2009 Audi A3 Expert Review:Autoblog
Audi started its big push for clean diesel here in the U.S. market this spring when its big Q7 TDI finally went on sale. While the Q7 TDI is one of the most fuel efficient seven-passenger SUVs available anywhere, it's only the beginning for Audi. Assuming that Americans start taking a shine to hot oil, Audi is likely to introduce a whole series of Rudi D's disciples here. So far, however, only one has been announced in addition to the Q7, the compact A3 hatchback.
The A3 is the entry-level model for the four-ringed brand here in the U.S. Until now, it has only been sold with a choice of a 2.0-liter turbo four-cylinder or 3.2-liter V6 engines running on gasoline. At the Detroit Auto Show, Audi announced that the A3 TDI would go on sale late this year. While the A3 TDI isn't yet available, one was made available to us for five days during a recent trip to Southern California. Find out what it was like after the jump.
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.
Photos Copyright ©2009 Drew Phillips / Weblogs, Inc.
In the automotive world, price is increasingly a function of degrees. How's that? Dial in a faster windscreen angle, aggressively rake the rear glass and – voilà! – you've just padded your margins to the tune of a few thousand bucks. Take a plain-jane sedan, hire some stylists to turn it into a "four-door coupe" with a racy greenhouse, and you can use the same mechanicals and still charge a mint. The same goes for crossovers – just steepen the backlight and you're in the ducats. Not convinced? See the Mercedes-Benz CLS and BMW X6 for field notes.
We note all of this because we're sure you're going to look at the upright profile of this MTM Audi A3 Sportback and dismissively turn up your nose when you learn its pricetag is around $55,000. But if we lopped off a couple of doors or gave it a less formal roofline, we'd be willing to bet that its price would suddenly look a lot more palatable. All of which is understandable, really, as $55k is a lot of coin to be shelling out – especially considering that at a few shekels over $27k, a base A3 starts at roughly half the money.
But shelve your bodystyle prejudices and bear with us for a moment. If you're like us, you've looked longingly at a lot of what the Four-Ringed Wunder has been kicking out on its home continent – models like the RS6 Avant, TT-RS and S3. And unless you've got some seriously deep pockets, an inside man on the gray market and a relative who owes you a favor at the local DMV, you haven't got a prayer of landing any such tasty treats here in the U.S. So while the folks at Motoren-Technik-Mayer (MTM) can't source you an assembly-line-fresh S3 for your middle-American driveway, they can build you a road-legal doppelganger, and as it turns out, that ain't half bad.
We've talked up the Audi A3's virtues and vices before, so we'll spare you the gab about how much we enjoy its well-resolved interior, grippy Quattro all-wheel drive, planted handling and surprising utility. We've also not been shy in mentioning how its price tag can get disastrously dear with just a brief once-over of Audi's options list – and that's before handing it over to a tuner like MTM. But enough with the apologies – ride along with us past the jump to see if this hot hatch is full of excuses... or full of win.
Photos by Chris Paukert / Copyright ©2009 Weblogs, Inc.
So, what's going on here – is this merely a North American-spec A3 swaddled in European couture? Not exactly. On the outside, MTM starts with an A3 2.0T S-Line, then fits genuine S3 aero addenda (bumpers, side skirts), along with brushed aluminum mirror covers, fog lamps, badges and – most importantly – the S3's 13.6-inch front rotors and monobloc calipers. Those new clampers are shrouded in a set of massive Pirelli PZero-clad MTM Bimoto alloys and the whole works has been dropped to within an inch of its life.
When we picked up this tester at MTM's offices in suburban Detroit, we were simultaneously excited about how great the Sportback's stance looked and nervous for the well-being of both its 19x8.5-inch wheels and our backsides. Seriously – it appeared we'd be shaving tread on the fender liners just negotiating the parking lot apron. Interestingly – and perhaps tellingly – the fair dinkum S3 runs around on 18s.
Of course, this isn't simply an appearance package. MTM has reflashed the 2.0-liter turbo's ECU and fitted a larger 70-mm stainless steel exhaust system, alterations that are ultimately good for 272 horsepower and 274 pound-feet of torque (+72 and +67, respectively). For those keeping score, those figures actually better this car's European inspiration by 11 additional horses and 16 torques.
