A Quick Spin in the Smaller, Techier 2015 Audi A3

Is Audi’s first entry-level sedan created specifically for Americans truly a new car, or just a smaller version of the status quo?

To meet the 2015 Audi A3, we weren’t invited to a track in Vegas or country roads in the south of France. No; the brand’s first sedan made specifically with Americans in mind debuted in Silicon Valley, where every business building is made of glass and steel and every unrecognized software logo is backed by billions of dollars. Before getting to performance details, dimensions, or pricing, Audi put the spotlight on the suite of software companies and tech partnerships that set the A3 apart from the pack. Navigating to a friend’s location based on a geotagged photo they just texted you is impressive, but we had a burning question: was this entry-level German sedan truly a new car, or just a smaller, teched-up version of the status quo?

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There’s a reason tech took top billing on the A3’s list of features. A new flagship-level MMI design integrates Audi’s touchpad and scroll wheel into one item for much smoother console operation. This is also the first car to offer a 4G LTE connection — powered by Qualcomm — for Google maps and Google search, plus a wi-fi hotspot for passengers. In another unprecedented move, the car’s Nvidia graphics chip is upgradable. When a new one comes out you simply swap it like upgrading RAM in your laptop, keeping your nav and infotainment feeling fresh and “with it”. And no modern living quarters is complete without a flat screen; Audi’s 11-millimeter thin 7-inch screen (non-touch) pops up and disappears into the dash, keeping things clean and tidy visually.

The design is unmistakably Audi and looks better in person than in photos — but disappointingly, it errs on the side of conservative. Given the perfect opportunity to create something striking and youthful, Audi instead made a smaller A4. The car’s lead designer compared the overall effect of the exterior lines to a surfer coming down a wave, but that aesthetic was lost on us.

The leather interior is spartan and TT-like, with circular air vents that draw the eye. Fortunately, the rear seats aren’t exceedingly cramped, despite the car being nearly 11 inches shorter than the A4. Unfortunately, they stole the extra space from the trunk, which is a measly 10 cubic feet (12 on the non-Quattro due to the lack of a differential).

The A3 has been sold in America strictly as a hatchback since 2005, but the new version will have seven variants (seriously, seven) ranging from the S3 to their pure electric E-Tron. For now, buyers can only choose the sedan as a front-wheel-drive 1.8 liter turbo good for 170 hp and 200 lb-ft of torque, or the all-wheel-drive (Quattro) 2.0 liter turbo offering 220 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque.

Careening around the winding roads of Northern California, the seats, which looked great at first glance, turned out to be a little stiff. The suspension, on the other hand, wasn’t stiff enough; a modified one is coming later, and we missed it. The 1.8 liter will suffice for those who want four rings on the hood and don’t really care about anything else, but if you have blood in your veins, 2.0 Quattro is the way to go. Yes, it’s $3,000 more, but it sounds better and drives sharper. Having an Audi without Quattro is like going to the French Laundry and asking for a bag of chips.

On the outside this isn’t a new car, just a shrunken one; it’s the interior and tech aspects that are really exciting. Combine the 4G, new MMI, standard panorama sunroof, leather and Bi-Xenon headlights and you have a formula for a car that will do well against the Mercedes-Benz CLA and Acura ILX. It’ll be filling up shopping mall and grocery store parking lots in no time flat, even if its owners have to put their bags in both the trunk and the back seat.

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