NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- The competition for cars in the $30,000 to $45,000 price range is tough. You can buy all sorts of attractive vehicles in all sorts of sizes for that kind of money. But before you do, you might want to take a look, like so many others in the U.S. have, at the Audi A3.
The Audi A3 is the German car manufacturer's smallest offering in the US. Underneath the interior and exterior surfaces, it's substantially the same car as the Volkswagen Golf (Volkswagen owns Audi). The Golfs sold in the U.S. are made in Germany and Mexico, whereas the Audi A3 is built in Hungary.
Functionally, where the Audi A3 differ from the VW Golf are primarily in two areas:
- For the last year, in the U.S., the Audi A3 has been sold as a sedan. A hatchback version of the A3 is expected this September. In contrast, the VW Golf is a hatchback and a wagon version was added two months ago. That means that the Golf has better headroom in the back seat, and can fit more luggage in relation to the length of the car.
- The infotainment system in the VW Golf is a touchscreen, whereas the Audi A3 is managed with a similar kind of rotary/dial/jog/mouse as most other cars from Audi, BMW and Mercedes.
Currently, the Audi A3's infotainment system and controls are better than the one in the Volkswagen Golf. However, this could change this September when presumably both Audi A3 and VW Golf get all-new infotainment systems with Apple's (AAPL) CarPlay and Google's (GOOGL) Android Auto capabilities. (I would not buy any of these cars -- or any others, for that matter -- until these features are available. Even if I weren't interested in them my own use, then strictly for resale value purposes.)
Over the last year, I've driven almost all variants of the Audi A3 sold in the U.S. They include:
- 1.8 liter gasoline engine. This is the base model, and comes with front wheel drive.
- 2.0 liter gasoline engine. This is the same as in the Golf GTI, and comes with four wheel drive. The upcharge is $3,000 over the 1.8 liter model.
- 2.0 liter diesel engine. This one is available only as front wheel drive, and the upcharge is $3,000 over the 1.8 liter model.
- Convertible. Available with the two gasoline engines.
Whether in the VW Golf or in this Audi A3, these gasoline and diesel engines are the best in the industry. They are smooth and rev-happy. The transmission is a direct-shift (DSG) gearbox, otherwise referred to as an automated manual. Usually, I don't like these automated manual transmissions. Whether in the BMW M4, Alfa Romeo 4C or Nissan GTR, I find them to be extremely un-smooth. However, in these Audis and Volkswagens, this type transmission has character -- it's actually hard to describe.
In particular, this DSG transmission works well with the highest-torque engine, and that would be the diesel. The powertrain combination has a highly unusual character, all of it positive. Everyone should take a test drive and pay attention to how the powertrain pulls and shifts. It's the best in the industry.
The Audi A3 diesel's fuel economy is also the best in the business. The official EPA estimate is 31 miles-per-gallon in the city and 43 on the highway. I've done better, averaging 34-to-37 miles-per-gallon in the city and 46-to-50 on the highway. If you just take it easy on the highway, staying below 65 or 70 miles-per-hour, you will likely exceed 50 miles-per-gallon.
The handling is outstanding. The steering is precise and you will not find many cars that are more fun to drive. Contributing to this superior road feel is the steering wheel itself. There are no better steering wheels than those from Volkswagen and Audi.
The Audi A3's driver's seat is good, but not as superior as in the VW Golf sister model. The seating position is equally good, however, and that includes the excellent foot space.
One disappointment is that rear-view camera is not standard. As with a wireless ignition key -- and Android Auto and Apple CarPlay -- this should be standard on all cars.
The Audi A3 isn't the best at everything. It's got a small back seat with insufficient headroom. It's not an SUV. However, it has class-leading strengths as well. It looks great, inside and out. The interior is extremely well-designed in a minimalist sort of way. For the driver, the ergonomics are on par with the best.
The Audi A3's trump card is the "drive feel" (steering, transmission, etc.) and the resulting fuel economy. Seen this way, the Audi A3's best competitor is its sister car, the Volkswagen Golf, which gives you essentially everything the A3 has but at a lower price. You get a different center stack instrumentation, and more rear seat headroom, in the Golf. And the exterior looks very different.
But if you're looking at a premium sedan -- as opposed to hatchback or wagon -- in this size and price range, the Audi A3 should be at the top of your list. Just wait until the 2016 model is out, and presumably comes with Android Auto and Apple CarPlay.