There's a schoolyard brawl breaking out among German sport sedans, and Audi's all-new A3 is the latest to join the fray.
Mercedes started it last September, with the entry-level CLA, a compact front-drive sedan looking to attract younger buyers with a base price of $30,825. BMW counterpunched with a simpler, cheaper version of its venerable 3 Series, selling for just slightly more.
Now Audi has unleashed a thorough overhaul of its A3, previously a slow-selling hatchback but now an entire lineup of vehicles, anchored by a sleek, small sedan.
"These three brands don't want to let any of the others get away with anything," said Tom Libby, a senior analyst at IHS. "They don't want a hole where a competitor has something selling."
The sedan we tested began selling in April. It will be followed this fall by a convertible, a diesel sedan and a high-performance S3 sedan. In 2015, two hatchbacks will join the group: a plug-in hybrid and a diesel.
The basic A3 sedan comes in two flavors. A front-wheel-drive model starts at $30,795 and pairs a 1.8-liter, 170-horsepower turbocharged engine with a six-speed dual-clutch transmission.
An additional $3,000 gets you the A3 2.0T we tested. It comes with the brand's quattro all-wheel-drive system and a 2.0-liter turbocharged engine that makes 220 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque. A six-speed dual-clutch transmission is also standard, and Audi says it helps the A3 2.0T scoot from zero to 60 mph in 5.8 seconds.
This powertrain is an excellent combination and reason enough to choose the A3 over Mercedes' CLA. Though the engine feels a little light on low-end grunt, it pulls hard once the engine gets higher into the rev range. The dual-clutch gearbox is also a gem, ripping off one lightning-quick shift after another.
Our only real complaint about driving the A3 was the transmission's Sport mode, which is in need of recalibration. With this setting on, the car almost refuses to upshift, keeping the revs far higher than your mechanic would like. We're all for aggressive tuning, but this was too much.
The rest of the driving experience is a study in serenity. The compact proportions of the A3 (it's about 10 inches shorter than an Audi A4) make the car easy to maneuver.
Pushed hard, the A3 handles like a compact, all-wheel-drive car should. Drivers looking for tire-smoking, license-threatening antics should look elsewhere, but the car is more than willing to dart about.
This Audi's fuel economy numbers — 24 mpg in the city and 33 mpg on the freeway — aren't particularly groundbreaking, but they're on par with the comparable Mercedes and BMW models. A week of mostly city driving left us with an average of 23 mpg.
The Audi's interior is refreshingly simple in an age when the cockpit of a luxury car can resemble that of a 747. At the top of the dashboard, a thin screen pops up and displays audio and, if equipped, navigation.
Below that are a pair of round air vents, then a strip of horizontal buttons and another strip of small, finely detailed aluminum knobs for the climate control. Within the center console is the rotary controller for the stereo and navigation system.
There's plenty of space throughout the A3's quiet, stout cabin. Extra-tall riders may be a bit tight on headroom in the back seats, but it's more than manageable for everyone else back there.
The exterior doesn't have the panache of the wind-swept Mercedes CLA; it plays its hand more conservatively. But the Audi's lines are crisp and taut, and likely to age better than the Benz's. Nothing about the A3's styling says budget sedan; it simply looks like a tidier version of a high-end German sedan.
That's a good thing because despite its "entry level" designation, our A3 test car weighed in at a hefty $39,495.
Yet the options on our tester weren't so exotic. Highlights were Audi's navigation system with a touch-sensitive rotary knob to input commands, 18-inch alloy wheels, heated front seats and mirrors, and aluminum trim inside. Nice stuff, but it shouldn't push the A3's price as high as it does.
Checking all the boxes at the Audi dealership can run the price up to about $44,000. There's nothing entry-level about that kind of money, but that might not be a problem for Audi.
As of April 2014, the average transaction price for a Mercedes CLA was $40,376, despite heavy marketing by Mercedes of a starting price below $30,000 (excluding destination charge).
We'd be plenty happy with a basic A3, which comes standard with leather seats, a panoramic moonroof, LED daytime running lights, satellite radio and eight air bags.
No matter what options you check, the A3 is a better car for the money than the Mercedes. But it's not necessarily the best of the lower-priced German sedans.
BMW's 320i starts at $33,675 and offers stiff competition. The car looks no different from much more expensive versions of the 3 Series, so your neighbors won't know you took the cheap route out of the Bimmer dealer. With rear-wheel drive and a no-cost, ultra-slick manual transmission, the 320i offers a ton of performance for the price.
The winner comes down to personal choice. The tidy Audi A3 connects with a superb combination of style, power and value. The BMW counters with world-class handling, more space and the venerated 3 Series label.
It's a fight we're not about to break up.
2015 Audi A3 2.0T sedan
Times' take: Audi's small car is a big winner
Highs: Plenty of standard features; clean styling inside and out; excellent drivetrain
Lows: Options add up quickly; Sport mode is tedious
Vehicle type: Four-door compact sedan
Base price: $33,795
Price as tested: $39,495
Powertrain: 2.0-liter turbocharged, direct-injected, inline four-cylinder; all-wheel-drive
Transmission: Six-speed, dual-clutch automated manual
Torque: 258 pound-feet
Zero to 60 mph: 5.8 seconds, according to Audi
EPA fuel economy rating: 24 mpg in the city, 33 on the highway