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2015 Audi A3 / S3 Pros and Cons: Why (Not) This Car?

Audi A3 front quarter view
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Introduction

Nearly every time a car is redesigned, it grows at least a little. After a few such cycles, space opens up at the bottom of the line for a new model. When the time came to redesign the A3, Audi of America put in a request for a sedan variant to fill a slot vacated by the ever-larger A4--and in danger of being filled by Mercedes-Benz with its new front-wheel-drive CLA. So, for the first time, Audi developed a new model principally for the American market. The current A4 is 185.2 x 71.9 x 56.2 inches on a 110.6-inch wheelbase. Its great-grandpappy was 178.0 x 68.2 x 55.7 inches on a 103.0-inch wheelbase. The new A3 sedan (which shares a highly flexible platform with the seventh-generation Golf / GTI) is roughly the size of the latter: 175.4 x 70.7 x 55.7 on a 103.8-inch wheelbase.

Now that the new A3 has arrived, it's clear that Audi took a much different approach than Mercedes with its entry-level (in the United States at least) offering. Which approach works best?

(Note: The CLA250 has been selling so well that, when I dropped by a Bay Area dealer to refresh my memory of the car, they had none in stock. So I'm relying on my earlier drive of the CLA250.)

A3 Reviews: Audi A3 front quarter view

You might think you've seen this car before. But more complex side surfacing than other Audis. more A3 photos

A3 Reviews: Audi A3 interior

Refreshingly back-to-basics, or overly spartan? Leather and a large sunroof are standard.

Tested: 2015 Audi A3

4dr Sedan turbocharged 220hp 2.0L I4 6-speed automated manual AWD

Compared: 2014 Mercedes-Benz CLA

4dr Sedan turbocharged 208hp 2.0L I4 7-speed automated manual FWD

Why the 2015 Audi A3?

  Compared to the CLA
Materials & workmanship
Materials & workmanship: Better Better Worse

Opinions are split on the new Audi A3's interior. Okay, maybe not so split.

Buttons and knobs (and the amount of space dedicated to them) were reduced to the bare mimimum. Four large, circular, TT-style vents dominate the instrument panel. Aside from some thin strips of trim (the optional aluminum in the tested cars) nearly the entire interior is off-black. The intent was to give the A3's interior a refreshingly driver-focused, sporty character. But many people perceive the ultra-clean interior as overly spartan, even "cheap," given that pricing starts at $30,000 and can top $45,000.

But the instrument panel upper only appears to be hard plastic. Press on it, and the material gives. The center console is hard plastic, but this is also the case with many more expensive cars. Most importantly, the A3 shares the solid construction and thorough refinement of senior Audis. It looks like the larger models, and feels like them, too. The previous A3 didn't quite manage this. And the CLA feels nothing like other Mercedes. Instead, it feels less solid and less refined, more like a mainstream sedan, and not even the better examples of those.

In the CLA's defense, if you order leather you also get an upholstered instrument panel. Audi only offers the latter in heavily optioned versions of its largest models.


Feature availability
Feature availability: Better Better Worse

Audi stresses that it hasn't treated the A3 as an entry level model undeserving of leading-edge features. Instead, if you can get a tech feature in the A8, you can probably also get it in the new A3. They're especially proud of their infotainment offerings, replete with a nav system that integrates Google Maps and even Google Street View, so you can see the building you're looking for. Other options include LED headlights, all-speed adaptive cruise control, a Wi-Fi Hotspot enabled by the first automotive application of high-speed 4G LTE connectivity (via AT&T), and a 705-watt Bang & Olufsen audio system capable of thumping out the powerful bass desired by many younger car buyers.

Some of you will be happy to know that not only does the new A3 have a display screen that looks like it restracts into the top of the instrument panel, but unlike the screens in the CLA and the BMW 3-Series the one in the Audi actually retracts.

The CLA counters with memory seats, self-parking, and a drowsiness monitor. But, unlike in the A3, you'll have to take the key out of your pocket to start the car--the sort of proximity key standard on many Nissans isn't available.

