The new Audi A3 was launched as a five-door hatchback powered by a newly developed turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder driving the front wheels. An all-wheel-drive A3 Quattro powered by the much admired 3.2-liter six-cylinder engine will also be on sale during the 2006 model year.
The A3 is an example of the exquisite sensibilities in design and use of materials that distinguishes the contemporary Audi. It will take more than just high fuel prices for U.S. buyers to look for their sporty utility in smaller vehicles, but we like the A3 for its combination of open-road dynamism, long-haul friendliness, around-town usefulness and fuel economy.
We found the front-drive A3 2.0 T offers superb balance and excellent throttle response that make for a convincing sports car when the road is right. Inside, the A3 Sportback is roomy and versatile, blending pleasing materials with logical controls and highly legible readouts.
Audi A3 Sportback 2.0 T 6-speed manual ($24,740); Audi A3 Sportback 2.0 T DSG ($26,140); A3 Quattro
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 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 car's butt. 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.
Reflecting recent Audi styling, 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.
The cockpit is a paragon of applied ergonomic science, blending pleasing materials with the logical placement of controls and highly legible read-outs. To evoke the feel of driving a sports car, the seating position was placed low in relation to the high and wide console. The standard seats are okay but are too short in the thigh, and we like more lateral support, too. Consider the $1,800 Sport package a must if you want to explore the sportier side of this very sporty car. The Open Sky dual sunroof option is also very cool. Although only the front of the two glass panels opens, both have retractable sunshades for hot days.
Because the A3 borrows so many elements from the other Audi models, even the base package, with cloth seats, exudes a high quality of workmanship. 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. Several package options are available to augment the trunk's utility, including a ski sack that can hold six pairs of slats. An optional roof rack is available in a choice of several different configurations depending on the intended use.
Officially called the 2.0T FSI, the new turbo's 200 horsepower is underscored by a sidewall-rippling 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. Preliminary estimates of the A3's fuel economy were about 24 miles per gallon city and 30 highway.
A good deal of the credit for this match-up of performance and responsible fuel usage should go to the direct injection system, FSI. This is the first production car engine to combine turbocharging with FSI, a version of which was used with great success in Audi's all-conquering R8 Le Mans race cars. Here's a quick primer: In contrast to conventional intake systems, where fuel is injected through an intake manifold, FSI delivers the fuel directly into the combustion chamber. The injector, located on the intake side in the cylinder head, is served by a high-pressure pump driven by the camshaft and a pressure reservoir shared by all cylinders: thus, the common rail system. Injection times are controlled to within .001 second at injection pressures of up to 110 bar (to compare, a manifold injection system operates at a maximum of 4 bar).
The result is more power with greater efficiency, and an engine that climbs smoothly yet quickly through its powerband. Turbo lag is nonexistent. Just push your right foot down and let the 2.0T deliver.
Audi says the A3 2.0 T Sportback sprints from 0 to 60 mph in 7.0 seconds, a modest figure by some standards, 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 transferring engine torque into rolling power. You can't go wrong with either the standard six-speed manual or the paddle/lever-shifted DSG automatic. The swiftness of choosing the correct gear with either gearbox is more than matched by the car's quickness on its feet.
Surefooted agility, even with only the two front wheels driving the car, comes easily to the Sportback, thanks in large measure to a new four-link rear suspension. Compactness, low weight and superior handling are all expected benefits of such a complex suspension, but there's also a lot cost and effort to add it to a platform and market segment that has traditionally been unused to such superior technology. Was it worth it? You betcha. The multiple links provide a functional separation between the longitudinal and transverse forces, resulting in better lateral rigidity for crisper handling (and a safer car) and relatively soft lengthwise control for a comfortable ride. It's simply exceptional and is one hallmark of an engineering department at full strength. Think BMW when imagining the A3's road manners.
The suspension is worth a few more words, as its sophistication demonstrates Audi's overall investment in technology and materials. First, at the rear, the multiple links are formed by a wheel carrier with a wheel bearing unit, two lower wishbones (spring link and tie rod), one upper wishbone and a trailing arm. The three wishbones are connected to the body by a subframe, built of extra-strong steel tubes and plates, which is bolted to the body t
The Audi A3 is a totally new vehicle for the U.S. and should be a great choice of young, active consumers looking for distinctive vehicles to fit their lifestyles. The A3 is a high-quality car that offers premium handling and safety, roominess and practicality, yet is still easy to park and is easy on fuel. Five-door hatchbacks are very popular in Europe, but Americans haven't warmed to their styling. Those who are comfortable with its styling should find happiness in the new A3 Sportback.
New Car Test Drive correspondent Greg Brown filed this report from Italy.