The fashionable, versatile 2012 Audi A3 is as deft for the city commute as it is at ease on the highway.
As Audi's entry model for the U.S. market, the Audi A3 pairs a practical hatchback body style with finely drawn lines and an interior that feels fashionable enough for the Audi badge. Yet it costs only a few thousand more than a number of comparable mainstream-brand vehicles.
Audi's sleek A3 doesn't look much different than when it first made its U.S. debut for 2006; yet it still looks quite fresh and contemporary from the outside. Inside, it's beginning to look a bit dated, mainly because most of the other Audi models have been recently refreshed and taken a new design direction, especially with respect to interior trim.
Drivers can choose from two different engines on the A3, and while their power figures are quite different, their performance is remarkably similar. A 140-hp, 2.0-liter turbodiesel inline-4 is narrowly our editors' favorite, because it churns out loads of low-rpm torque, making highway trips a breeze, but the the 200-hp, 2.0-liter gas turbo-4 feels very eager and doesn't need to be revved high either to tap into the torque. In both, the dual-clutch transmission doesn't cut into the driving fun, the way conventional automatics can. All-wheel drive isn't available in turbodiesels or on cars fitted with the manual transmission, so much of the A3 lineup is front-wheel drive. Savvy commuters will probably find the TDI model's 42-mpg highway fuel economy irresistible.
The A3 has steering that's pretty light, but it has good roadholding and a refined driving feel overall. We recommend Audi's magnetic ride system, as it improves ride, handling, and the entire experience. In any case, the A3 hits a sweet spot in both maneuverability and quick response, yet relaxed highway cruising, so it's as well-suited to the open road as it is for urban commuting.
Compared to any other vehicles approaching $30k, the A3 has a well-organized, exquisitely trimmed interiors. Tailored leather seats yield a low driving position, and could use more bolstering. The back seat is just okay. Two adults will be fine back there, as long as those in front are willing to give up an inch or two of legroom. One of our only complaints-and one you'll need to listen for on the test drive-is that road coarseness can sound into the cabin, and the ride with the standard suspension can be harsh over Rust Belt potholes.
The A3's standard features-and especially its options-are also what help distinguish it from sporty mainstream entries like the Mazda 3 or Subaru WRX. Power features, automatic climate control, leather, keyless entry, and a 140-watt, 10-speaker audio system come standard. Premium Plus cars get a power driver's seat, steering-wheel audio controls, and ambient LED lighting, with options for premium sound, navigation, and USB/iPod connectivity. Bluetooth isn't free on the A3: it's part of a $2,000 package.