Not enough petrochemical carbonation for you? If you've got the cash, MTM will burrow under the hood again until you've got as many as 380 ponies – but as fun as that sounds, we wouldn't bother with the extra parts (bigger turbo, downpipe, blowoff valve, etc.) or tweaking because the engine is plenty spirited as-is. MTM's codepushers haven't just liberated some extra fizz from the 2.0T, they've minimized a bit of the lagginess we've observed previously. As before, the six-speed S-Tronic dual-clutch gearbox wallpapers over any such shortcomings with lighting fast gearchanges when you man the paddleshifters.
The free-revving quattro-port (eh?) and the revoiced exhaust note combine to create the same sort of electric zizz soundtrack that we experienced earlier this year in the Audi TTS, albeit without that car's lag. We think it's an infectious and distinctive noise that's a breed apart from the typical can-of-bees four-cylinder import exhaust, but this still isn't the sort of tone that's likely to appeal to fans of big displacement bombast.
How about those stiffer lowering springs and watchstrap tires? We're happy to report that we never once pondered phoning our chiropractor – or a tow truck. Yes, the MTM's ride is markedly firmer than a garden-variety A3, but it's not so brittle as to wreak Jenga with one's vertebrae. The stiffer springs pay dividends in reduced role and quicker direction changes, and those stickier tires and bigger discs deliver feel-good halt in short order. That said, we'd still opt for a minus-one wheel/tire fitment to shave off a few bucks.
We've been a bit cavalier about money to this point, and yes, there are less expensive ways to get similar all-wheel drive performance (Subaru WRX STI, Mitsubishi Evolution X, not to mention Audi's own S4), but even MTM's officials admit that this example spec'd out at more than what they were hoping for. Our suggestion? Save a bit on the oversized rolling stock and ask if you can get a small discount for deleting the 'Sportback' rocker panel appliqués. With the money saved, you might even spring for the S3's flat-bottom wheel (it makes the rockin' world go round).
Just remember: When your friends chide you for spending over fifty grand on a lowly hatchback, you can comfort yourself with the knowledge that genuine S3s run German customers upwards of $50k anyhow. Besides, MTM is planning on selling only 15 of these Stateside. And at least in our world, talent, versatility and exclusivity go a long way toward trumping fashionable silliness like faster windshields and compromised headroom – and not just by a few degrees.
Photos by Chris Paukert / Copyright ©2009 Weblogs, Inc.
New Car Test Drive
Premium compact five-door hatch.
The Audi A3 is a premium car with excellent driving dynamics from superbly engineered powertrain, suspension and braking systems. Yet it's fuel-efficient, with an EPA-rated 30 mpg Highway.
It is, essentially, a practical, compact five-door hatchback, but it feels up-market, like a scaled-down A4. We like the A3 for its combination of open-road dynamism, long-haul friendliness, and around-town usefulness. The A3 is an example of the exquisite sensibilities in design and use of materials that distinguishes a contemporary Audi.
Two models are available. The A3 2.0 T is powered by a turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine, which drives either the front wheels, or has all-wheel-drive with the quattro version. The A3 3.2 quattro has a 3.2-liter V6 that drives all four wheels.
We found the A3 models offer superb balance and excellent throttle response that make for a convincing sports-car experience when the road is right. Inside, the A3 is roomy and versatile, blending pleasing materials with logical controls and highly legible readouts.
Changes for 2009 include the addition of quattro all-wheel drive as an option with the 2.0-liter turbocharged engine, the optional availability of Audi Magnetic Ride, which enhances the ride and handling, some changes to trim and some re-configuring of some of the options packages. Features that are now standard equipment include leather seating surfaces, Sirius satellite radio, a leather steering wheel, auxiliary audio input, and hill-hold assist. The A3 3.2 now comes standard with Bluetooth, bi-xenon headlights, the Open Sky moonroof, Concert CD audio, Sport Suspension, and Sport Seats.
All Audi A3 models sold in the U.S. are five-door Sportbacks.
The A3 2.0 T is front-wheel drive, with the 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine rated at 200 horsepower. Two transmissions are available: a six-speed manual or the optional Direct Shift Gearbox (DSG) automatic. The A3 2.0 T is also available with the all-wheel-drive quattro system. The A3 3.2 quattro comes with all-wheel drive and a 250-hp 3.2-liter V6. All quattro models use the DSG automatic.
