The Audi A3 comes as a sedan, cabriolet, and five-door Sportback hatchback. Its familiar styling is neat and sporty. A3 was redesigned for the 2015 model year, so there isn’t much new for 2016: rearview camera, heated mirrors and washer nozzles, and aluminum-look interior trim are standard on 2016 Audi A3 models.
As a premium compact car, the A3 competes with the curvaceous new Mercedes-Benz CLA 250, the updated Acura ILX, entry-level BMW 3 Series sedans, and maybe the BMW 2 Series coupe and convertible. The A3 has an unadventurous look and feel compared to these cars. Another car worth considering is the decidedly adventurous Buick Verano, with its great cornering and turbo engine that throws the gauntlet at the Germans, and the new Buick Cascada convertible that boldly takes on the A3 Cabriolet.
Four powertrains are available for the A3, and all have solid virtues. Among them: a 1.8-liter turbocharged engine making 170 horsepower with front-wheel drive; a 2.0-liter TDI diesel making 150 horsepower with front-wheeldrive; and the e-tron plug-in hybrid with a 150 horsepower 1.4-liter turbo and 102-hp electric motor.
The A3 1.8T accelerates to 60 mph in 7.2 seconds and the A3 2.0T does it in 5.8 seconds. Both engines are mated to the VW/Audi six-speed DSG (automated dual-clutch) gearbox, programmed softer than previous DSG’s, however the Sport mode brings back the edge with quicker upshifts and rev-matched downshifts. They reach their torque peaks (200 and 258 lb-ft, respectively) at just 1600 rpm, which makes them very easy to drive, with good power response even from the most relaxed situations.
The TDI diesel engine is VW made and boasts a strong 236 lb-ft of torque and sensational fuel mileage. It’s front-wheel-drive only, and again uses the six-speed dual-clutch transmission.
The e-tron plug-in hybrid uses a turbocharged 1.4-liter making 150 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque. The dual-clutch transmission is used with a 102-hp electric motor added to assist the engine and enable electric driving. Its all-electric range is 31 miles, from a 8.8 kWh battery pack, charged through a port hidden in the grille.
Audi S3 features a turbocharged 2.0-liter engine rated at 292 horsepower and 280 pound-feet of torque, a six-speed DCT, and all-wheel drive. S3 can accelerate from zero to 60 mph in 4.8 seconds, according to Audi.
The A3 sedan doesn’t get 5 stars in all the government crash tests, only 4 stars for frontal impact and rollover, but it earns Top Safety Pick in all the ratings from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). The Sportback and Cabriolet haven’t been tested.
The 2016 Audi A3 1.8T opens at $30,900 MSRP, the TDI at $33,200, the 2.0T quattro $34,200, and the Cabriolet $39,600 for the quattro 2.0T and $36,600 for the front-drive 1.8T and . They’re sold as A3 Prestige, Premium Plus, and Premium. The 2016 Audi S3 quattro retails for $42,500.
Standard equipment includes leather, rearview camera, power driver’s seat, dual-zone automatic climate control, panoramic sunroof, HD Radio, satellite radio, Bluetooth audio streaming, LED daytime running lamps, bi-xenon headlamps, and a rain/light sensor for the headlights and wipers. LED headlamps are optional. Audi Connect is a choice upgrade, with a monthly subscription. Sound can be blasted over a 14-speaker 705-watt Bang & Olufsen audio system.
Safety features include pre-collision restraint, simulated torque vectoring on the front wheels via using the brakes. Optional safety technology includes adaptive cruise control and blind spot monitors that maintains a traffic crawl. With the Advanced Technology package you get active lane assist.
The A3 is visibly Audi all the way. There’s a sharp crease at the beltline, and another rising from low on the doors. The grille is emphatic and spare, and the roofline rolls gently before sliding down the pillars at a distinctive angle, to a stubby trunk with soft contours around the rear fenders that can make the car look bulbous.
The soft-top Cabriolet looks more sporty than the sedan. The nicely finished tonneau cover with attractive aluminum-look trim matches the one on the fancier A5 convertible. The Sportback looks European, with an attractive wraparound lighting and its nicely canted hatch. It’s lean and close to the ground, a pleasing squatness.
A3 sedans are 175.5 inches long, more than 6 inches longer than the Mercedes CLA, with a 103.4-inch wheelbase that’s more than 1 inch longer. The A3 is also a bit wider, helping make the rear seat easier to access than the CLA’s.
Inside, a swoopy inlay across the top of the dash shows its VW roots, but there’s an overall jumble that makes it feel someone is trying too hard to dress up the cabin. We were half-blinded by the glare in the sunlight off the shimmering chrome rings around the climate vents. Breaking up the horizontal dash are round vents, the MMI on the console and its screen that rises from the dash when you turn the car on.
For this premium class, the A3 feels a little cramped and lacking in creature comforts and cabin refinement. The rear seat is tiny and trunk space limited. The front seats give adequate comfort but aren’t the superb seats of grander Audis; the cushions are short. The driver’s seat is power, front passenger’s seat manual. The steering wheel is nice, leather-wrapped, but heating is not an option. The edge of the center console digs into the driver’s knee. The back seat has decent legroom only when the front seat is slid forward. Headroom is tight for tall people.
The star of the cabin is the Multi-Media Interface (MMI). The system’s excellent interface and connectivity is a good reason to consider the A3 over some rivals. A bright and thin seven-inch screen rises from the dash when you start the car. You make inputs using a mouse-like controller on the console, or voice command. On top of the controller there’s a touch pad that lets you to write letters with your fingertip, to tell your car what you want.
Features of this version of MMI consists of read-aloud Twitter and Facebook alerts, thousands of tunable internet radio stations, and, with the optional navigation system, Google Street View and Google Earth. It’s driven by a fast AT&T 4G LTE connection that provides WiFi access. It requires a subscription that isn’t cheap for even moderate data usage.
What we like most in driving the A3 is the electromechanical steering system, so nicely weighted and precise, especially on the freeway at those times when lane placement needs to be perfect; road feel is dull, though. The brakes are easy to modulate, allowing precise braking.
There’s quite a bit of road roar in the cabin, as you feel the coarse thrum of the engine lugging around the city. The Buick Verano is smoother and quieter.
The engine is mounted transversely, and the suspension is basic, with struts in front that are isolated on their own subframe, and a four-link torsion-beam suspension in the rear.
The quattro all-wheel drive system isn’t the same as in Audi sedans from the A4 on up. Instead, the A3 uses Haldex system that sends most or all of the power to the front wheels until traction is needed at the rear.
One key option is Drive Select, which offers driving modes that adjust the steering effort and throttle feel to your desires: Auto, Comfort, or Sport. Active safety systems are available for the A3, which apply the brakes automatically when an eminent crash is detected.
The Audi S3 has sportier handling. The S3 rides lower than the A3, the steering uses a different variable ratio and is weighted more heavily, shock damping is quicker, and it comes with high-performance 19-inch summer tires.
In the competitive small luxury car field, the A3 isn’t on top. Powertrains, steering, and the MMI system are the best things it has going for it. Styling is clean but not eye-catching, and the cabin lacks space.