Born as the upscale derivative of the classless Volkswagen Golf, the Audi A3 has led a bit of a duplicitous life. Critics might call it badge engineering because deep down it's a people's car. But it's more than badge engineering. The A3 looks, feels, and acts like a different car. The things you see and touch are nicer than what's in the VW. The formula works. Now entering its fourth model generation, we sampled the new A3 on its Bavarian home turf and spent most of our time with the 150-horsepower TDI, an engine that definitely won't be coming to the United States. So while the U.S. will get different versions, our time with the European version should give you a good idea of what to expect when the A3 arrives later this year.
In Europe, the A3 used to come as a three-door hatch and even a convertible. Those are discontinued and there's no plan to bring them back. But, we didn't get those, so let's not waste too much time lamenting them. The first of the new A3s is the five-door hatchback, a model that Audi calls the Sportback. The U.S. probably won't get the hatchback at first, but we will get the soon-to-be-unveiled four-door sedan. Several gasoline engines will be available. If the Sportback body arrives stateside, it'll be reserved for the upcoming plug-in hybrid.
Although it's new, the A3 Sportback is clearly an evolutionary move forward. It retains its predecessor's basic look and two-box shape. The headlights are inspired by the e-tron Quattro's and the Q3, and when fitted with the optional S Line package, three fake vents above the grille pay homage to the legendary Sport Quattro of the 1980s. Those dramatic lower air intakes and outlets up front and in the rear, and those garish chrome rectangles in the rear, positioned where you would expect an exhaust are all fake. Don't get us wrong. This is a good-looking and well-proportioned car, but the details lack authenticity.
The interior is both futuristic and upscale, with soft plastic, stitching atop the dashboard and—in the case of our test car—adorned with two digital screens, one in front of the driver and one atop the center console. The new A3 is available with a suite of telematics and assistance systems that lift it above its class. The central touchscreen, by the way, looks like it comes straight out of an A6.
The Audi A3 Sportback is a compact car, but the seating position and the driver's surroundings are comfortable and suited for long drives. And there is plenty of space not just up front, but in the rear as well. The trunk is generously sized for a compact hatchback, and in typical Audi fashion, the workmanship and quality is nearly flawless; every gap, seal, carpet, and detail is crafted with precision and looks expensive. And the new frameless rearview mirror is a beautiful, premium detail.
Expect the U.S.-bound Audi A3 to be fitted with a version of its predecessor's turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder gas engine. Audi provided us with an A3 with the turbocharged 2.0-liter diesel that is likely to become the most popular unit in Europe. Rated at 148 horsepower with a big 266 lb-ft of torque, it sends its power to the front wheels through a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic. Overseas, Audi also offers a 148-hp gas engine and a 114-hp version of the diesel. More engines will follow, and entry-level models can be specified with a slick six-speed manual as well.
We realize the fallout of the diesel scandal in the U.S., but we admit that the oil-burner works brilliantly. It picks up rapidly. Audi claims a high-output diesel and dual-clutch gearbox will sprint from 0 to 60 mph in an adequate 8.3 seconds. We feel that's on the conservative side. Call it 7.8 seconds, which is similar to a 2015 Audi A3 diesel sedan we've previously tested. Top speed is an autobahn-grade 139 mph. In real life, it climbs into the triple-digits quickly but loses out at the top end. Kept below 100 mph, its passing abilities are delightful.
This diesel isn't just quick; it has really good manners as well. It emits little more than a reassuring purr, and we are told it's clean, too. Given the scrutiny under which the VW Group operates these days, we tend to believe it.
The chassis of the new A3 can cope with the power effortlessly. Our test car was fitted with optional electronically controlled dampers, and we were a bit surprised at how comfortable all the settings are. Even in the Dynamic setting, it filters out bad surfaces to a remarkable extent. The Comfort setting strikes us as too soft, and it exhibits too much body roll. It's a surprising strategy because the A3 has never been known for having luxurious chassis tuning. The steering is precise, nicely weighted and pleasantly light, while the brakes can be easily modulated but require a surprising amount of pedal travel. When you push the limits of the tires, the stability control system kicks in quickly and briefly, intent to assist your driving style, not to teach you a lesson.
When it comes to the U.S. market, the Audi A3 will face strong and newly redone competition, including the Mercedes-Benz A-class and CLA, as well as the BMW 2-series Gran Coupe. Each has its own character. We like the Audi's aloof and refined demeanor, surgical precision, and quality feel. We have one suggestion for Audi of North America: Please bring on the TDI. But, there's zero chance of that happening.
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