You can't get a manual transmission in either car.


A3 Reviews: Audi A3 rear quarter

Strongly beveled character lines trace a wedge through "flowing and sensual" body sides.

A3 Reviews: Audi A3 instrument panel

Controls mostly easy to use, but base A3's tiny HVAC graphics are hard to read while driving.

Driving position & visibility
Driving position & visibility: Much better Better Worse

In the CLA you sit low and well behind a deep instrument panel. Coupe-like styling constrains visibility in all directions.

For worse and for better, the new Audi A3 is devoid of coupe pretensions. It's unequivocably a sedan. You sit well above a compact instrument panel. The windshield is set at a comfortably upright angle. The base of the side windows inclines upward to form a traditional wedge, but the rear windows aren't slots. Even if you aren't tall you'll be able to see out of this car.


Handling
Handling: About the same Better Worse

Good visibility makes it easier to exploit the capabilities of a car's chassis, which in the A3's case begins life with a handicap.

Audi's storied "quattro" all-wheel-drive system can include a rearward torque bias and even an active rear differential to counteract the understeer inherent in the cars' nose-heavy weight distribution. Though Audi still refers to the all-wheel-drive system paired with the larger engine in the A3 as "quattro," this is a much different system. Unlike the powertrain in larger Audis, the A3's is mounted sideways, VW style. The Haldex-style all-wheel-drive system typically employed with a transverse powertrain cannot direct more than half of the engine's torque to the rear wheels, and in most situations directs most or even all of the engine's torque to the front wheels. There's little point in including an active rear differential with such a system, and Audi does not.

Yet the A3 handles much like larger non-S-model Audis. Especially when fitted with all-wheel-drive the car arcs through hard turns with confidence-inspiring grip and stability. There's a touch of understeer and some body roll, but no more than in other current Audis lacking a sport suspension (one will be offered with 19-inch wheels later) and an active rear differential. Exercise the A3's capabilities along the winding roads south of San Francisco and there's some fun to be had.

And yet...the A3 doesn't engage and excite the way the best driver's cars do. But don't blame the sideways engine or the suspension. The A3's steering deserves the bulk of the blame. Perhaps the little Audi wants too much to be grown up. Like that of nearly every other current bearer of the four rings, the A3's moderately weighty, moderately quick steering insulates much more than it communicates. A CLA feels lighter and more agile, partly thanks to lighter, quicker, more direct steering. There's more understeer in the front-wheel-drive CLA250, but all-wheel-drive (a late option) should help with this.

So, which is the better handling car? Technically, probably the Audi. (I need to drive the cars back-to-back to confirm this--or not.) But in relatively casual driving the Mercedes can be more involving.


Powertrain performance
Powertrain performance: Better Better Worse

Audi offers the new A3 with two transversely mounted powertrains in the United States, a 170-horsepower turbocharged 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine driving through the front wheels and a 220-horsepower turbocharged 2.0-liter driving through all four. Both engines are members of the new EA288 family, and both can only be paired with a dual-clutch automated manual transmission, DSG in VW/Audi parlance. The 1.8 is quick, the 2.0 is quicker. Audi claims zero-to-sixty times of 7.2 and 5.8 seconds, respectively. Hard launches with the 1.8 induce wheelspin and a bit of torque steer until the electronic traction control kicks in. All-wheel-drive transfers power to the road with less drama, especially in turns.

Gear spacing could be a little better. At 40-50 mph, a good speed for moderately tight curves, second gear would shoot the engine up around 5,000 rpm, while third would drop it to around 3,000 rpm. Somewhere in between would be ideal. This isn't much of an issue, though, as the 2.0-liter engine readily rockets the car out of corners even when starting at 3,000 rpm. The torque peak of 258 lb-ft stretches from 1,600 through 4,400 rpm. So along the curviest roads I typically just left the transmission in third. As in other recent applications--VW has had years to refine this transmission--the DSG snaps off shifts quickly, smoothly, and decisively.

