NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- One of the latest automotive trends is for the luxury automakers to reach down to hug the $30,000 price point with entry-level sedans. Audi's entry into the ring is the all-new 2015 Audi A3 sedan, which reaches U.S. dealerships starting this week.
This all-new 2015 Audi A3 has a strong advantage in design, inside and out. The exterior may be Audi's best yet, with flawless proportions and restrained elegance that will stand the test of time. In this A3, Audi has mastered walking the fine line between cutting out all the excess fat, but without cutting into the bone -- almost, anyway.
The dashboard is one of the very best of all time. No, it is not as good as the Tesla (TSLA) -- nothing is -- but the A3 is both beautiful and practical at the same time. The switchgear look and feel expensive, at least as good as both BMW and Mercedes.
The steering wheel is top-notch, as many other VW/Audi Group products are, for their respective classes. The driver's seat is only slightly better than average, with the seat cushion not being long enough. You also can't adjust the seat down enough for a tall guy, but it's close. Overall, the seating position is above average, but not as good as in the BMW i3, which has both better seats and a better-telescoping steering wheel.
The infotainment system is one of the best in the business, which doesn't say much given how bad almost all of them are. I find the Tesla to be the only one in the industry that I can use without first taking a class -- and which I then forget all about as soon as I stop using that particular car.
Rear seat room is the only place where the A3 falls short, although that also goes for the its main competitors. Foot and knee room are barely passable but headroom is terrible, and you would have to be way under 5'9" to be anywhere near okay there. Trunk space is average for this class of car.
The A3 base version is front wheel drive with a 1.8-liter, four-cylinder engine and has a base price of approximately $30,000. Add $3,000 and you get a 2-liter version and four-wheel drive. I spent a day driving two different versions of that latter car: One had a keyless start button, whereas the other one had the old-fashioned key hole. One wonders why even a base model car these days has a key hole on the steering column anymore, when wireless has become such a basic technology.
I drove the car on twisty scenic roads at high speeds, and the car performed flawlessly. The handling is top-notch. Obviously this isn't a powerful electric car such as a Tesla, BMW i3 or General Motors' (GM) Chevrolet Volt, so the drivetrain feels a bit ancient when compared to an electric, but it is competitive for being a gasoline car.
Speaking of electric, there will be a plug-in hybrid version of this car in early 2015. The body of that car will be a hatchback, sort of like the outgoing A3, which is based on the VW Golf. I don't think it looks as good as the sedan but it may have better headroom in the back seat. The 2015 VW Golf certainly has much better rear seat headroom than the A3 sedan.
The plug-in hybrid A3 will follow the recipe of most European plug-in hybrids that will be arriving in the next year and two. It has a small battery and weak electric motor as opposed to the Chevrolet Volt, Cadillac ELR and BMW i3 with range-extender. This means that you can only go 13 to 22 miles on EV power, and the gasoline engine will engage if you apply anywhere near full throttle.
I will likely be driving the plug-in hybrid version of the A3 some time in the second half of 2014, given that it will be in U.S. dealerships in the earliest part of 2015. It will most closely be a competitor to the two Ford (F) plug-in hybrid models (Fusion and C-Max), Honda (HMC) Accord and the next-generation Toyota (TM) Prius plug-in.
The gasoline A3 is rated at 33 miles per gallon on the highway and 27 mpg combined. That is 10 mpg less than the combined mpg of the Chevrolet Volt in charge-sustaining mode.
Speaking of the Chevrolet Volt, it was the car I drove both directly before and after the 2015 Audi A3. Even though the Volt is an almost 3.5 years older design than the A3, the powerful electric motor makes for a superior driving experience.
For the two people sitting in the front, the comfort is similar between the A3 and Volt. In the back seat, the Volt is more comfortable for two tall people (up to 6 feet tall), but the Audi's critical advantage is that it seats three people instead of two.
The 2015 Audi A3 looks better than the Volt, inside and out. It also handles a little better, probably reflecting more sporty tires. A relatively loaded Volt at $39,000 is priced similarly to the base 2015 Audi A3 after federal and state tax incentives.
The 2015 Audi A3 holds up very well against the equivalent entry-level offerings from Mercedes and BMW. However, if you don't need some of the enhanced equipment levels or the superior design beauty, you might get an even better value in the 2015 VW Golf, which also has much more headroom in the back seat. The 2015 VW Golf should be available no later than autumn 2014.
As you might have figured out by now, I think the strongest competitor to the 2015 Audi A3 is the Chevrolet Volt, which despite being almost 3.5 years old in the tooth remains the powertrain champ of our time. The electric drivetrain is powerful and ultra-smooth, and if you don't need to fit a third person in the rear seat -- the Volt's achilles heel -- it is the better choice.
The 2015 Audi A3 is likely going to be very successful, and for good reason. It's supremely beautiful, inside and out. As long as you can live with the very poor rear seat headroom, it is a class leader among the entry-level luxury sedans. I can't wait to drive the plug-in electric version!
At the time of publication the author had no position in any of the stocks mentioned.
This article represents the opinion of a contributor and not necessarily that of TheStreet or its editorial staff.