The Audi A3 2.0T and Volkswagen GTI are like identical twins separated at birth. When they finally come together we see they both look different and are good at different things, but there's a discernible link between the two that can't be denied. In this case, it's the engine. Both the entry-level A3 and hot-hatch GTI use Volkswagen's turbocharged 2.0L four-cylinder with FSI direct injection. The turbo-four produces 200 horsepower at 5,100 rpm, and 207 ft-lbs. of torque at a very low 1,800 rpm.
Since the same heart is pumping power down the drivelines of these two vehicles, how different can they really be? Styling and packaging aside, does the Audi A3 drive like a four-door Volkswagen GTI?
Let's first talk about that engine, since any praise or criticism we give it can be applied to its application in both vehicles. Volkswagen has become very good at mass-producing turbocharged engines, and the 2.0T FSI benefits from the company's years of practice. We like the beefy torque curve that makes the motor feel stronger than its displacement suggests. You can spin the wheels at will with the ESP turned off, point the car and shoot, and pass without breaking a sweat (often without downshifting). Make no mistake, though, the 2.0T FSI in both applications is a small engine in a relatively heavy car. It can take you right up to the edge of exhilaration, but remains well mannered and tractable when asked to run errands.
Audi and Volkswagen have each found areas where their version can differentiate itself. Volkswagen, for instance, uses a tube that runs along the left side of the engine to pump some extra decibels back into the cabin. This creates a much louder aural experience in the GTI than the A3. It's a small addition to the GTI (some have argued pointless), but creates a major difference in how the car is experienced from behind the wheel.
Our GTI also has the optional 18-inch Hufeisen alloy wheels wearing summer performance tires. Combine those with stiffer springs and firmer damping and the Volkswagen definitely feels like a sport compact compared to the Audi.
Despite offering a sportier ride than the A3, the GTI is not the sportiest ride in town. It still has a bearable around town demeanor that soaks up bumps well, but that also contributes to a fair amount of body roll. The GTI is a tall two-door (See Dr. Woo's comment on this), which means it tends to lean in corners to a degree that might make you lift off the gas. The Euro-spec model, which sits .6 inches lower than our own GTI, no doubt feels more buttoned down. Depending on your inclination, however, this may or may not be a bad thing. Most of us on the Autoblog staff appreciate a nice ride that than can carve corners when called upon, although one or two of us are always carving and could care less about soaking up potholes.
The A3's handling, meanwhile, feels more like that of a luxury car than a sport compact. Our tester came equipped with 17-inch alloys, also wearing summer performance tires, so we hardly felt as if the A3 had much less grip than the GTI, at least in around town driving. The A3 also sits significantly lower than the GTI, which helped to offset the lean produced by its more compliant ride. What can be said is that the A3 trades some of the GTI's sharpness for a ride that's remarkably smooth yet very controllable. We felt the A3 shined particularly well on the highway where it absorbed road irregularities and rolled over potholes like they weren't there, effectively behaving like a car with a much longer wheelbase.
Volkswagen GTI shifter
We wish we could have gotten these two with the same transmission, but instead the A3 divides the 2.0T's power with a traditional six-speed manual while the GTI uses the company's six-speed Direct Shift Gearbox, or DSG. Volkswagen/Audi has already hinted at replacing all of its automatics with DSG transmissions, so these may be our only two options before too long.
Audi A3 stick
Commenter verdegrrl noted that the A3's clutch is tricky to operate smoothly, and we couldn't agree more. It's not very firm and the uninitiated will be surprised at how quickly the gears engage, which results in some nice jumps and bucks when taking off from a standstill. This isn't a short-throw shifter either, so the effort to change gears is a longish arm motion. Mechanically speaking, the Audi's stick and clutch were the car's biggest weak points.
The DSG in the GTI, however, works like a charm every time. In automatic mode it's shifts are quicker and less perceptible than those in an actual automatic transmission, so we couldn't agree more with a Volkswagen decision to replace all auto shifters with DSGs in the future. It truly is a better automatic than an automatic.
Volkswagen GTI paddle shifter
The DSG is also remarkable in manual mode, despite this reviewer's distaste for most types of manumatic-type trannies. The DSG is no auto posing as a manual, however. For those who've never had the opportunity to "row" your own gears via DSG, the experience is quite satisfying and unusual. With most manuals there is a lag between shifts where the tachometer's needle is in free fall for a split second. There is no lag with a DSG, so instead of falling, the needle whips down to match the next gear's rotating speed. Completely absent, however, is the lurch one expects with every shift. Volkswagen includes two paddles mounted on the steering wheel to control upshifting and downshifting the DSG, the location of which versus mounting them on the steering column is still a big debate among enthusiasts.
Which of these cars is better than the other is also still an unsettled debate, as the comments left on the two previous parts of this review (1, 2) indicate. Some go for the GTI's sportier character while others want the Audi's sophistication. All seem to enjoy how much utility each vehicle offers and the superlative 2.0T FSI engine. What we've learned is that the Audi A3 2.0T and Volkswagen GTI are really as different as they are the same. For each variation between the two you can find something else in common. If we had to choose, though, we'd go with the A3 over the GTI. An extra pair of doors and an Audi badge for the around the same price seems like a pretty good deal to us.