With all their twists and turns, switchbacks and hairpins, and ups and downs, the roads and byways that wind through the Santa Cruz mountains south of San Franciso offer a perfect place to test the capabilities of a modern sports sedan.
In other words, an ideal environment for Audi to bring its new A3 this past week to give auto writers from around the country the opportunity for a hands-on, behind-the-wheel experience.
The German automaker is venturing into new territory with the 2015 version of the A3.
After serving as a hatchback since its introduction to U.S. audiences less than a decade ago, the A3 now has morphed into sedan configuration which the company figures will have more appeal for domestic buyers than the previous five-door model.
Coming later in the year are a droptop version, the A3 Cabriolet, and a clean diesel model, the A3 TDI, and they will be joined in 2015 by a gas-electric hybrid version.
When the A3 first goes on sale this spring, it will offer buyers the choice of two four-cylinder engines, a 1.8-liter turbo with front-wheel drive and a 2.0-liter turbo with Audi’s quattro all-wheel-drive system.
The 1.8 model is rated at 170 horsepower with 200 pound-feet of torque from 1600 to 4400 rpm. The 2.0 bumps up horsepower to 220 and torque up to 258 pound-feet at only a small cost in fuel consumption. The 1.8 has EPA estimates of 23 miles-per-gallon city, 33 highway. Numbers for the larger 2.0 are 24/33.
With a zero-to-60 mph clocking of 7.2 seconds, the 1.8 models sports power that would be adequate for most situations and satisfy all but the most power-hungry drivers, and an afternoon drive backed that up. The 1.8 handled the steep upgrades around the headquarters hotel with a pleasing aplomb with no particular stress on the engine.
But a full day in the 2.0 confirmed what could be expected. Facing elevation changes on a route that went from near sea level along California’s Pacific Coast Highway to altitudes of over 2,700 feet, the 2.0 virtually glided up the mountains with the eagerness of a thoroughbred racehorse in a stretch run for the roses. For the record, the 2.0 bursts from zero-to-60 in 5.8 seconds according to Audi’s timers.
At 3,362 pounds, the 2.0 is about 187 pounds heavier than the 1.8, but both acquit themselves very well when it comes to agility and handling tight, mountain-road curves that often call for quick steering.
And both the 2.0 and 1.8 do so in style and comfort. The A3’s profile is slightly larger than the two-door TT coupe and slightly smaller than Audi’s popular A4 sedan.
Yet the A3 offers virtually the same legroom in front (41.2 inches) and back (35.1) as the somewhat larger A4 (41.3 and 35.2, respectively). Cargo capacity for the A3 (12.2 cubic feet) and the A4 (12.4 cubic feet) are virtually the same as well.
And the 2015 A3 also offers an advantage in pricing over the A4 with a starting MSRP of under $30,000 for the 1.8 (not including destination and delivery) and $32,900 for the AWD quattro 2.0 model.
MSRP starts at $35,595 for the 2014 A4, and that’s with a six-speed manual transmission. The new A3 has Audi’s six-speed S Tronic dual-clutch transmission as standard in both the 1.8 and 2.0 models.
It’s going to be interesting to see how buyers respond when it comes to selecting between the A3 and the A4, and Audi may be wondering about that as well. For now, though, the edge would seem to go with the A3.