The 208-horsepower CLA250's acceleration roughly splits the difference between the two A3 variants. Front-wheel-drive struggles to handle the engine's torque, also 258 lb-ft, yet Mercedes has been slow to actually deliver all-wheel-drive cars. The Mercedes-Benz's seven-speed dual-clutch automated manual transmission, a much more recent development than the Audi's DSG, isn't as smooth or as responsive, and can seem unsure of what it wants to do.


Why Not the 2015 Audi A3?

  Compared to the CLA
Front seat support & comfort
Front seat support & comfort: Much worse Better Worse

There aren't many clear reasons not to buy an Audi A3. In fact, there might only be one: the front seats. These are firm, flat, and unless you're quite wide they provide absolutely no lateral support. In hard turns I relied on a knee and the steering wheel to keep from sliding off the seat. In the base A3's passenger seat there's little lumbar support and no adjuster to address this. To get a power passenger seat complete with four-way lumbar adjustment it's necessary to spend another $2,900 for the Premium Plus Package.



Cargo capacity
Cargo capacity: About the same Better Worse

Want another reason not to buy a 2015 Audi A3? Cargo capacity might serve. The front-wheel-drive car's 12.3 cubic foot trunk nearly ties the CLA's 13.1. But opt for all-wheel-drive and the rear differential steals a couple of cubes.

Either car's rear seat folds to expand its trunk.

A few people might wish for a compact wagon, but this time around the "Sportback" will be staying in Europe until we get one in e-tron (plug-in hybrid) form next year.

An A3 convertible will arrive sooner--next fall.

Update: Wagon fans spoke up. In response, Audi has decided to also import the Sportback in TDI (diesel) form, but not until the summer of 2015.


A3 Reviews: Audi A3 front view

Familiar face, but with distinctive headlight graphics and "double wing" lower fascia.

A3 Reviews: Audi A3 rear seat

Just enough room for me. If you're tall, maybe not enough room for you.

Other features of the 2015 Audi A3

  Compared to the CLA
Exterior styling
Exterior styling: Better Better Worse

The strength of the new A3 sedan's styling could also be a weakness: it resembles every other Audi sedan all the way back to the B5 A4 introduced nearly twenty years ago. Especially from the rear quarter the new A3 can be difficult to distinguish from the current A4. This represents a triumph for the exterior designer, Dany Garand, given the A3's much shorter wheelbase and overall length. (The proportions of a compact sedan are notoriously difficult to work with.) It's a clean, now classic, much-copied look. But will the general public even realize that it's seeing a new car? At some point people will want something new. Could we be reaching that point?

Perhaps not, but the question warrants asking.

The way I'll personally distinguish the new A3 from the A4 (aside from its noticeably smaller size): its subtly sculpted body sides form a stronger wedge, yielding more metal between the top of the rear wheel opening and the bottom of the side windows. This lends the A3 a more powerful appearance. Look closely, and you'll also notice more complex surfacing through the body sides than in other Audi sedans. Mr. Garand recognized that an overly clean, thoroughly Bauhaus design risked sterility, so he added some "sexiness." (As discussed above, the interior more closely approaches the line between form-follows-function and soporifically spartan, and arguably crosses it.)


Rear seat room & comfort
Rear seat room & comfort: Much better Better Worse

Given the Audi A3's dimensions, it should come as no surprise that its rear seat is tight. If you need to be able to be able to fit a six-footer behind a six-footer, the A3 isn't going to work. But many people have no such need. At 5-9, I can sit behind myself with a couple inches of air ahead of my knees and one inch of it over my head. A standard sunroof partly explains fairly low official headroom specs.

Despite its larger exterior (182.3 x 70.0 x 56.6 inches on a 106.3-inch wheelbase), the CLA's rear seat is much tighter than the A3's, and much harder to get into and out of. It's allegedly a coupe, not a sedan, after all.

Based on the official specs, the B5 A4 had nearly two inches less rear legroom than the new A3. Audi's longitudinal powertrain configuration, used in the 1990s car, is less space efficient than the A3's transverse powertrain.

In fact, again based on the official specs, despite its additional seven inches of wheelbase the current A4 has only one-tenth of an inch more legroom in each row (just enough that those in charge of marketing the A4 can claim that their car has more).


