When collecting a rental car from Hertz’s massive LAX facility, I customarily walk all around, having a good look at what is on site. It takes several minutes, as there are around 1000 spaces marked out, and most of them have a car in them, awaiting the next renter. However, when it came to selecting this particular rental, it was absolutely tipping it down with rain. So bad, that rather than walk from my hotel to Hertz, the only prudent way to get there was to take the hotel’s shuttle to the airport and then Hertz’ shuttle to their facility. That way, I could stay dry, as not only was rain falling out of the sky at quite a rate, but the drainage system everywhere seemed somewhat overwhelmed. So when it came to selecting a car, I decided that it really would have to be one of those parked up undercover. That means the President’s Circle cars (which is my status anyway), Five Star and the special Ultimate Collection cars. Still a decent number of cars to choose from, especially given that every stall seemed to have a car in it. However, a first look around suggested that there was nothing that I had not driven before, and whilst on the day of collection I was planning merely to drive to the Convention Centre to go to the LA Auto Show and back, I had arranged to keep this car for a second day. As the car park for the hotel is underground and has a height restriction of 5 foot 10″, that ruled out the rather large number of full-sized pickups that were on offer. As I was not in a hurry, as the Show would not open til 10am, I decided to wait and watch and see what else was moved around on site. At 8am, there’s not much, as most of the renters have yet to arrive (and on a day as wet as this one, flights are likely to be late anyway), so I was not really paying attention, chatting to my friend Annie, who mans the outdoor Gold Desk, when I realised that the time was ticking by and I really should go and pick something. Anything. As I walked up and down the lines, I spotted – tucked in between much larger vehicles, which is how I could have missed it earlier on – the subject of this test, an Audi A3 Sedan, a car that has never featured in the Hertz US fleet in significant numbers and which is by all accounts currently almost extinct from the fleet. Although it appeared to be in a photography unfriendly dark colour – which later turned out not to be so much of a problem, as what I thought in bad light was Black, turned out to be a rather attractive deep blue, which Audi call Cosmos Blue Metallic. I decided to take it.
This is in fact the fourth different version of the current Audi A3 family that I’ve experienced. The range offered is vast, so I’ve certainly not sampled all the engines on offer, but with this being the saloon body, it did complete the set of different bodystyles, as previous tests have covered the 3 door Hatch, the 5 door Sportback (in potent RS3 guise) and the Cabrio. Two of those were fitted with the 2.0 TDi engine, which is (or at least was) the most popular engine in Europe, but things are different in America, where the A3 comes with a choice of petrol engines. When this third generation A3 model was first made available in America, it was with the Sportback body, and confined to the e-Tron hybrid engine. Whilst hybrids are popular, especially in States like California, hatchback body styles are less so, so to try to increase sales, and to contend with the car’s most direct rival, the Mercedes CLA, Audi developed a saloon body, which was launched at the 2013 New York Show and sales increased accordingly. This body style is now offered in Europe as well, but in a market which still favours hatches over small saloons, it is a less common sight in this guise. The “regular” models offered to US customers come with the familiar 2.0 TFSi engine and there is also the choice of the S3 and the even more potent RS3.
In front wheel drive form, the 2 litre TFSi engine puts out 186 bhp, and in the test car, it was coupled with the 7 speed dual clutch S-Tronic automatic transmission. It proved to be an excellent combination. The engine is smooth, refined, and willing. There always seemed to be ample power, so you could accelerate from any speed with just a nice smooth increase in speed, and although not blisteringly fast (the RS3 model is for those who want that), the A3 proved pleasingly brisk. Cruising at a steady speed on the motorway, the engine was spinning over a low rpm rate, which contributed to the very low noise levels, meaning this would be a refined car for a long journey. And you could definitely go a long away between stops, as having driven exactly 200 miles, the tank was showing 5/8 full. I squeezed in 6.29 gallons, meaning a consumption of 31,79 mpg US or an impressive 37.98 mpg Imperial, a figure boosted somewhat I suspect by the use of the Stop/Start system. Not as good as you would get in a diesel, of course, but pretty impressive for a petrol car. Also impressive was the way the A3 conducted itself on the canyon roads where I took it on the second (and dry) day. These roads feature swooping bends, few of them really tight, and they are used by many manufacturers for testing, as evidenced by the number of camo-ed up prototypes I see there. I don’t believe Audi is one of them, but the car could be hustled along with some elan, and was fun to drive in the process. There is plenty of grip, even in this front wheel drive car, minimal body roll, and the A3 was happy to take those bends at higher speeds than feels comfortable or prudent with many test cars. Even the more trenchant Audi-haters (the British motoring press generally), conceded that the A3 is one of the best of its type with regard to steering and handling, and I would agree with them. And nor is there any penalty in the ride. This A3 was shod with Continental 225/45 R17 tyres and they helped to give it a comfortable ride, even on some of the worst of the pot-holed and ridged roads. The brakes seemed very fierce when I was manoeuvering the car out of the Hertz facility, but out on the road, they were fine, with plenty of stopping power from a pedal which had just the right sort of feel to it. There is an electronic parking brake, operated by a button in the centre console. I did note that over the shoulder visibility was sometimes a challenge, with the combination of the position of the head rests and the rather smaller third side window leaving a bit of a blind spot. Otherwise there were no issues. The A3 is a relatively small car, and the stubby tail means that even without the benefit of the mandated rear-view camera, judging the back end was not hard, and the car was easy to manoeuvre.
