2015 Audi A3

The five-door Audi A3 hatchback, on sale in the States since the 2006 model year, never earned the respect it deserved. Despite possessing the automaker's well-regarded build quality and a range of strong powerplants (including an excellent diesel option), the entry-level model always played second fiddle to the rest of the Audi lineup, suffering from less innovative technologies and fewer premium options on its list. Many buyers considered it inferior to the rest of the models in the company's showroom. But those misconceptions could be about to change, as Audi is in the midst of introducing its third-generation A3 family to the States with expectations that the range will finally align with the rest of its portfolio.

First to arrive is this new sedan, notable as it is the first time the A3 has been offered as a compact four door. The new bodystyle is positioned as a premium C-segment offering, with its most obvious competitor being the new Mercedes-Benz CLA-Class (BMW has not officially announced a 2 Series Gran Coupe, which would be the third entrant in the segment). The automaker says its "A3/S3 models will be among the most technically advanced Audi products around" and there will be "no sacrificing Audi craftsmanship and premium appointments." To put the automaker's claims to the test, we spent a week with this new sedan in Southern California.

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Audi launched its 2015 A3 sedan at the 2013 New York Auto Show. The A3 four-door is constructed on the Volkswagen Group's new MQB (Modularer Querbaukasten, or Modular Transverse Matrix) platform. Unlike the A4, A5, A6, A7 and A8 models, which utilize a front-mounted, longitudinally placed engine platform, the A3 models ride on a front-mounted, transversely placed engine platform that puts the mass of the powerplant ahead of the front axle (other models that share MQB include the seventh-generation Volkswagen Golf and the recently introduced Audi TT).

Its styling is clean, conservative and somewhat undistinguished.

Unlike the Mercedes-Benz CLA-Class, which is immediately recognized for its "four-door coupe" styling, the A3 four-door is a traditional three-box sedan that looks like a seven-eighths scale version of the fourth-generation A4. Overall, its styling is clean, conservative and somewhat undistinguished – but it most certainly fits in with the rest of Audi's lineup. By the tape, the new four-door is 175.4 inches long, making it nearly 10 inches shorter in overall length than the A4, and it rides on a wheelbase that is seven inches shorter than its larger sibling.

Two versions of the A3 sedan will roll into showrooms next month. The standard 1.8T model (base price $29,900), which is only offered with front-wheel drive, features a turbocharged, 1.8-liter inline-four rated at 170 horsepower and 200 pound-feet of torque. The higher-grade 2.0T models (base price $32,900) are fitted with a turbocharged 2.0-liter four, rated at 220 hp and 258 lb-ft. The more powerful engine is only offered with Audi's full-time Quattro all-wheel-drive system, and the company's six-speed S-tronic dual-clutch gearbox is standard across the board – no manual transmission is to be offered in North America.

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Both engines have cast iron blocks with aluminum heads and are mounted sideways in the nose of the A3 under an aluminum hood, and regardless of powerplant, the front suspension is an independent MacPherson strut design with aluminum A-arms bolted to an aluminum subframe. The rear suspension is a four-link design, with its springs and shock absorbers mounted independently of each other. Steering assist is electromechanical. There are disc brakes at all four corners with single-piston sliding calipers over each iron rotor (the parking brake utilizes an electrically actuated servo on each rear caliper). Wheels are cast aluminum alloy, 17-inches in diameter, wearing all-season 225/45R17 tires. Optional wheel upgrades, in 18- and 19-inch diameters, provide a maximum factory-shipped summer-compound tire size of 235/35R19.

The A3 arrives with an impressive list of standard premium equipment.

To move the new A3 into the same equipment league as the rest of the Audi family, the A3 arrives with an impressive list of standard premium equipment. There are three trim levels (Premium, Premium Plus and Prestige) and even the base model is fitted with leather upholstery, a large panoramic moonroof, bi-xenon headlights, LED daytime running lamps, Bluetooth streaming audio and LED taillights. The options list, which can drive a loaded A3 Prestige trim to nearly $45,000, includes full LED headlights, adaptive cruise control, Audi Active Lane Assist, Audi Drive Select, dynamic steering, and Bang & Olufsen audio – note that many of the features are shared with the automaker's flagship A8.

