Audi A3

Audi A3 (December 11, 2012)

Gone are the days when the words “luxury car” were synonymous with boat-size Cadillacs and bulging Bentleys. High-end, feature-packed rides now come in all shapes and sizes and many are fuel-efficient, fun-to-drive and easy-to-park compacts.

We looked at some of the best little luxuries on wheels.

Audi A3

Though the redesigned third-generation Audi A3, which was unveiled at the Geneva Motor Show in March, is expected in the U.S. late next year, the current edition still has so much to offer. Starting at $27,270, it’s a blast to drive (especially with the 2.0-liter turbo under the hood and available all-wheel drive) and, in its TDI clean diesel incarnation, delivers a smile-inducing 42 mpg highway (a huge improvement over the base model’s 30 mpg). The A3’s understated, well-crafted cabin offers ample front legroom plus cargo capacity that’s relatively cavernous for such a compact ride (19.5 cubic feet with the rear seats upright; 39 cubic feet with them folded). But if you’re after the versatility of the A3’s four-door hatchback layout, snag one soon, because word is that only the sedan version of the 2014 model will be released stateside (initially at least). 

BMW 1 Series

Like the A3, BMW’s small-but-spiffy 1 Series is largely unchanged for 2013, since a replacement generation is on the horizon. But there’s added pep in the 1 Series lineup this year thanks to the arrival of a performance-focused, 320-horsepower 135is model which, like its sister 128i and 135i rides, is available as both a two-door coupe and a California-ready convertible. The entire 1 Series lineup boasts enviable standard features like steering wheel-mounted controls, Bluetooth and HD Radio capability. To these the 135is adds sport suspension, 18-inch wheels, automatic climate control and xenon headlamps. Starting at $31,200 (for the 128i Coupe), these little 1s are a lot of Bimmer for your buck.

Lexus CT200h

Though only minimally refreshed for 2013, the remarkably affordable (both to buy and run) Lexus CT200h remains perhaps the pinnacle of attainable luxury motoring. Starting at $31,850 and delivering 42 mpg combined city/highway (which Lexus claims is the highest combined mpg among luxury cars), the CT200h is at once a sensible choice and a sophisticated one (with updated Navigation and available Park Assist). Posh options include a back-up camera, voice command, a 10-speaker Premium Audio Package with Homelink, perforated leather seats with driver memory and rain-sensing wipers. All this plus, of course, the prestige and implied luxury of that “L” logo upfront.

Volkswagen GTI

Looking further ahead, the seventh-generation Volkswagen GTI the original hot hatch is expected stateside in the first quarter of 2014. The GTI is getting a makeover which, judging by the “near-production concept” exhibited at the Paris Auto Show in September, will include a slightly stretched and sleeker silhouette than its predecessor, plus street-influenced smoked LED tail and fog lights and LED license plate illumination. Inside, a new fatigue detection system, GTI-specific red ambient lighting, and a flat-bottomed steering wheel are standard equipment, as are seat covers in the same tartan pattern found in the very first GTIs (U.S. specifications will be released closer to its stateside launch). As potent as it is pretty, this latest GTI is also expected to get a 17-horsepower output boost compared with the outgoing MkVI (packing 217 horsepower from a turbocharged 2-liter direct-injection four-pack, and 227 with the Performance package option). 

Mercedes-Benz A-Class

Also new in compact luxury (although apparently unlikely to be seen on North American roads in its current form) is Mercedes-Benz’s new A-Class. European reviewers have been drooling over this sporty, well-appointed hatchback, but though MBZ is tight-lipped on the subject only its sleek sedan variant is expected here. Overseas, the new A-Class is offered with a wide range of regular gasoline and turbocharged diesel engines, all with Mercedes’ ECO start/stop function as standard (ECO switches the engine off when the vehicle comes to a standstill and then starts it again as soon as the brake pedal is released). European pricing for the new A-Class starts at the equivalent of around $30,500.

  Paul Rogers, Brand Publishing Writer