If you’re a German automaker in the U.S. (except for one), chances are you’ve had a license to print money for a while now. These companies didn’t do it the old fashioned way by building staid, indestructible luxo-tanks for all of our bosses. No! They did it by going where the money is: downmarket. Over the past few years, we’ve seen the likes of the Mercedes CLA-Class (which has had its ups and downs), the BMW 2 Series (M2 — ’nuff said), and the handsome Audi A3, which is all new for 2017.
But the A3 is a complicated bird. While the $31K-and-up sedan isn’t all that much smaller than the original A4 of 20 years ago, you’d be forgiven for mistaking it for that current model. And while it bears more than a passing resemblance to the A4, it actually has a closer relative out in the world. Because the A3 is built on parent company Volkswagen Auto Group’s Swiss army knife that is the MQB platform. By now, you may have an idea of where this is going: cheap Audi compact sedan, Volkswagen DNA. It has to be related to a Jetta, right? Believe it or not, the Jetta is built on a completely different platform. You still get partial credit though, because the A3 — like the original Jetta — is (on paper at least) a Volkswagen Golf with a trunk.
So here’s the complicated part: How do you move a prestige brand downmarket and share its underpinnings with lesser models while still keeping it special and exclusive? Well, we happen to think Audi’s been doing a pretty good job with it. But while the company may still be down, the Volkswagen Golf is as good as ever, and for 31 large, you can get yourself a fine example of what’s arguably the best, most versatile sports car on the planet, the GTI. So call us crazy, but can VW’s iconic hot hatch stand up to the entry-level Audi? Let’s find out in this latest Buy This, Not That.
Tale of the tape:
All-new for 2017, the A3 looks even more like its bigger cousin the A4, proving that there’s nothing wrong with the same sausage, different lengths styling method when done right. In base model Premium spec, power goes to the front wheels via a 2.0 liter turbocharged inline four, which is good for 186 horses and 221 pound-feet of torque, and a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic. Quattro all-wheel drive is available, but it’s a $3,000 option.
Outside, the A3 looks like any self-respecting Audi worth its salt should, and does nothing to telegraph its affordable price. Inside is the same story, with leather seats, dual-zone climate control, aluminum accents, rear view cameras, and parking sensors. There’s a lot more to be had, but it all comes at a price. The Prestige model starts at $40,150; if you aren’t too careful, you could leave the dealership with an A3 that comes dangerously close to $50K once all the taxes and fees are taken into account.
You aren’t going to have that problem with the GTI, which starts at just over $26K, so in order to catch up with the A3 Premium, you can have some fun with the options list. Of course, you’re also starting with a 2.0 liter four, but it’s turbocharged here, making 210 horses and 258 pound-feet, plus there’s the standard sweet-shifting six-speed manual (though a six-speed dual clutch automatic is available too). You’re getting four doors and room for five, like the Audi. But you also have a hatch, which gives you more versatility when it comes to hauling.
Speaking of hauling, this GTI happens to be the quickest yet, with a zero to 60 time of 5.6 seconds, and a top speed of 126 miles per hour, which is just 0.3 seconds and 3 miles per hour slower than the Audi. If you start with the $30,890 GTI SE, you might forget that, because you get Volkswagen’s Fender Premium Audio system, bigger brakes, a limited-slip differential, Car-Net infotainment system, rear-view camera, leather seats, and push-button start. There isn’t anything you can’t get in the A3, but you can get it in the GTI for a lot less, and look almost as good.
The A3 is a good looking car that handles well, has plenty of power, and wears its four rings without embarrassing the Audi brand. But for our money, we’d always rather have the best of something than a compromised version of something just out of our price range. If you want a sporty, luxurious German compact but are on a budget, you could go aspirational and buy the A3. But your limited buying power would likely leave you with compromises.
Yes, the VW badge doesn’t have the same cachet if that’s what you’re into (maybe buy three more and link them across your grille then?), but the GTI is universally respected as one of the best cars on the planet, and you can buy plenty of it for just over $30K. Plus, as much as we love German DSG gearboxes and leather, you can get the VW with the iconic golfball manual shifter and plaid seats. You could throw as much money at Audi as you want, but you probably aren’t going to get any tartan there. So for today, let’s say advantage: plaid — uh, we mean Volkswagen.