Loaner Car Review: 2015 Audi A3 (1.8T)

Dan Wallach
by Dan Wallach

Three years ago, I posed the question of what you’d do if your car was consumed in a natural disaster and your insurance settlement allowed you to get a brand new version of the same car. Back then, the question was about whether I’d replace our 2005 Acura TL with a 2012 edition. Now, the question concerns whether I’d replace our 2008 Audi A3 with the 2015 Audi A3.

You see, my wife and I have a lovely 2008 A3 3.2 ( reviewed by our own Robert Farago in 2006) and it’s been reliable and fun to drive, even over the craptastic roads around our house (two nearby are on a recent top-ten list of worst streets in Houston). There’s a recent problem with the idle, though. Normally it purrs quietly at 600rpm, but it will occasionally decide to crank up to 1300rpm, wherein the whole car vibrates like crazy. I took it to the dealer, for the second time, in attempt to get it fixed (FWIW, it’s still not fixed). So what did they give me as a loaner? A brand new 2015 A3. So far as I can tell, it’s close to the bottom-of-the-line base $30k “Premium” model with the 1.8 liter turbo and FWD, although it does have the $1900 über traffic-aware nav system option which lets you doodle the letters in on the MMI knob. Also, this car seems to have the “cold weather package” ($500) and “aluminum style package” ($450).

Interior / telematics: The first thing you notice is that the new A3, like all Audis, has a very refined interior. Nice leather seats. It’s a comfortable place to drive, although there are So. Many. Buttons. You see those two toggle switches above the central spinner thing? Those pick the main infotainment operating mode (nav, phone, media, radio), then the spinner thing lets you make your choices with all the UI simplicity of Atari Tempest. The four buttons next to the spinner correspond to additional options presented in the four corners of the pop-up screen. You can select things by pressing the spinner and you’ve got further a menu button and a back button below it! Everybody remember when Steve Jobs said the Mac had only one button on the mouse so you’d be unlikely to ever press the wrong button? Yeah, that’s the problem we’re talking about here.

How about taking a phone call? Luckily, from my older Audi, I just happened to know that you can answer and hang up the phone by clicking the unlabeled left scroll-wheel on the steering wheel. Yes, it clicks in. You might naïvely think that you answer the phone by pressing the “talk”-looking button on the right side of the wheel. Dummkopf! No, too obvious. Also, check out all those other steering wheel buttons. So. Many. Buttons.

I used the nav to get to across town to a restaurant. The nav computer didn’t know the name of the restaurant, which has been there for well over a year. Instead, I entered the numbers and letters of the address by spinning the wheel and doodling with my finger on top of the spinner. (It’s unclear there’s much of a speed advantage either way, particularly with the non-trivial error rate on the gesture recognition.) Voice input? Not for general-purpose addresses or points of interest, although it apparently can connect to your personal address book. Rant: all of this just totally embarrassing. Dear car manufacturers: please just let Apple and Google do the job properly (via CarPlay and Android Auto, respectively). Buyers: wait a couple months until the auto manufacturers properly support this stuff, as they’ve claimed they’d do in the 2015 model year.

So, the A3 is a technological usability disaster area, but does it at least do its job once you figure it out? The stereo system, Audi’s base model, so far as I can tell, is leaps and bounds better than our 2008 A3’s optional uprated Bose-branded system. (Friends don’t let friends buy Bose. Or Monster Cable. But I digress.) The 2008 A3 is tolerable for listening to NPR, but a polyphonic muddle for music. In contrast, the 2015 A3 is seriously good: strong bass that differentiates well across different frequencies. Tight, clear treble. Bluetooth Audio works properly, including some (but strangely not all) album art. And who really cares that there’s no CD player in the dash? (Incidentally, I recently rented a Buick LaCrosse, which also had a kick-ass stereo. I don’t know if this is a new industry-wide trend, but I strongly support it.) Summary: the A3 now has a quality sound system. No Bose about it.

Option-wise, the base A3 is missing a lot of things you might want or expect from a luxury car. Notably absent from this A3 (here sorted in order from “come on, really?” to “would be nice”): automatic climate control, memory seats, automatic-dimming rear-view mirror, HomeLink garage door opener, power passenger seat, rear-view camera, keyless entry/ignition, parking sensors, blind-spot warning, or adaptive cruise control. Some of that is available as options on the more expensive A3 models. At least the rear seats fold down so you can get some cargo utility, and all A3’s seem to include automatic headlights and rain-sensing wipers. (Curious note: Audi’s web site claims that “dual zone automatic climate control” is included in the base model. This particularly A3 proves that statement false.)