The A3 2.0 T ($26,920), 2.0 T DSG ($28,400), and 2.0 T DSG quattro ($30,500) come with leather upholstery; automatic climate control with pollen filter and sun sensor; power lumbar support; tilt and telescoping steering column; 10-speaker, 140-watt stereo; central locking with remote keyless entry; power windows; electronic cruise control; anti-theft alarm; two cup holders in the center console; vanity mirrors in the sunvisors; Servotronic electro-mechanical steering; and 17-inch, five-spoke alloy wheels with all-season radial tires.
The 2.0 T Premium Package ($1,500) adds 17-inch, ten-spoke alloy wheels, a storage package, illumination package, power front driver's seat with four-way power lumbar adjustment, multifunction three-spoke sport steering wheel, alloy shift paddles on cars with DSG, aluminum beltline trim, front fog lights, and Bluetooth. The S line Package ($2,000) includes the Premium Package, plus a roof spoiler, S line badges, unique front and rear bumpers, and aluminum door sills (with the S line logo). The Convenience Package ($1,800) adds Bose electronics, AudioPilot noise compensation, bi-xenon headlights, and an auto-dimming mirror. The A3 3.2 quattro ($36,975) includes all of the content of the S line Package and Audio Package.
Options include a Cold Weather Package ($500) with heated front seats, heated windshield washer nozzles and heated exterior mirrors; navigation ($1,950), which includes a six-cd changer and two SD card slots; and the Open Sky moonroof ($1,100).
Safety features that come standard on all models include front and side-impact airbags for the front-seat passengers. All five seating positions get three-point seatbelts and adjustable headrests, while front-seat headrests feature active technology to reduce whiplash injuries. The front seat belts feature height adjustment, automatic pre-tensioners and belt-force limiters. Rear side airbags are optional ($350). Active safety features that come standard include electronic stability program (ESP); full-time traction control (ASR); ABS, EBD, Brake Assist; and an electronic differential lock (EDL).
The A3 is understated and elegant. Its masterly crafted panels fit just right, the paint is exquisite, and there's an overall expensive look to it that contradicts the usual expectations from a small, affordable car.
A compact five-door hatchback can't be a car designer's favorite project. There's only so much that can be done to fit all those doors on a short wheelbase. But Audi stylists have done a good job of it. In profile, the downward, coupe-esque sweep of the roofline is supported by a strong shoulder line that joins front, side and rear of the car and leads the eye to the strong rear end, all of which makes it appear as though the A3 is launching forward, springing into action.
The front end is particularly distinctive, again projecting a sense of forward motion. Audi's current family-look single-frame grille is flanked by canted headlamp clusters (forming a determined frown) and prominent lower intake grilles. It's an aggressive nose, but it doesn't overly dominate the design, as the eye gets drawn along the distinct shoulder line, which also forms a visual tension with the sloping roof; while bodyside molding and deeply creased lower side panels break up the large door areas into pieces of a well-crafted puzzle.
Wraparound taillamp clusters accentuate the broad sweep of the rear. They also give the shoulder line a take-off point that makes it look like a small spoiler has been integrated into the hatch just below the window line. Very sporty, as is the pair of bright exhaust tips not so bashfully protruding from below the bumper.
Inside, the Audi A3 feels upscale. It offers a fine combination of utility and comfort, and exudes a high level of workmanship. Most materials are pleasing, though the dash material is not the best. The cockpit is a model of applied ergonomic science, with logical placement of controls and highly legible read-outs.
To evoke the feel of driving a sports car, the seating position is placed low in relation to the high and wide console. We found the seats to be very nice, and legroom adequate, both front and rear. The back seats are quite comfortable, more supportive than the front seats on many compacts, but the slope of the roof means tall passengers may find rear headroom compromised.
The point of a five-door hatchback, of course, is the versatility of the interior. For starters, the luggage area can be increased by folding flat the split rear seatbacks. Indeed, the rear seats flip down easily. This does not result in a perfectly flat cargo floor, but this isn't usually an issue. An accessory roof rack is available in a choice of several different configurations depending on the intended use.
