Photos Copyright ©2009 Drew Phillips / Weblogs, Inc.
Until the new A1 and possibly the A2 arrive in the next couple of years, Audi's global lineup is anchored by the A3. Like the TT coupe and roadster, the A3 shares much of its underpinnings with corporate siblings from the Volkswagen side of the family – specifically, the Golf and Jetta. Thus, the A3 is a C-segment car with a transverse-mounted engine and front- or optional Quattro all-wheel drive.
Europeans can get an A3 with either two- or four-passenger entry portals plus a tailgate. We only get the five-door variant here in the U.S. The A3 also rides on the same 101.5-inch wheelbase as the Golf and Jetta, though it is just over three inches longer than the Golf/Rabbit and a little over a foot shorter than the Jetta. Where it really differs is being nine inches
(the original dimensional comparison erred in listing the span of the outside mirrors for the A3) marginally wider and two inches closer to the ground. Combined with the somewhat overbearing Audi family grille, the A3 has a stockier, more athletic appearance than the VWs.
Audi has never been particularly fond of the term station wagon, or apparently hatchback, either. Audi wagons have long worn the Avant appellation. Technically, Audi does not call the A3 a hatchback or a wagon, but rather a Sportback. Whatever it's called, the A3 is a handsome little car that offers a healthy dose of utility, as well.
Americans have strange attitudes when it comes to vehicles. Until gas prices spiked, we had no issue buying millions of SUVs with tailgates that were little more than high-riding, glorified wagons. But when it comes to cars, for some reason we feel the need for a trunk to have a more upscale appearance. As a result, the next generation A3 is expected to sprout just such a rear appendage for the U.S. market. Frankly, we'd stick with the hatch/sportback. For a comparatively small car, the A3 boasts a capacious 19.5 cubic feet of storage behind its rear seats, and loading luggage for three occupants is much easier than trying to stuff it through a trunk lid.
Up front, the A3 gets a slightly more upscale if austere interior treatment than its VW-badged siblings. The predominantly black interior comes off as almost spartan, apart from the aluminum trim rings around the vents and the latch for the glove box. The controls are well laid out, and a mini MMI controller sits on the vertical surface of the center console next to the navigation screen. The backseat offers plenty of room for two adults, although headroom is down a bit from the VWs due to its lower roof-line.
While MMI has a superior graphical interface to the original BMW iDrive system, some of the controls remain counter-intuitive. For example, moving down the menus requires turning the control knob counter-clockwise. Even after all the Audis we've driven, this still seems odd. We haven't tried the new generation MMI that's coming on the Q7 and Q5 this year, but Audi will have to step up its game in this respect to match the new iDrive system and ideally, the much simpler interface that Ford has in its new products.
Any car with sporting pretensions needs great interfaces between the human body and the vehicle. Specifically, the steering wheel and seats need to be comfortable and grippy. Since the A3 is meant as a sportier alternative to the Jetta, its seats have more aggressive side bolsters and are covered in a mix of leather and Alcantara that do an admirable job of keeping the driver placed directly in line with the wheel, gauges and pedals when lateral acceleration forces build up. The driver's hands control the direction of the A3 through a thick-rimmed steering wheel with paddle shifters on the back side.
Since VW has already certified the family 2.0-liter four-cylinder TDI diesel for the Jetta and upcoming Mk VI Golf, adding it to the A3 is really a no brainer. Like the Jetta, the A3 TDI is rated at 140 hp and a robust 236 lb-ft of torque at 1,750 rpm. Europeans can also opt for a more powerful 170 hp version of the same engine, but we will only get the 140 hp unit. That's actually more than adequate for pretty much any driving, as we'll soon see.
Power gets sent to the wheels through a choice of six-speed transmissions. The base unit is a traditional three-pedal manual gearbox. For those who prefer to let the car's computer handle the shifting every once in a while, a dual clutch S-Tronic like the one fitted to our test car is also available. While the Jetta TDI can be manually shifted only with the console lever, the A3 adds the steering wheel-mounted paddles as an option, allowing the driver to keep a grip on the wheel when driving in the twisty stuff.
Speaking of twisty stuff, we saw plenty of it during our time in California. While working on a project in Thousand Oaks, we spent time traversing canyon roads between there and Malibu in a variety of vehicles, including the A3. The A3 was the only front-wheel-drive car that we drove, but it held its own quite well. Like the Jetta that we raved about in the same area last fall, the A3 proved to be a remarkably well-balanced machine. It does indeed understeer at the limit, as one would expect of a nose-heavy hatchback. However, the larger, grippier tires ultimately give it higher limits than the Jetta TDI.
In spite of its natural tendency to safely understeer, a bit of trail braking (keeping the brakes on and gradually feathering them off to keep weight transferred onto the front tires) entering the corner and approaching the apex helps bring the back end around smoothly and allows a quicker exit out of the corner. The standard electronic stability control intervenes only as much as needed to keep you out of trouble without sapping all the fun out of brisk driving. When the ESC does take effect, it does so seamlessly, with the only really indicator being the flashing lamp in the instrument cluster. Tapping the paddles on the back of the steering wheel, meanwhile, induces quick and smooth shifts of the gearbox, although the wide torque band of the diesel engine minimizes the need to do much shifting.
Moving the shifter from 'Drive' to 'Sport' will speed up the shifts and lets the gearbox hold a lower gear longer, thus staying in the meat of the diesel's limited power band. On roads like Mulholland Highway and Decker Canyon Road, second and third gear is about all you need with straight line opportunities for acceleration being kept to a minimum. The key is to keep a smooth line through the switchbacks to carry what speed you have from one corner to the next and minimize loss of velocity.
Eventually, the canyon running has to stop, and the driver must return to the chores of daily driving. Drop the shifter back into Drive and the engine and gearbox calibrations return to a more sedate mode that provides smooth and somewhat leisurely launches without jack-rabbit starts. Don't touch the paddles, and the S-Tronic acts like a conventional automatic giving effortless operation in bumper to bumper traffic on the 405 in Los Angeles. On the after dark drive back to LAX, the adaptive Xenon lights kept the road ahead well illuminated and even turn into corners. Through a mix of highway, urban traffic and spirited back road running, our A3 TDI returned a very respectable 34 mpg. Those without access or desire to emulate the brisk pace we had on back roads will likely find their numbers much closer to 40 mpg in all-around driving. During last fall's Audi Mileage Marathon, the A3 TDIs averaged over 50 mpg crossing the country.
Audi won't announce pricing of the A3 TDI until closer to its on-sale date late this year. The current A3 2.0-liter turbo gasoline engine with the S-Tronic runs $28,400 so the TDI is likely to run about $30,000. While that is a bit on the high side for a compact five-door hatchback, it's quite competitive with the BMW 1-series with much better interior space. Since BMW doesn't offer its 1-series diesel here in the U.S., you can't get a direct comparison. With diesel now roughly back at parity in price with gasoline, the A3 will soon offer a premium compact with good handling and excellent fuel economy.