers put into it.

Although as a whole I do not think the A3 is necessarily the most head-turning sedan on the road, it does still stand out, especially above its competition, namely the Mercedes-Benz CLA. First off, the precision and attention to detail is impeccable, from the gorgeous rear lights to the way the hood lines meet the corner of the headlights. Further, Audi is really raising the bar when it comes to standard equipment, epitomized by a full-size spare included in the trunk in addition to 12 cubic feet of trunk space (did I mention three feet of front and back head room?). Extremely comfortable leather seats, xenon and LED daytime headlights, and a panoramic sunroof all come standard, with Audi’s quattro included in the 2.0T model.

Starting at $32,800 for the 1.8T, the Premium Plus trim allows for three more interior colors, automatic climate control, aluminum trim elements, heated front seats, iPod integration, keyless entry and more. Available also is the sport package ($550) that lowers the car a sexy 15mm, optional 19” sport wheels, front sport seats, and paddle shifters. Other options are available including the Driver Assistance Package ($1,400), Navigation Plus ($2,600), lane assist ($650) and the B&O sound system ($850).

The top-of-the-line Prestige trim starts at $38,700 for the 1.8T and comes with full LED lights, S-Line trim elements and auto-dimming lights and mirrors. Also included are all the Navigation elements for the MMI as well as the B&O sound system. The Prestige trim is essentially fully loaded with only a few extra available options ranging from the Advanced Technology Package ($1,400) for adaptive cruise control and other safety features to the same sport package available in the Premium Plus ($550) trim.

The A3 Cabriolet, S3, and A3 plug-in are all expected by the year’s end.

I can speak on behalf of the rest of the USC Auto Club in saying we are really excited about the A3 and all we can hope at this point is to have the opportunity in the near future to try our hand at the wheel of Audi’s new US entry-level sedan. I love my B5 A4 and am really excited about the prospects the A3 brings to the table. Bravo Audi for making post-graduation car decisions extremely difficult for us students. Bravo.


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