The wide doors make it easy to climb in and out. But Audi's flush-fitting door handles aren't as easy to grab as the handles on BMWs and some other cars, and can snap away from your fingers when in a hurry. The seatbelt alarm goes off whenever the car is running, annoying when sitting in a parking lot. And we found it a bit too easy to hit the panic button on the remote key fob.
The Open Sky dual sunroof option is very cool, although only the front of the two glass panels opens. Both have retractable sunshades, but the mesh covers let too much light in for our taste. We believe in letting the sun shine in, but not on glaring days when it distracts from driving.
The A3 suspensions are refined beyond the car's price or class and provide both sporty handling and refined ride quality. And the quattro all-wheel-drive system is ideal both for owners who must brave the ice and snow of winter and also for those who like to get the most out of their machines when the roads are twisty and dry. The intercooled 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder is everything a small displacement performance engine should be, while the six-cylinder 3.2-liter engine is smoothly powerful and delivers more torque.
These elements all contribute to a persona that begs for tight, winding mountain roads, thrives in the slice-and-dice of urban traffic, and quietly relieves the tedium of commuter slogs.
The 2.0 T turbo engine's 200 horsepower is underscored by 210 pound-feet of torque, the latter delivered across a wide sweep of the tach needle from 1800 to 5000 rpm, making the two-liter feel as though it had a bunch more cubic inches grafted onto it somewhere. Yet, it's remarkably easy on fuel, with EPA city/highway estimates of 21/30 mpg with the manual transmission and 22/28 with the DSG automatic.
There's little turbo lag, and the engine revs smoothly yet quickly through its powerband. Just push your right foot down and let the 2.0 T deliver. Audi says the A3 2.0 T sprints from zero to 60 mph in 6.7 seconds, but the raw number doesn't begin to do justice to the engine's throttle response and the chassis' willingness to get from here to there. Torque is ever ready, and the engine is quite happy to reach 6000 rpm over and over again.
The transmission choices illustrate Audi's industry-leading technology in transforming engine torque into rolling power. You can't go wrong with either the standard six-speed manual or the paddle/lever-shifted DSG automatic. With the 3.2-liter engine you have no choice but to go with the DSG. However, that's not a bad thing. The swiftness of choosing the correct gear with the DSG feels like magic and makes every driver almost feel like an accomplished race car driver.
Surefooted agility, even with only the two front wheels driving the car, comes easily to the A3, thanks in large measure to its four-link rear suspension. Compactness, low weight and superior handling are all expected benefits of such a complex and expensive suspension. The multiple links result in better lateral rigidity for crisper handling (and a safer car) and a comfortable ride. It's simply exceptional, and is one hallmark of an engineering department at full strength.
Braking is excellent. The four-wheel discs are big enough to handle repeated pedal stabs without overheating, and high-tech electronics ensure optimum braking in all conditions. The latest-generation ABS features a dual-rate servo, which amplifies brake force when it senses the driver's right-footed demand for emergency stopping power. The newest available Electronic Stabilization Program guides the car's dynamics with astonishing computer power, integrating the functions of the ABS, EBD (electronic brake-force distribution), ASR (traction control system), MSR (engine drag torque control system), EDL (electronic differential lock), hydraulic brake assist and the ESBS (extended stability braking system).
What that all means is that you'll not find a better-balanced front-drive car anywhere. Nor will you find many compacts that make such a convincing sports car when the road is right. The more expensive 3.2 adds some very delectable ingredients to the basic goodness of the A3, and its drivetrain is a tad smoother than the turbocharged car's, but either A3 supplies a genuine upscale driving experience.
The Audi A3 is a high-quality car that offers premium handling and safety, roominess and practicality, yet is still easy to park and, with the 2.0-liter turbo engine, is easy on fuel. Five-door hatchbacks are very popular in Europe, but much less so in America. Those who are comfortable with its styling should find happiness in the Audi A3 Sportback.
Greg Brown filed this NewCarTestDrive.com report from Los Angeles.
Audi A3 Sportback 2.0 T 6-speed manual ($26,920); 2.0 T DSG ($28,400); 2.0 T DSG quattro ($30,500); 3.2 quattro ($36,975).
Options As Tested
rear side airbags ($350).
Audi A3 Sportback 2.0 T ($26,920).
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