Like many cars these days, an increasing number of safety features are fitted. I will call out one, as it was drawn to my attention. Driving up the Big Tujunga Canyon, there was a cyclist ahead. And suddenly I heard a “bing” and a warning appeared in the dash, marked “Pre Sense Alert”. A bit of research elicited that this a forward collision alert system, and there is indeed a big sensor area in the central lower part of the grille (where the number plate should be, and perhaps why there was not one on this car, even though they are required in California). Essentially, if the system thinks you are going to crash (in this case, it presumably thought I had not seen the cyclist, even though he was some way away), it will take a number of actions, ranging from closing the windows and sunroof, to applying the brakes. It did none of these things, as the cyclist was far enough away and I of course pulled out to give him plenty of room.
Audi interiors have long been a byword for quality and that of the A3 is no different. The word written in my test notes is “superlative”, and I really think it is. Unlike a certain rival Bavarian brand where the lower priced cars look and feel cheap inside, every Audi from the entry level A1 (denied to America) to the top of the range A8 has the same quality look and feel to it. It was with this generation of A3 that Audi started to try to reduce the proliferation of buttons that were an almost inevitable consequence of the extra features added to cars, so you get an infotainment display screen which powers up out of the top of the dashboard when in use, meaning it is also nice and high up, a more elegant solution than the “stuck on iPad” look that Mercedes have favoured. When it is retracted, you get almost a minimalist look, which some will welcome, and others will no doubt complain about. The instrument cluster is simple, with two large dials for revs and speed, with small gauges using a series of illuminated dashes for water temperature and fuel inset in their respective bases. The markings on the dials are among the clearest and least fussy that you will see in any car. Between them is the Audi Info Display Centre, with four separate layers of info, ranging from a digital speedometer, to trip computer functions, and the selected audio channel. You cycle between the options for each using buttons on the left hand spoke of the leather-wrapped wheel. The right hand spoke contains audio repeater buttons. Cruise control functions from a stalk on the left of the wheel, stubbier and lower than the indicator stalk. Lights operate from the dash, using the current VAG Group type switch, as indeed are the column stalks. The centre of the dash has just the display screen, a line of buttons for things like hazard warning lights, and then a combination of knobs and buttons for the dual zone climate control. Everything you need for the MMI infotainment system is in the centre console, with a turn wheel in the centre of buttons for selecting things like audio and (were it fitted), navigation, going back a stage, and the main menu. With no navigation system on the car, the 7″ colour screen was a bit redundant for just listening to the high quality audio set-up, but the graphics are crisp and clean looking and the system responded quickly to inputs. I can think of no car – certainly at this price point – which has a more appealing and quality feel to the interior than this one.
In the trim version of the test car, only the driver’s seat is power adjustable, with buttons on the side of the seat moving it into position, with 12-way adjustability. There’s a telescoping adjustment of the steering wheel, too, so it was easy to get the optimum driving position. Seat covering is leather, in accordance with the premium positioning of the model, and they proved very comfortable, as I was to find out when spending a Friday evening crawling in LA rush hour traffic.
US reviews of the A3 have moaned about the lack of space in the rear seats. I really don’t know what they were expecting, as this is a relatively small car (by US standards), and if it is not roomy enough, then that is what the A4 range is for. More to the point, this car scores far better in regards to rear seat accommodations than the Mercedes CLA. For a start, you can get in easily without contorting yourself through a narrow gap. And once there, there is plenty of headroom. Whether the tallest occupants think there is sufficient legroom will depend on the position of the front seats. Set them well back, and it will indeed be quite tight, but set them further forward, such as for my driving position, and all will be fine. There is a modest transmission tunnel, and whilst there are indeed three seat belts here, the A3 is not really wide enough for three burly adults to sit in comfort. Better that 2 occupy the seats and take advantage of the drop down armrest, which has cup holders that extend from the front of it. Odds and ends can be stored in the door bins and the nets on the back of the front seats.
