Driving Audi's entry-level sedan with its new base engine
Practical car buyers might look at the refreshed 2017 Audi A3 and see a cramped and overpriced subcompact, but it’s a completely different picture for someone with an exclusively luxury mindset. To them, the A3 is a handsome step up from more popular mainstream sedans, with value in the form of standard HID headlights, an extended-length sunroof, a badge that commands some status, and an attention to detail that feels more upscale than the significantly less expensive Volkswagen Jetta. Considering the A3 carries a starting price above $30,000 USD, that’s the way it should be. We recently spent some time with a $33,535 USD, front-drive 2017 A3 2.0T in the city, on the highway, and on winding roads to discover what Audi’s updated entry-level sedan is like.
A Tire-Spinning Surprise
The 2017 and 2018 Audi A3 2.0T come with a standard 2.0-liter turbo-four that’s making appearances on everything from the 2018 Volkswagen Tiguan to the 2017 and 2018 Audi A4 Ultra. In the 2017 A3 2.0T, the engine produces 186 hp and 221 lb-ft of torque (or 190 hp and 236 lb-ft in the A4 Ultra) and is mated to a seven-speed twin-clutch automatic transmission. After not having driven a front-drive CLA250, A3, or ILX in a while, what surprised me was how easily and unintentionally you can spin the A3’s all-season tires from a stop going straight or turning right onto another street. Audi’s all-wheel-drive system can mitigate this, but that costs $3,000 USD and comes with a more powerful and less efficient engine (that pricier A3 is shown below in dark gray). In the $30,000-$40,000 USD range, some might prefer to put that $3,000 USD toward an options package. Just be careful about how often you let the turbocharged thrust get ahead of the tires and front-drive drivetrain.
Really, though, the way the power is delivered might be considered part of the A3’s character. The larger A4 feels more relaxed compared to the moderately sensitive brakes and throttle of the front-drive A3 2.0T. Although the A3 and A4 do share a few available features including that 186-190-hp engine and the fantastic Virtual Cockpit (a completely digital instrument cluster with available Google Earth satellite imagery), this isn’t a case of the same basic car being offered in different sizes.
Aggressive Yet Classic Styling
The A3 isn’t as bold as the attractive Mercedes-Benz CLA, but I am still a big fan of the Audi’s styling. Tweaked a bit for a 2017 refresh, the A3’s styling is aggressive yet classic in a way that probably won’t lose its appeal in 10 years. The side-window arch introduced on the first A4 from the 1990s still looks good on the 2017 A3, which sports updated headlights and taillights, as well as a restyled grille, all of which look great. The 18-inch wheels on our test car—a loaner from a local dealership while a Motor Trend long-termer was being serviced—enhanced the car’s visual appeal when you’re looking to impress but not necessarily shout.
…But About That Visibility
The A3’s exterior styling might speak to some, but visibility isn’t very good, especially with headrests obstructing the view to side and rear windows. In the A4, it’s a little better, with that car’s larger windows. The CLA, by the way, also sacrifices rear-side visibility for styling.
The A3’s Coolest Trick
The A3 offers a cool trick that probably won’t be available on the next-gen model in a few years: a disappearing center-stack screen. Without turning off any functionality, the screen can disappear into the top of the center stack at the touch of a button. It’s a great touch that can minimize distraction on a long highway drive when you’re not likely to change your music source, and it just adds a little purity to the interior.
One feature that consistently reminded me of the base-trim 2017 A3’s entry-level status was its standard switchblade key fob and the fact that I had to turn that key in an ignition to start the car. Despite the reality that every automaker needs to cut costs somewhere, experience the convenience of a hands-free keyless access system with push-button ignition such as Audi’s Advanced Key before driving away in a base model. Shown here is a higher-trim 2017 A3 with Audi’s Virtual Cockpit instrument cluster.
Safety Tech is Standard
Audi’s collision mitigation braking system (the car can apply the brakes if it senses a collision ahead) is standard on every A3. The technology helped the A3 avoid a collision in the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s autobrake tests from 12 and 25 mph (19 and 40 km/h). The 2017 A3 also earned a five-star overall rating from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in front- and all-wheel-drive forms and is an IIHS Top Safety Pick+. That Top Safety Pick+ rating, by the way, only applies to A3s with the optional LED headlights.
So, Should I Get One?
If you’re considering the front-drive model with the new 186-hp engine, I think the Audi A3 2.0T’s sweet spot is the middle Premium Plus trim. The 2018 A3 adds a blind-spot monitoring system to that trim, and all 2018 models get two USB outlets and heated front seats. The base trim lacks a couple features including Apple CarPlay compatibility and that Advanced Key feature that I really want in a new car today. Like the CLA and ILX, however, the rear seat is cramped, and anyone with a similarly priced Toyota Camry V-6 can probably smoke you at stoplights. Otherwise, the front-drive A3 2.0T is worth a look—just watch how much throttle you give it from a stop.