Audi's understated A3 targets the tech-savvy

The A3 is the smallest and least expensive nameplate in the Audi lineup.
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MENLO PARK, Calif. -- Forget the advertising tag line: "Stay uncompromised."

Audi AG had no choice but to make a few compromises with its A3 sedan, the smallest and cheapest car in its U.S. stable, to maintain a coherent product lineup and meet its goal of offering a well-equipped car at just about $30,000.

With its standard 1.8-liter and 2-liter engines, the A3 has plenty of zip, but not as much as other Audi sedans or its top competitor from Stuttgart, the Mercedes-Benz CLA. And the design philosophy of the A3 is understated, Bauhaus minimalism. This is not the kind of Audi that swaddles drivers in rich materials or tempts them with voluptuous curves.

Where the A3 shines brightest is in its computing technology, which, despite the sedan's low price point, is about the best that Audi AG, or any automaker, now has to offer. Audi hopes the telematics system will set the A3 apart from BMW and Mercedes-Benz in the eyes of young tech-savvy luxury buyers.

The first sedans arrive at U.S. dealerships this month.

Introductory German
Audi has positioned its A3 entry-level luxury sedan to go head to head against the hot-selling Mercedes-Benz CLA.
 2015 Audi A32014 Mercedes-Benz CLA
Wheelbase103.8 in.106.3 in.
Length175.4 in.182.3 in
Width77.2 in.80.0 in.
Height55.7 in.56.6 in.
Curb weight3,175 lbs.3,262 lbs.
Base engine1.8-liter turbo inline four2-liter turbo inline four
Horsepower170 @ 4,500-6,200 rpm208 @ 5,500 rpm
Torque, lbs.-ft.200 @ 1,600-4,000 rpm258 @ 1,250-4,000 rpm
EPA mpg23 city/33 hwy.26 city/38 hwy.
Base price*$30,795$30,825
   
*Includes shipping

The basics: The redesigned A3 is built on Volkswagen Group's modular architecture for cars with transverse-mounted engines, the same architecture used to build the redesigned Volkswagen Golf, which arrives in U.S. showrooms this spring.

Later variants will include a five-door hatchback and a cabriolet. The cabriolet arrives in the fall and the hatchback comes next year with a plug-in hybrid powertrain.

Buyers can get front-wheel drive in the base model or all-wheel drive in the higher trims. The sedan will be available with a diesel and a high-output gasoline engine this fall.

But for now, the only options are Volkswagen Group's 1.8-liter and 2-liter gasoline engines, both turbocharged. Horsepower jumps from 170 to 220 with the larger engine, which was quicker climbing the steep hills of northern California, though the smaller engine deals well with high rpms and should deliver enough power for most customers.

Notable features: Audi engineers are packing the A3 with Audi's latest multimedia interface, viewed on a 7-inch, magnesium-backed navigation screen that rises from the dash. The A3 is the first car of any brand with a built-in 4G LTE connection, which powers Google Earth satellite images for navigation and creates a wireless Internet hotspot.

What Audi says: "What most people do here is, they say, 'Let's take our powerful brand, water it down by about 400 percent and launch a cheap car,'" Scott Keogh, president of Audi of America, said during a media event here. "This is absolutely nothing to do with launching a cheap car. This is a full-blown Audi."

Shortcomings and compromises: To hit its price target, Audi was less lavish with interior and exterior appointments, so the A3 has more hard plastic and fewer of the wood, metal and leather accents found in most Audi models. The A3 has Audi's signature LED running lights and taillights, but its exterior lacks the visual impact of the Mercedes-Benz CLA and even some mass-market models.

Audi hopes customers will find the design minimalist and stylish, but those who prefer flashy styling touches and soft-touch materials will probably find the A3 austere. Space is tight. It's hard to seat four adults in the car comfortably unless all of them are short and the driver and front-seat passenger move their seats well forward.

The market: Audi is not offering sales projections for the A3 sedan, but it aims for first place in the compact luxury segment, where Mercedes-Benz is targeting annual volume of 30,000 for its new CLA.

The skinny: Audi sees the A3 as appealing to young customers who are trying a luxury brand for the first time. Americans love sedans, but adding a fourth sedan to the lineup means the A4, A6 and A8 will all need to move up-market with their next redesign -- and that's just what Audi plans to do.

You can reach Gabe Nelson at gnelson@crain.com.


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