Mercedes-Benz last fall introduced the world press to its new CLA, designed to appeal to Gen Xers and millennials as the entry point to the company’s luxury lineup. When one of Germany’s three major auto manufacturers makes such a strategic move, the others follow.
It wasn’t long before BMV announced a reconfiguration of its entry-level lineup, and a few weeks ago Audi introduced the international automobile press to its response. Audi representatives arrived in the Bay Area to show off their new 2015 Audi A3 sedans, which they lined up in front of the Rosewood Sand Hill Hotel in Menlo Park.
Replacing the old A3 hatchback, the new car has a base price of $29,900 – not so coincidentally the same base price as the CLA.
Why did the A3 have its global debut in Silicon Valley? Very simple: Much of the appeal of this new car will be in its “connectedness” – the information, entertainment and safety capabilities embedded in the car’s computers – designed to appeal to the interests of the younger generations. Those apps are the result of close cooperation between Audi and companies like Google, Nvidia, AT&T, Qualcomm, eSolutions and Bang & Olufsen, along with Volkswagen’s Engineering Research Laboratories, all located in Silicon Valley.
A drive through the hills
As for evaluating the driving and handling: Where better in the world in early March to see if this car is as athletic as it is smart than a run through our own coastal hills? We departed from the Redwood City warehouse Audi converted into a presentation venue and headed up Ralston Avenue to Highway 92. We then traveled to the coast, down Highway 1 to San Gregorio Beach and up the fantastic curves of Highway 84 to Mountain Terrace on Skyline Drive. We capped the drive with a late lunch – outdoors on a lovely Northern California day – and a discussion with the Audi strategists.
At the end of the day, my driving partner and I came away with clear impressions of the $36,295 version we drove. It came equipped with the 2-liter, 200-horsepower engine and Audi quattro all-wheel-drive system (the base model offers a 1.8-liter, 170-horsepower engine with front-wheel drive).
With this new A3, Audi has put a model on the road that should be as successful as the new Mercedes CLA in reaching a younger, hipper audience. The package is practical and well balanced. Fit and finish is in keeping with the status of the marque. The addition of electronic convenience and safety features should meet the expectations of younger owners who can’t function without being continuously connected to their networked community. In particular, the 4G LTE Multimedia Interface Audi Connect system provides quicker information response and more continuous communication than anything available from other manufacturers.
Driving and handling characteristics are superb under typical conditions. With 258 pound-feet of torque, the car is quick to accelerate as needed in freeway situations but smooth and pleasant on continuous series of linked backcountry curves. There’s no question that we’d spend the extra $3,000 to opt for the larger engine and quattro all-wheel drive. Push it too hard and the A3 does roll slightly on corners, but it wasn’t designed to be a high-performance car – for that, we’ll have to wait for the Mr. Hyde S3 counterpart.
Controls trump exterior styling
We liked the way in which Audi engineers have integrated the information, entertainment and communications modules. Interface with the system is by a neat combination control knob and touch surface that is safely and conveniently located under the driver’s hand on the center console.
The screen rises up out of the dash when in use – which is probably going to be all the time – but it safely and discreetly recedes out of sight when the car is parked.
On the other side of the balance, the exterior styling isn’t going to grab anyone’s attention. In particular, we aren’t fans of the large and distinctive Audi grille style, though this version is much more integrated with the front-end design than in the A7 and A8.
With the new A3, Audi has introduced the practical four-door sedan model first, though other body styles will follow. In contrast, Mercedes-Benz went directly to a flashier coupe look for its first entry into this younger market. However, Audi managers tell us that they already have the edge among the luxury manufacturers when it comes to consumers under 40, so they went with a more practical sedan. We certainly found the rear entry and interior headroom to be more suited to a family buyer than the CLA.
My only other quibble with the new Audi is that the interior is minimal almost to a fault. Where the higher-end cars in the company’s lineup manage to evoke understated luxury in the interior materials and finishes, there is no similar feeling of quality or style in the black vinyl surfaces and lack of contrast in the A3.
With its reasonable price, practical packaging, state-of-the-art electronics and confident handling, this model should provide an excellent addition to the Audi lineup at the entry level. Without question, it should satisfy the expectations of the younger buyer that the company is seeking.
Longtime Los Altos residents Gary and Genie Anderson are co-owners of Enthusiast Publications LLC, which edits several car club magazines and contributes articles and columns to automotive magazines and online services.