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The Luxury Audi A3 Could Just As Easily Be a Top-Of-the-Line Volkswagen

The model-year 2015 A3 is the best car for you if you’re hip to an emerging category that’s putting some of the most glamorous names in motoring on small, sporty and expensive cars.

We’re talking about Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Cadillac and the all-new A3 from Audi. It’s a stylish sedan—smaller than a Honda Civic—but much more desirable. It’s also turbocharged and loaded with technology. All-wheel drive is available, and a convertible version is on the way. And so are the high-performance S3 model, a diesel sedan and even a plug-in-hybrid hatchback.

The A3 replaces a four-door hatchback that was essentially a gussied-up Golf from Audi’s parent company, Volkswagen. This new offering also shares some underskin engineering with the latest Golf. But with a base-price range of $30,795 to almost $42,595, it’s much more expensive. And it’s got more upscale competition, including the new Mercedes-Benz CLA and BMW 2 Series. The Acura ILX is in the mix, and so perhaps is the Buick Verano. We’ve taken the liberty of also including the Cadillac ATS. It’s slightly bigger overall than the A3, but it’s hardly larger inside, with less rear-legroom and a tighter trunk.

These are all fairly small cars, though not exactly scaled-down versions of their larger corporate stablemates. They’re meant to open new markets by appealing to younger, affluent buyers who don’t necessarily want big cars and don’t associate small ones with cheapness.

The sedan debuts in two versions; one has a 170 horsepower 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine and front-wheel drive, the other a 220-horsepower two-liter four-cylinder and Audi’s Quattro all-wheel drive. Both are turbocharged and come only with a six-speed automatic transmission, which is really a dual-clutch gearbox. Audi says there just isn’t enough consumer demand to justify manual transmission.

All these new premium compacts are aimed in some degree at driving enthusiasts. But the only ones based on rear-wheel-drive platforms—and the only ones to offer a manual transmission—are the BMW and Cadillac. With its fastback shape, the CLA is the most distinctive-looking. The BMW is a two-door coupe and convertible and, like the Cadillac and A3, bears a family resemblance to the next-bigger car in its lineup. In Audi’s case, that would be the A4. The A3, along with the CLA, has the roomiest cabin in this competitive set.

Audi gives front-seat occupants plenty of space, but none of these cars is particularly roomy in back. The A3 certainly is no penalty box, with decent leg clearance if the front seats aren’t more than halfway back, and it beats the CLA for rear headroom.

All these manufacturers designed their compact-car dashboards with the vehicles’ smaller proportions in mind—and the A3’s strikes a balance between simplicity and sportiness. We’d rank cabin-materials quality about equal with the CLA and 2 Series, though a little behind the surprisingly well-put-together ATS.

None of the A3’s German or American rivals includes a moonroof in the base price, however. And this is the only one with leather upholstery standard, even in its least expensive version. Only the Cadillac fully integrates its dashboard infotainment screen, but Audi leads for geek appeal with this deployable magnesium-backed, smartphone-thin, seven-inch high-resolution screen. Ordering an A3 with navigation gets you Audi’s next-generation multimedia interface. It puts the writing-recognition pad on the control knob.

This is also one of the first cars with 4G LTE connectivity, as well as the Tegra graphics processor popular in 3D gaming. It’s part of the car’s premium-navigation system with Audi Connect, and it’s a formidable package with high-speed Wi-Fi connectivity for up to eight devices, hi-def video streaming and even onboard video conferencing.

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That’s a lot of connectivity. So how does the car connect with the road? That depends. The 1.8-liter version drives a lot like a very-well-built Volkswagen Jetta. Handling is just fine, but it’s more front-drive-predictable than sport-sedan-stimulating. Quick getaways result in some turbo lag and even some front-tire slip. Audi quotes 0-60 mph in a middling 7.2 seconds, which is what a Jetta with this engine does.

The 2.0-liter engine is also found in other VW and Audi products, but it has substantially more torque than the 1.8, and the AWD system helps you exploit it with clean launches and great grip in turns. Getting from 0 to 60 comes takes a more respectable 5.8 seconds. Midrange passing power is impressive, and the 2.0-liter is a better match for Audi’s S-tronic transmission.

The sedans ride quite firmly, even on their standard 17-inch wheels and tires. Interestingly, both engines rate 27 mpg city/highway combined, which is good, although Audi recommends premium octane for each.

As for A3s waiting in the wings, the convertible will offer both engines and have a soft top that can power open while the car is underway. The S3 sedan has Quattro and a turbo two-liter of almost 300 horsepower. It should do 0 to 60 in 4.8 seconds but won’t be available with manual transmission. The TDI will use VW’s turbodiesel four-cylinder and should rate around 35 mpg city/highway combined.

Due in early 2015, the e-tron four-door hatchback combines a 1.4-liter gas engine with an electric motor for a net 150 horsepower. With a full initial charge, Audi says it’ll go 31 miles before the gas engine kicks in.

With perks like leather seating, the big moonroof and xenon headlamps included in the base price, the first of these new-generation A3s represents good relative value. At just under $31,000, the front-drive model is, in fact, the least-expensive car in its competitive set, although it’s also the least powerful.

Navigation costs $1,900—or $2,600 with Audi Connect. Add the Prestige Package—which includes Audi Connect, LED headlights and S Line exterior trim with 18-inch wheels—as well as rear-side airbags, adaptive cruise control and lane assist, and you can get a 1.8-liter A3 sedan to nearly $42,000. At $33,800 to start, the two-liter Quattro sedan costs less than a comparably equipped CLA or ATS. Fully optioned, it’s just under $45,000. Incidentally, model-year 2015 A3s with Audi Connect come with six free months of 4G LTE service. After that, AT&T offers two data plans: five gigabytes for six months at $99 or 30 gigs for 30 months at $399.

These sedans are your introduction to a new breed of premium car. You give up some roominess but not much real-world performance and even less cutting-edge technology. If that’s for you, this Audi’s a fine place to start.

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About Chuck Giametta

This nationally recognized, award-winning writer brings to Carpreview.com two decades of automotive testing and reporting for newspapers, books, magazines, and the Internet. The former Executive Auto Editor of Consumer Guide, Chuck has covered cars for HowStuffWorks.com, Collectible Automobile magazine, and the Publications International Ltd. automotive book series. This ex-newspaper reporter has also appeared as an automotive expert on network television and radio. He’s a charter member of the Midwest Automotive Media Association, the president of the Rocky Mountain Automotive Media association, and a juror for the annual Active Lifestyle Vehicle of the Year awards. Chuck writes from Colorado Springs, Colo. If you have a question for Chuck, write to him at [email protected]