In a strange twist, luxury automakers experienced a surge in sales during the recession years. It seems that while the lower- and middle-classes fought for their livelihoods, the plutonomy swelled, and so did its upper-class members’ spending habits. In 2012, the U.S. economy grew just 2.2 percent, while Bentley and Cadillac sales increased by 35 percent and 37 percent respectively. Even the hideous BMW 5 Series GT flew off the lots.
So while other corporations licked their wounds or shuttered doors, the homes of chrome and leather emerged virtually unscathed, overflowing with resources to widen their lineups.
For the One Percenters, they created new supercars like the Mercedes AMG-GT, the BMW i8, and the Audi R8 V10 Plus: designed for the Nurburgring (a motorsports complex in Germany, for those of you who didn’t know), and destined for the five-car garage on Palm Beach.
For us (the Millennials) they created modest little slices of luxury, hoping to entice lifelong brand devotion. From the Germans, these came in the form of the Mercedes CLA 250, the BMW 320i, and the Audi A3. Each of these new entry-level offerings gave us the basics of their bigger brothers while costing less than $350 per month to lease.
We haven’t driven the CLA or the 320i yet, but we’re certain of one thing: they may have an uphill battle to win against the A3.
2017 Audi A3 overview
The baby of the Audi fleet, the A3 starts at just $31,200 but comes surprisingly well-equipped in its base, Premium trim (sounds oxymoronic, we know). All A3s have at least ten speakers and power seats, as well as Bluetooth and a peppy, 186hp turbo-four engine (220hp with Quattro AWD fitted).
Inside, the A3 is no cavernous Passat. As a compact sedan, it isn’t ideal for transporting your friends in the NBA. On the plus side, its short wheelbase means it’s a breeze to maneuver and parallel park. Trunk space is also ample for a car of its class.
What we love
As the runt of the litter, the A3 risked appearing timid and apologetic, like the Michael Cera of the Audi fleet. Instead, Audi gave us something compact but highly respectable: a rolling Mark Wahlberg.
Eye-pleasing LEDs underscore the razor-sharp headlights and taillights, creating a modern, aggressive look. The A3’s profile looks chiseled and brawny, and up front, Audi gave us a gaping onyx maw of a grill, tastefully lined with silver accents. In short, the A3 looks small, but not cheap.
Inside, the A3 polarizes some with its blandness. We’ll concede that the gap between the passenger’s air vents looks awkwardly bare, and that the inside of a Mazda3 looks much better, but the A3’s interior offers a sense of orderliness and calm, like a freshly-cleaned desk. Factor in how the infotainment screen can hide away like a pop-tart, and the A3’s interior wins unconventional points for tidiness, if not glam.
On the road, the A3 handles exceptionally well for a car in its price bracket. It can’t glide over bumps like its expensive brothers, but it’s comfortable enough and can dash around corners with grin-inducing grace. We predict the Bimmer will handle better, but A3 pilots certainly won’t want for agility.
What needs work
Strangely for a car designed to sell en masse, the A3’s torquey, turbocharged engine bursts with character. Depending on your driving style, this could be good or bad news.
In the Normal driving mode, transmission and turbo lag will occasionally combine to noticeably delay power delivery. Put your foot down, and a heartbeat or two, the car will scamper off like an untrained mutt spotting a squirrel.
Thankfully, activating Sport mode eliminates this issue almost entirely, turning the A3 into a well-trained German Shepherd: speedy and obedient, with near instantaneous throttle response. But this German Shepherd dehydrates quickly. While the A3 is rated at 26/35 MPG, we averaged 28 MPG in Normal driving mode and 24 in Sport, mixed highway and city driving. When the choice came down to sharp, thirsty Sport mode or eco-friendly, laggardly Normal, we apologized to Al Gore and kept the A3 in Sport.
The 2017 Audi S3: An M3 on a budget
While it’s not technically a “package,” we’re smitten with the A3’s performance variant, the S3. It’s a sublime pocket-rocket that can keep up with the big boys, catapulting to 60 in 4.2 seconds while still offering 30 MPG. If you’re saving up for a BMW M3, consider smashing your piggy bank early for an S3 at half the price.
Back to the A3. Here’s how we’d option ours:
Audi’s superb Quattro AWD system ups the power and handling, so it’s an absolute must for $3000. The $900 Convenience package adds keyless everything and Apple CarPlay/Android Auto: another no-brainer.
The $650 Sport package and $250 Sport suspension together add a slice of S3 DNA, with sportier seats and steering wheel, adjustable steering weight, and paddle shifters. Since we occasionally like to put our foot down, we’re sold.
Among other bells and whistles, the Premium Plus and Prestige trims add parking assists and Audi Virtual Cockpit respectively; enticing, but expensive. We can live without them.
All in we’re looking at $36,000 for a well-equipped A3.
The A3 isn’t particularly spacious, and having to choose between smooth power delivery and decent MPG is a bummer. But overall, as a Millennial-friendly package, the A3 shines. It’s agile, comfortable, well-designed, handsome, and, given Audi’s recent focus on reliability, should last longer than its fellow German models. With the brilliant A3, Audi will certainly win some lifelong brand devotion.