We were fortunate enough to get our hands on a 2015 Audi A3 Sedan 2.0T Quattro S-tronic model for an early preview. Deciphering its nomenclature, the Scuba Blue over Black leather four-door arrived fitted with the 2.0-liter engine and all-wheel drive, and the aforementioned dual-clutch gearbox. Our Premium model started with a base price of $32,900 (plus $895 destination), and the five-passenger sedan was upgraded with the Audi MMI Navigation package ($1,900), Cold Weather package ($500), Aluminum Style package ($450) and metallic paint ($550) for a grand total of $37,195. While that bottom line may appear a bit steep for a car that's shorter and narrower than a Ford Focus, the Mercedes-Benz CLA-Class' pricing structure is nearly identical (the front-drive CLA250 starts at $29,900 and tops out at $47,450 for the much more powerful, all-wheel-drive CLA45 AMG).

2015 Audi A3

The new A3's cabin is clean and uncluttered, with the driver sitting behind a three-spoke wheel facing two large analog gauges. A small, color multifunction display resides in the center of the cluster, with a digital coolant temperature gauge inside the tachometer ring and a similar fuel display inside the speedometer. Four round air vents, each beautifully crafted with rotating aluminum flow control collars, are spaced across the smooth dashboard. The MMI screen – a seven-inch, high-res display – rises fluidly out of a centrally located slot (it drops completely out of view when the vehicle is parked or at the touch of a button). The manual HVAC controls (automatic climate control is optional) are simple and self-explanatory, with three small aluminum rotary dials controlling temperature, fan speed and air distribution.

In terms of ergonomics, design and materials, Audi has done a remarkable job with the A3's cockpit.

Audi has moved the MMI unit's hardware to the glovebox area, freeing up valuable space on the lower portion on the dashboard. This has allowed designers to place two cupholders in front of the transmission lever (PRND/S). The redesigned MMI controls, with integrated MMI Touch for handwriting recognition on the top of the dial, take center stage on the console just aft of the S-tronic lever. The latest version of MMI, with its aluminum switches, buttons and dials, is visually clean, and it has intuitive software with controls that are easy to operate by touch. Your author currently considers it the best user interface in the industry.

In terms of ergonomics, design and materials, Audi has done a remarkable job with the A3's cockpit. However, we are a little disappointed to report that our "Premium" missed many basic premium features, including individual map lights, ambient cabin illumination, automatic dimming interior mirrors, automatic climate control (which remains standard on the $33,800 A4 sedan) and a modern key fob – our A3 arrived with Volkswagen's famed but aged switchblade key. It was irksome to see those features and upgrades offered in expensive additional-cost packages.

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Fortunately, the A3 sedan's driving position is excellent, with this writer's six-foot, two-inch frame fitting very comfortably into the 12-way power front seat that also offers four-way power lumbar (front passengers are provided an identical throne). Leg, head and shoulder room were not an issue, and the standard manual tilt/telescope wheel moved into an optimal position for a clear view of the instruments. Three-box sedans typically provide very good outward visibility, and the A3 is no exception.

Those up front get all of the room, as the rear seating area is tight.

Those up front get all of the room, as the rear seating area is tight – cramped is a more accurate description. Ingress is hampered by the roofline, which cuts into the space that the occupants' heads want to occupy. Once seated, adults and children will find legroom that is seriously compromised. Those over six feet will find headroom an issue, too (your author's head pressed firmly against the padded ceiling). The second row's only salvation is that the large windows and standard glass roof allow a lot of light into the cabin so it doesn't feel claustrophobic. As a full-time family-of-four vehicle, there are much better sedans.

Audi lists trunk capacity of 2.0T models at just 10.0 cubic feet, which is a substantial 2.3 cubic feet less than 1.8T models (blame the bulky limited-slip "coupler" of the Haldex AWD system). It appeared small, so out of curiosity, we grabbed some luggage to find out just how much it would hold. Surprisingly, the A3 swallowed one 20-inch roller, two 22-inch rollers and one 24-inch roller – luggage for four, and there was still a bit of room left for two small soft bags. The trunk could have been larger, but the automaker chose to equip the sedan with a full diameter temporary spare tire. (We tried the same exercise with a CLA250, and it held the same bags as the A3 sedan plus an additional 22-inch roller.)

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To stretch its legs, we ran the A3 sedan on a challenging four-hour road trip that was just shy of 200 driving miles. The route climbed from sea level to over 5,500 feet of elevation, utilizing two-lane roads and fast highways, as it ventured through mountain passes and across urban sprawl. On the open road, Audi's newest arrival did very well – a trait we have come to expect from vehicles that have four rings on their nose.

We pushed it on long sweepers, challenged it over unsettling whoop-de-doos and aggressively attacked hairpins, but the A3 emerged unscathed.