Fuel economy
Fuel economy: About the same Better Worse

EPA ratings are 24 mpg city, 36 mpg highway for the 1.8T FWD and 24 mpg city, 34 mpg highway for the 2.0T AWD. The figures for the latter are especially impressive given its performance.

The CLA manages better numbers with front-wheel-drive (26/38) but not with all-wheel-drive (24/32). Such a big drop from adding AWD is highly unusual.

Fairly aggressive driving in the California hills netted trip computer averages from 23 to 27 mpg in the A3 2.0T.


Ride smoothness
Ride smoothness: Better Better Worse

The new Audi A3's ride seems steadier and quieter than the CLA's. The engines rev smoothly all the way to their redlines and road noise is only evident on rough surfaces. But California byways aren't the best test of ride quality. So judgement must be reserved until I can drive a car on the cratered roads of Michigan.


Price or payments
Price or payments: About the same Better Worse

Both the A3 and the CLA start at $29,900 plus destination ($895 for the Audi, $925 for the Mercedes). The A3 has a few hundred dollars in additional standard content, while the CLA has a stronger base engine. So between unoptioned cars they're close enough to call it even.

The A3 2.0T quattro (Audi-speak for all-wheel-drive) lists for $32,900. The extra $3,000 gets you both AWD and a considerably stronger engine, making it a no-brainer for anyone who plans to occasionally exercise the car. Mercedes will charge $2,000 for 4Matic (if and when it becomes available on the CLA250), but now has a slightly less powerful engine. Still close to a wash.

Add heated leather seats with power adjustments for the front passenger, nav, sunroof (standard on the Audi), xenon headlights (also standard on the Audi), and metallic paint to both cars, and the Audi ends up at $39,845, the Mercedes at $42,045, a difference of $2,200. But adding option packages to get these features on the CLA also added features not on the configured Audi. Adjust for these, and the Mercedes ends up about $250. So, if you value these features, another wash.

Only if you further load up both cars, to the point that the Audi lists for over $45,000 and the Mercedes for nearly $48,000, does the A3 emerge with a clear pricing advantage.

For many buyers, the prices of these cars will be close enough to not be a deciding factor.

And if you do want the A4, with its roomier rear seat, somewhat nicer interior, and truly quattro all-wheel-drive system? That'll be another $3,000. This is probably about as small as Audi could make the difference without leading the great majority of people to opt for the larger car.



Conclusion

Some people will prefer the Mercedes-Benz CLA250 to the new Audi A3. It has a more striking exterior, more lively steering, and that three-pointed star. But, aside from that star, it just doesn't have the look, construction, and character of a Mercedes. At least some of this is intentional: Mercedes sought to capture a new, younger audience with the new car, and judging from the lack of cars in dealer inventories has been doing this.

The new small Audi, in contrast, won't turn many heads. But in just about every way Audi has transferred the look, feel, and features of its other sedans into a smaller package. Not a very risky approach, yet quite possibly also a successful one. After all, the look and feel of larger Audis has proven popular with buyers under 40. Unlike that of Mercedes, the brand's basic appeal doesn't have to change to attract these buyers. Also, by any rational and even some emotional measures the new A3 is the better performing, more solid, more practical car.

A3 Reviews: Audi A3 1.8-liter engine

The 170-hp 1.8-liter (in photo) and 220-hp 2.0-liter are part of a smooth new engine family.

A3 Reviews: Audi A3 trunk

Trunk of the FWD A3 (pictured) about average for a compact sedan. AWD robs a couple of cubes

See more 2015 Audi A3 photos

Audi provided a flight, a very nice hotel for two nights, and a number of fine meals. Plus some cars to drive. Eric Wheeler of Mercedes-Benz of Novi (MI) helpfully provided a CLA250. He can be reached at 248-426-9600.

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2015 Audi A3 / S3 pros and cons, according to Michael Karesh: the best reasons for buying (or not buying) the 2015 Audi A3 / S3. Join TrueDelta to post your own impressions.
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