Build quality, engine performance, improved versatility
Room for improvement
Expensive, some suspension noise
By TIM BRITTEN 07/01/2000
THOSE who might have been uncomfortable with the concept of such an expensive three-door might feel a little less uneasy about the A3 now that it has a couple more doors.
That is the thinking anyway, and the local Audi importers reckon on broadening the littlest Audi's appeal through the extra convenience offered. A three-door is still available, but in the hotshot S3 version only.
The five-door A3 otherwise equates pretty closely with the three-door in terms of overall size and engine options.
The test car was the 1.8-litre, low pressure turbo version, the luxury model in the A3 range and quite comprehensively equipped with dual front airbags, front side airbags, anti-lock brakes, climate control air-conditioning, six-speaker sound system with 10-CD stacker, remote central locking (capable of also closing the windows) and 16-inch alloy wheels.
And it should be well equipped because this small Audi leaves little change from $50,000, even without options such as cruise control, leather upholstery and power sunroof.
The only problem some buyers will have difficulty getting their heads around is the Audi costs a lot more than its virtual sibling, the VW Golf, and a hell of a lot more than Holden's similarly sized and very impressive Astra.
Still, neither VW nor Holden have the street credibility conferred by the four rings on the Audi grille.
The car has the style, quality and poise to carry off its seemingly ambitious price positioning.
The interior - in front anyway - at no stage suggests this is only a small, Corolla-size car.
The front seating offers generous possibilities for finding a comfortable driving position, including cushion height adjustment, infinitely variable backrest inclination and a two-way adjustable steering wheel. Then there is that nicely crafted, very European instrument panel with clearly presented gauges and easily reached, simply understood controls.
The test car came with optional leather seats (turbo A3s get more shapely front seats that provide improved lateral support), sunroof and a primitive to operate but accurate cruise control - all enough to elevate the price significantly, but upgrading the ambience to the point where the A3 seemed worth the money.
The A3's back seat may not be spectacular in its provision of legroom, but a compromise agreement with front-seat passengers will usually resolve that, and at least the two extra doors make entry a lot easier.
The backrests offer a split-fold function to maximise luggage-carrying ability. The A3's short rear overhang means the boot is not particularly massive so the split-fold function is welcome. Slightly annoying is that the headrests can not be removed unless the seat is tilted forward. And it's a pity a trip computer is optional.
By the way, the Audi's front doors were shortened slightly (by 181mm) to make space for the rear doors but this has not compromised ease of access into the front cabin.
On the road, the A3 five-door is a nicely fluid, quiet and composed car, more like a medium-size vehicle in its overall feel.
The 110kW, 20-valve 1.8-litre, four-cylinder engine rarely feels like a turbo in that it does not lack low-speed response yet is always prepared to spin promptly to the red line in the lower gears. Maximum torque is available from as low as 1750rpm.
The engine is nicely matched to the five ratios in the manual transmission (no auto is available with the turbo) and feels authoritative and efficient on the open road.
The ride, while nicely absorbing and relatively long of travel, has not compromised the handling. The A3 turns in swiftly and maintains a chosen line with no fuss.
The steering is well weighted, conveys sufficient road information to the driver and allows the A3 to be pointed accurately.
This platform is a deserving foundation for the various cars within the 'family' that use it. A small deficit is that the A3, with its hatchback design, does not feel as tight as, say, the sedan-bodied Volkswagen Bora and will allow some suspension noise into the cabin, particularly on rough, pot-holed surfaces.
The brakes, with electronic brake-force modulation and anti-lock, are firmly assertive at all times. The only downside here is that, typically Audi, the A3 suffers from slight over-assistance that takes some initial acclimatisation.
But the A3 five-door is a thoroughly desirable car to live with. Well built, accommodating and a pleasure to drive, it is now also a more practical conveyance for more than two people.