Driving: I’m now deep into this essay and haven’t said anything about how the A3 drives. Based on not nearly enough time to really push it, I’d say: not bad. It’s got the stereotypical Teutonic stiff suspension, where you feel all the bumps but the sharp edges have been shaved off. The engine is zippy and there’s no noticeable torque steer, although there’s a definite lag while the transmission ponders whether it wants to shift gears when you stomp on the gas. (You can move the shift gate to the right and have block-rocking instantaneous DSG manual shifts. There are no flappy paddles on the base-model A3.) For contrast, our A3 3.2 performs much better when you leave it in drive. It’s not that it has any less lag, but rather than it has a whole lot more torque. Shrink the engine down and you have to shift more often.

The brakes are strong but way too grippy, requiring a super-sensitive touch to avoid jerking your passengers around in stop-and-go traffic. Likewise, Audi probably needs to tweak the DSG’s computer to smooth out low-speed launches. (Our 2008 A3, when it was new, just desperately wanted to dump the clutch into first gear with even the slightest amount of gas, which was just unacceptable. They did a software upgrade on the transmission after a year or two and it’s been smooth as silk ever since.)

Mileage: in stop-and-go traffic around town, I was seeing 15-20mpg, which is roughly in line with most other cars I’ve tested or owned. However, I had some spare time on Saturday morning so I took it for a spin on mostly empty freeways, sticking to the right and going with the flow. As you can see from the photo, this yielded an astonishing 37.4mpg (indicated) over the course of a 28-ish mile drive (of which maybe one mile was on surface roads before I got on the freeway). Compare those numbers to the EPA estimates (23 city / 33 highway) and make of it what you will. I’m impressed.

37.4 mpg!

Overall: Should you buy a totally stripped out A3? At that price point, you’re right in the thick of well-optioned standard sedans (e.g., Camry, Accord, Altima, Mazda 6) as well as entry-level luxury competition from other manufacturers (e.g., Acura TLX or the aforementioned Buick LaCrosse). I hate to end with a cop-out, but it’s really hard to say that there’s any one winner at the $30k price point for four-door performance sedans. Too many shadows, whispering voices. Cars on web sites, too many choices. That said, if my 2008 A3 was consumed by Godzilla and I was looking to get a good replacement for it tomorrow, I’d be looking primarily at the Volvo V60, the Volkswagen GTI, or the replacement A3 hatchback when it finally comes back to the U.S. market.

Dan Wallach
Dan Wallach

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  • Vaportrail Vaportrail on Dec 12, 2014

    In general I concur with the Bose theme here, but their system in my 997 Turbo sounds remarkably good. As it should.

  • Colinthomasking Colinthomasking on Dec 19, 2014

    This car seems to be quite polarizing. Have you driven the 2.0t model? It seems to have an identical transmission, engine and chassis as the GTI with the performance pack (if you don't get a stick), so what's the disparity of the audi 2.0t and the gti?

  • Groza George Stellantis live off the back of cheap V8 cars with old technology and suffers from lack of new product development. Now that regulations killed this market, they have to ditch the outdated overhead.They are not ready to face the tsunami of cheap Chinese EVs or ready to even go hybrid and will be left in the dust. I expect most of their US offerings to be made in Mexico in the future for good tariff protection and lower costs of labor instead of overpriced and inflexible union labor.
  • MaintenanceCosts This is delaying an oil change for my Highlander by a couple of weeks, as it prevented me from getting an appointment before a business trip out of town. Oh well, much worse things have happened.I also just got a dealership oil change for my BMW (thanks, loss-leader prepaid plans!) and this didn't seem to affect them at all.
  • Kwik_Shift_Pro4X Gonna need more EV fuel.
  • Lou_BC There's a company in BC that has kits for logging trucks and pickups. They have "turn key" logging trucks too. What they market is similar to what Ram wants to sell. The rig runs on batteries and a generator kicks in when depleted. On the West Coast logging in the mountains they found that the trucks run mostly on regen braking. The generator doesn't kick in much. Going up mountain, the truck is empty.
  • 28-Cars-Later I should start a GiveMeMoney™ and do an EV converted Allanté. There are literally six or seven people who would be thrilled.