When auto experts talk about entry level vehicles, they usually mean the lowest priced or most basic car or truck model in the lineup.
But what if the base vehicle can be upscale while still retaining a low price?
That's where Audi's heading with its newly remade A3 sedan.
"I think what they are going to be targeting are 25- to 40-years-old, entry level luxury (market), or people wanting to drive new but they don't need" a large car, says Luke Parish, sales associate with McDaniels Audi of Charleston.
The all-new A3 sedan, unveiled nationwide Thursday, is a departure for the carmaker, which has previously built the model for the U.S. market as a hatchback and wagon. It's been sold in Europe as a sedan.
Comfortably seating five people, the A3 luxury four-door adds perks while keeping the cost at a bargain starting price below $30,000. That's almost identical to the well-publicized new Mercedes-Benz CLA but according to Audi, the A3 amasses $6,000 in extras for the same price.
"You've got a panoramic roof, 17-inch alloy wheels, Xenon headlights (with LED daytime running lights)" and leather seats as standard features, said Scott Firth, general manager. Another perk on all models is a Sirius Satellite Radio with a 90-day trial subscription.
From a power standpoint, the sporty A3 boasts a 1.8-liter turbocharged engine racking up 170 horsepower and a get-up-and-go 200 pounds-feet of torque matched to a six-speed Xtronic automatic transmission. A 2.0-liter option touting 220 hp also can be purchased.
Lightweight, protective aluminum accounts for about 35-40 percent of the frame. The model's available with Audi's all-wheel-drive Quattro system.
"It's got everything at $29,900 you expect out of a luxury car," Parish said.
In the fall, Firth traveled to Germany with Audi and got to try out the remade A3.
"I was shocked when I drove it," he said. "This is just a big improvement."
Audi in recent years has cemented its place with mature drivers of larger sedans such as the A6, A8 and S8. But, "they didn't have an 28-40 year-old entry car," Firth said. That's where the A3 fits in.
For a starter luxury vehicle, the A3 provides plenty of cargo space in the trunk and via fold down back seats that open to the trunk.
Not surprisingly, Audi puts the new below-$30,000 model up against the Mercedes CLA, claiming in advertising that it's "more contrast than comparison." Among the claims: the A3 posts larger rear passenger head room, 36.1 inches; and leg room at 35.1 inches. It also jets from 0-60 mph in 5.8 seconds.
Audi already has lined up its next iterations spun off the A3. "The diesel's here in July, the convertible right behind it," Parish said. Eventually, Audi plans an SUV version, the Q3, and a high performance ride, the 290-horsepower S3. Meanwhile, the familiar A3 wagon will be morphed into a hybrid.
Parish said it makes sense for the carmaker to introduce an entry-level edition.
"I think you get a lot of (younger) people who have never driven an Audi," Parish said. By developing the more sizable A6 and A8, Audi has "captured" a share of the upper end market. "Now we'll go back and focus on the entry level," he said.
The sales associate believes Audi got it right with the new A3. Despite the non-luxury price, "It still feels like an Audi."
In an afternoon drive last month of a well-stocked A3 with estimated $35,000 price, the factory edition sedan made a statement that it can provide luxury cred even at a price that's maybe not meat and potatoes but at least a midpoint entrée.
Looks wise, the A3 is subtly dynamic with a lightly sloped rear roof and solid stance. Leather seats highlight the understated interior. The sedan showcases ample room for seating in the front without skimping on rear space. The ability to expand trunk space through to the folded back seats, which can be in a 60-40 configuration, proves a smart touch.
The new sedan handles well, negotiating turns and switching lanes on the interstate with ease, and it brakes capably. While the car isn't considered high performance, the engine utilizes all of its 1.8 liters and can pick up speed without strain, particularly in sports mode. Gas mileage is in the solid 30s mpg.
Among extras, the Bang & Olufsen Sound System with 14 speakers and 705 watts is outstanding, almost like bringing the band right into your entry level car.
Perhaps it's nitpicking, but the A3 missed the mark a little but talking luxury but not always delivering. One nit: Standard gear shifting in sports mode is on the shift lever rather than paddles by the steering wheel. Of more concern, a rear camera isn't standard even as it becomes a popular safety feature. And while power driver seats are excellent, the passenger seats are moved around manually.
Nonetheless, the A3 may wind up as one of those cars people mark in future years when seeing the transition of automobiles, a true mid-priced luxury vehicle. That's a storied achievement, and one that could keep Audi as a market leader for years to come.
For more on the A3, visit your local Audi dealer.
Reach Jim Parker at 937-5542 or email@example.com.