Don't ever dismiss VW Group's turbocharged 2.0-liter powerplants – they are some of the best in the world. The 220-hp variant under the A3's hood moved it rapidly off the line, with Quattro ensuring that wheel slip was non-existent. Audi quotes a 0-60 time of 5.8 seconds, snuffing standard A4 2.0T models in the process, and the little four-door feels every bit as quick in practice. We didn't find the dual-clutch gearbox to be as smooth at parking lot speeds as a traditional torque converter automatic (there were occasional brief jerky moments when the clutch engaged), but its operation was polished at speed and it excelled when pushed aggressively.

The sedan proved proficient on the open highway, with a ride best described as "European" – firm but comfortable. Even though the drag coefficient isn't particularly impressive (a Cd of 0.30 is nothing to brag about compared to the CLA's Tesla-beating Cd of 0.23), the automaker has done a fine job keeping wind noise to a minimum, even at higher speeds.

Climbing through the mountains and carving through the canyons, our little blue car really left us grinning. Despite its unfortunate tire fitment (all-season Continental ContiProContact rubber with a rock-hard 500 treadwear rating), superb chassis and brilliant suspension tuning allowed the Audi more than its fair share of heroics. We pushed it on long sweepers, challenged it over unsettling whoop-de-doos and aggressively attacked hairpins, but the A3 emerged unscathed.

2015 Audi A3

The Haldex-based Quattro fitted to Audi's transverse platforms is a reactive system that must sense slip before it sends torque rearward. Even with this limitation, it proved unflappable, and it was impossible to discern torque being shuffled fore or aft. More remarkable was that this nose-heavy four-door – a front-wheel drive platform with upwards of 60 percent of its mass over its front axle – felt very well balanced. Only once, when we entered a corner far too hot and the tires gave up in protest, did we notice annoying understeer.

The A3 with Quattro was the champion canyon carver.

To calculate accurate fuel economy, we filled the tank immediately before and after our trip. Our hand-calculated overall average was 25.8 miles per gallon. That's on the low side of the EPA's number of 24 city/33 highway, but not bad considering how heavy our right foot was. It should also be noted that our highway economy (as read from the on-board computer) hovered just below 35 mpg on the open road while on cruise control, so the EPA's numbers appear very plausible.

Because we happened to have one in our driveway, we opportunistically grabbed the keys to a Mercedes CLA250. The front-wheel drive model (all-wheel drive is offered on both the CLA250 and the CLA45 AMG) carried an as-tested price of $36,545. The cabin of the baby Benz was equally as comfortable for the two front occupants, but the second row was even more cramped than the Audi. On the open road, the CLA250 was the better cruiser, squeezing nearly 40 miles out of each gallon of fuel (the EPA rates it at 26 city/38 highway). However, things changed when the road became much more challenging and the turbocharged Mercedes began having difficulty putting its power to the ground. Corner after corner, our forward progress was hampered as the CLA250 spun its inside front wheel as it sought traction. It was soon obvious that the A3 with Quattro was the champion canyon carver.

2015 Audi A3

Audi's wide-ranging A3 family will be an impressive brood, but regrettably, this standard A3 sedan probably won't be our pick of the litter.

If asked to hand out just four accolades at the end of the day, we'd give two to each. The CLA250 would earn one for its catchy styling and one for its fuel efficiency. The A3 sedan would earn one for its cabin build quality/ergonomics and the other for its superior driving dynamics. While both compete in the same segment, tested back-to-back, the Audi and Mercedes appear to be chasing different targets.

The all-new 2015 Audi A3 sedan is a very good C-segment premium sedan – maybe the best – but that accolade comes with a long list of caveats. Its engineering, platform, powerplant and powertrain are outstanding, but its second row seating is cramped, its styling unadventurous and its standard equipment list perplexing. We genuinely enjoyed driving it, but it was disheartening to look at our test car's $37,195 as-tested price, only to insert a steel ignition key into the column, manually adjust the climate control, squint from headlight glare in the mirrors at night and then fumble without map lights.

But even though we can't shower the A3 2.0T sedan with all-encompassing praise – it simply doesn't make for a particularly wise value proposition – we're still yearning for the arrival of the rest of the A3 family, a lineup that will include five-door hatchbacks, a convertible, efficient diesel-powered variants, sophisticated plug-in hybrid Sportback E-Tron and the exciting enthusiast-tuned S3 that we recently drove in Monaco. When complete, Audi's wide-ranging A3 family will be an impressive brood, but regrettably, this standard A3 sedan probably won't be our pick of the litter.