There is a reasonable sized boot. It is a nice, regular shape and should accommodate four people’s luggage, though it should be noted that models fitted with the Quattro system do lose a noticeable amount of capacity. More space can be found under the boot floor around the space saver tyre and if you need even more, or for longer items. then the rear seat backrests, asymmetrically split, fold down. There is a ski flap in the rear armrest. Inside the cabin, there is a good sized glovebox, there are bins on all four doors, there is a cubby under the central armrest and there is an area in front of the gearlever which has two cupholders in it and where you could put small items. That all should be enough for most people.
Although the US range is not as extensive as that seen in Europe, there’s a bevy of choices to sort through when selecting the right A3 for you, including front-wheel or all-wheel drive, three trim levels, three body styles, two high-performance editions, and a plug-in hybrid variant. For the drivetrain, the top S3 and RS3 models come standard with the Quattro all-wheel-drive system. All others have front-wheel drive, with the option to upgrade to all-wheel drive for between $2,700 and $3,000, excepting the e-Tron model. Unlike a lot of cars, where the entry level model misses out on just too many features to be a serious consideration for anyone other than the advertising copywriters, in this case the base Premium trim, with a starting price of $31,950, which makes it one of the least expensive luxury small cars you can buy, is a good bet, and this was the spec of the test car. It doesn’t feel like Audi skimped on luxury features. Leather upholstery, a panoramic sunroof, and a 10-speaker audio system give the car a high-class feel. Goodies like heated front seats, dual-zone automatic climate control, a 7-inch display, two USB ports, a rearview camera, and advanced safety assistance features are also included. These include Audi Pre Sense Front (front collision warning and brake assist), Audi Pre Sense Basic (a system that prepares the car for an impact by rolling up the windows and sunroof, activating the hazard warning lights, and tightening seat belts), and rain-sensing wipers and headlights are also standard. The Premium trim level is also available as a convertible (the A3 cabriolet) for $38,350. For an extra $3,250, you can add smartphone integration (via Apple CarPlay and Android Auto), a proximity key, and push-button and remote start to your new A3 sedan. These tech treats are part of the Premium Plus trim, which also grants you a power-adjustable passenger seat and Audi Side Assist (a safety package that includes rear cross traffic alert and blind spot monitoring). The sedan’s MSRP starts at $35,200, and pricing for the cabriolet version starts at $41,600. The Prestige sedan ($40,700) and Prestige cabriolet ($46,800) are the highest trim levels of the A3. In addition to standard features from the Premium Plus trim, you also get an upgraded infotainment system with navigation, voice commands, handwriting recognition, and a 14-speaker Bang & Olufsen audio system. Standard safety features include lane keep assist and adaptive cruise control with stop-and-go capabilities. The Sportback e-tron is the plug-in hybrid edition of the A3. Its solitary configuration includes front-wheel drive, a hatchback body style, and a hybrid powertrain (a 1.4-litre petrol engine and a single electric motor). The A3 e-tron is available in all three trim levels: Premium ($39,500), Premium Plus ($42,600), and Prestige ($48,100). Audi’s performance-tuned models are the S3 and the all-new RS 3. With the S3, you get the same size engine as the A3, but horsepower increases to 292. A six-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission, all-wheel drive, heated front sport seats, and a sport suspension are among the enhancements. Pricing also gets a boost, to $43,650 for the S3 Premium Plus and $48,950 for the S3 Prestige. The RS 3 comes with a 400 bhp five-cylinder engine mated to a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission and has a starting price of $54,900. Other standard features include all-wheel drive, Nappa leather seats with diamond-patterned stitching, and a specially tuned magnetic ride suspension system. This will be quite a car, as I can confidently assert having driven a European spec RS3 Sportback, before the mid-cycle facelift added a little more power. Sadly, Hertz don’t have them on fleet!
I liked this A3 Sedan. I thought I would, of course, having sampled other members of the A3 family, but it was interesting to see how it compared in America. The most obvious thing that struck me is that it looks small. That was how I probably walked past it at Hertz, and when I parked it up, at the Convention Centre and in the overnight parking, it was dwarfed by just about anything else around it. Whilst some may think it too small, it was fine for me, and it was the other attributes that shone through. The 2 litre petrol engine is potent enough, smooth and refined. The Audi delivered excellent economy, and was surprisingly fun to punt on those canyon roads. And the interior quality continues to impress, in terms of uncluttered appearance, ease of use and the fact that everything you look at and touch really does feel like a truly premium product. Having previously sampled the car’s most obvious US market rival, the Mercedes CLA250, I could think of no area where the Audi is beaten by the Mercedes. That buyers clearly disagree, or don’t bother finding out, suggests that the allure of the badge, combined possibly with the attractiveness of the finance deals on offer, still counts for a lot. Both are due a replacement in 2019. It will be interesting to see if this conclusion remains valid for their next generations, but for now, the A3 Sedan would seem like the premium small sedan of choice.