REVIEW

Smartphone fans may see little value in Audi's 4G feature

Audi's superfast connectivity in the A3 is slick, but it's pricey.
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The redesigned Audi A3 makes its pitch for young buyers not only with a sticker price starting near $30,000, but with a superfast 4G LTE wireless Internet connection, making it the first model available in the United States with that feature.

It provides a Wi-Fi hot spot for your car, and ensures the smooth operation of infotainment apps such as streaming radio, 3-D maps, Google Earth and the like.

The system is slick. But it's pricey, and I'm not convinced that younger motorists will see the value of it.

On the base and Premium trim levels, you pay $2,600 extra to get Navigation Plus, which includes the MMI touch pad, color infotainment displays for your instrument cluster and console screen, and Audi Connect's suite of information services. On the upscale Prestige trim level, Navigation Plus comes standard.

For the 4G LTE Internet connectivity, you get a six-month free trial. After that, you need to buy an AT&T data plan with two options: $99 for six months or $499 for 30 months.

In theory, the A3 ought to be a good launchpad for 4G LTE because its starting price of $30,795, including shipping, should attract young, tech-savvy Audi buyers.

But those buyers aren't necessarily an easy sell, as I learned on a visit to Audi Ann Arbor in Ann Arbor, Mich. Since the 2015 A3 went on sale last month, the store has sold six units.

Salesman Jay Douglas delivered two of those cars, to a 35-year-old lawyer and to a recent college graduate. Both opted for the entry-level front-wheel-drive version, and neither bought Navigation Plus.

"Both of them had iPhones," Douglas said. "They didn't want to pay extra because they felt their iPhones were sufficient."

Fair enough. Speaking as an older motorist (I'm 61), I rather liked Navigation Plus.

The car's 7-inch pop-up nav screen is slick. Perched on top of the dashboard, it allows you to easily glance back and forth from screen to the road.

The high-definition screen generates crisp images, and the 3-D map function complements the turn-by-turn route guidance.

Like Audi's more expensive models, the A3 has a touch pad on the console control knob.

You can use your finger on the touch pad to trace letters and numbers to enter destinations, phone numbers -- whatever -- without using any sort of keyboard interface. It works pretty well, but I'd park before I use it.

Audi also has added a photo tag app for your navigation system. Let's say a friend has e-mailed you a photo of a nice bed-and-breakfast or a hidden beach. If that photo file has a GPS tag on it, identifying where it was taken, you can upload it to Audi Connect, which feeds the location to your onboard navigator. And voila! You get route guidance to your buddy's favorite hideaway.

Would I pay thousands of dollars extra for this functionality? Maybe, but like the young customers at Audi Ann Arbor, I probably wouldn't need to.

I recently vacationed with my family in Key West, with a side trip to Miami. With the assistance of Google Maps on my son's Samsung phone, we arrived at all restaurants, dockside destinations and beaches without a hitch.

I'm now increasingly convinced that Apple and Google will set the standard for how information and entertainment features are delivered to vehicles. Apple's CarPlay technology, for example, lets you control your phone's music, navigation and address book on the vehicle's display screen, or with voice commands.

As automakers are likely to discover, that's all that 90 percent of the motoring population really wants.

You can reach David Sedgwick at dsedgwick@crain.com.


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