Growing up in Connecticut, Audi and it’s famous Quattro all-wheel drive system has become something of a permanent fixture in the driveways of many Nutmeggers. But while our parents had little trouble affording the premium price of the Audi A4, my generation is looking for more value, even in our luxury cars.
Enter the Audi A3, an entry-level luxury car that packs a whole lot of luxury,and performance into a $29,900 compact car package. With its sights set on affluent Millennial buyers, what few there are at least, the Audi A3 is an ambitious car, though one that could have benefited from a little more focus on value.
The first thing you notice upon starting the A3 isn’t the low gurgle of the 1.8T engine, it’s the pop-up LCD screen, which serves as your media center, navigation system, and just about every other infotainment feature you can figure. The system is cleverly and concisely controlled by two switches which serve two functions each, and a manual dial that also has a built-in touchpad on top of it. Instead of “dialing in” the address for a hotel, for example, you can “write” the address on the touchpad. This whole setup should have been a standard feature, but more on that in a minute.
My friend Brian found this feature especially interesting, writing a series of profane (and non-existent) addresses into the system and guffawing the whole time. Once I finally convinced him to enter the real address of our hotel though, the nav system had no problem getting us where we were bound.
The dial also worked well for moving through the media and radio options, though it had the unfortunate habit of skipping stations by the dozen if you turned the dial too fast. More worrisome and annoying though was the A3’s habit of lurching forward or backward once you put the car in park and take your foot off the brake. My driveway is something of a steep incline, and while every car has a bit of give when you release the parking brake, the Audi A3 was far more noticeable and jarring. A fairly minor complaint, but something I felt compelled to point out.
It was all the more noticeable because of how refined and smooth the rest of the car really is, especially the quick and concise electronic steering system, and it’s clear that Audi went to great lengths to deliver a driving experience akin to its larger and more expensive models. Starting at $29,900, the Audi A3 is certainly at the top of the price point for compact cars, though you get a lot of standard features at that price point, including leather seats, a panoramic sunroof, push-button start, and a six-speed S tronic automatic transmission.
Combined with the 1.8 liter turbo four-cylinder and front-wheel drive, this is likely to be the most commonly-specced Audi A3, at least among Millennials. However, my tester came with the “Premium Package”, which ups the ante by adding aluminum trim to the interior, heated power front seats, larger 18-inch wheels, and the Audi “Advanced Key.” My tester also had the MMI navigation plus package, which added the LCD screen, iPod integration and touch dial at a cost of $2,600. Combined with the $2,550 Premium Plus Package, my tester came in at $36,645, more than the base cost of the Audi A4, which starts at $33,800. If it were me though, the only option I’d tick off is the 220 horsepower 2.0 liter engine, which is not only more powerful, but also more efficient in city driving, despite also adding all-wheel drive to the equation. The 1.8T is only available as a front-driver.
Of course, this being an Audi, you can spend way more than that on the Audi A3 if you opt for the fully-loaded, 2.0 liter turbo Audi A3 Prestige. With the Advanced Technology and Sport packages, this fully-loaded A3 comes in at $43,650, putting it well into Audi A4 territory, and costing even more than a base Audi A6, which starts at $43,100.
That leaves a rather narrow window between the compact Audi A3 and mid-size Audi A4 for buyers to fill in, though the Audi A3 certainly didn’t feel like a compact car. On an hour trip to the Mohegan Sun Casino, me, my then-fiance (now wife), and two of our friends, along with all of our luggage, fit quite comfortably into the A3. However, Audi still has the bad habit of putting hard plastic pieces on the back of their seats, and I’d not want to have to sit with my knees mashed against the front seat for an extended time.
The trunk, however, proved quite capable of absorbing everything we brought back with us the next day, and later on in the week I also managed to fit beer and wine for a 140 person wedding into the trunk without any overflow into the back seat. The A3 is definitely a versatile vehicle when all is said and done, and even fully loaded, it delivered a smooth and comfortable ride up and down the hilly, pothole-marred roads of Eastern Connecticut.
But what about that lack of Audi’s famous Quattro system? It is available if you opt for the more powerful 2.0 liter engine, which bumps the price up to just over $32,000, but to be honest I didn’t miss it one bit. A good pair of snow tires is usually enough to make it through even the harshest New England winters, as long as you’re sticking to main roads. I’d much rather have the infotainment system over the all-wheel drive, or the leather seats, or the panoramic roof. Heck, I’d trade any two of those to make the infotainment center standard. As it stands, the price point still seems a bit…ambitious if the main target of the A3 is Generation Y, unless you have a trust fund in your name.
While Audi even went so far as to deliver a thick packet full of ways to woe potential young buyers, some of the standard features could have been made optional to make the A3 more affordable. While I appreciated the leather seats, there are those buyers out there who prefer simpler cloth seats, even in their luxury cars. Even the $70,000 Tesla Model S offers cloth seats. Seriously. And as nice as the panoramic sunroof is, there are areas of the country where such a feature might be rarely if ever used. Just by making these two standard features optional, Audi could have shaved close to $2,000 off the price of the Audi A3, making it a lot more competitive in the compact car market.
Compact cars are popular with Millennials because most of us can’t afford anything bigger, and with a well-specced A3 pushing $40,000, this entry-level luxury sedan is more likely to attract middle-management types with something to prove than the hipsters Audi is aiming for. With MPG ratings of 23 city and 33 highway, the A3 isn’t all that impressive on the efficiency front either, and my real world testing saw my fuel economy fall more into the 20 to 30 MPG range, max. For a compact car, that’s just about the bottom of the barrel, and while more affluent Audi buyers might not be concerned with fuel economy, compact cars are a contentious place when it comes to MPGs.
Then again, some people are more concerned with quality than fuel economy, and that’s where the Audi really shines. The interior gap between panels is non-existent, and the exterior design language is instantly familiar to anyone who’s ever seen an Audi. You also get a premium sound system with excellent depth and bass that really appeals to my devastated eardrums, which like the eardrums of many Millennials has been beaten into submission by a couple of decades of too-loud headphones.
So where does that leave the Audi A3? If you ask me, it’s in a sort of weird place, offering more-affordable (but not quite “affordable) luxury in a segment best known for its priority on fuel efficiency and perceived value. After just a week with it though, it was hard to climb back behind the wheel of my $12,000-cheaper Chevy Sonic 1.4T subcompact with its canyon-wide panel gaps and less-refined (though FAR more efficient) engine and not feel…cheap. Like I short-changed myself out of a far more satisfying driving experience.
For someone who wants it all, but can’t quite afford it, the Audi A3 is an excellent first step into the luxury car market. From there, the only way to go is up.