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Car reviews - Audi - A3 - 2.0 FSI 3-dr hatch

Our Opinion

We like
Increased size, sporty ride/handling, cutting-edge engine and transmission technology, inexpensive Ambition price premium, equipment level, engine performance, response and tractability, fuel consumption, transmission, handling, steering, interior practicality, finish quality, active and passive safety
Room for improvement
Delayed Australian availability, no new five-door, 2.0 FSI's reluctance to rev, occasional auto kickdown thump, contrived interior styling, relatively plain exterior design

23 Dec 2004

GoAuto 23/12/2004

THE A3 could play a larger role in Audi’s Australian sales activities but, with sales accounting for around 25 per cent of the cars sold here by the company, it is very much a second-fiddle player to the more varied A4 range.

And that’s not about to change, despite the arrival of an all-new A3 with a vast array of engine and transmission choices.

Part of the reason is that the "A" segment small car comes, for now, in only three-door hatchback form, despite the previous model’s being a five-door hatch in the last years of its life.

This gives the new A3 a more sporting flavour, but will eliminate a number of buyers who simply won’t accept any less than four (or five) doors.

The new car is a little bigger and heavier than the previous A3, which is a good thing because it provides more room for passengers and adds a little more sophistication to the ride and handling.

But the most significant things happening for the new A3 are technologically based. Audi has never been backward in this respect, but the A3 has something of an edge on its competitors with an impressive and varied line-up of engines and transmissions.

It starts with a new 2.0-litre direct-injection petrol engine and continues with a twin-cam, 16-valve turbo-diesel, a 184kW, 3.2-litre V6 and a new auto-shifting manual transmission dubbed DSG (Direct Shift Gearbox) in addition to a six-speed tiptronic, and six and five-speed manual transmissions.

Not to mention four-wheel drive on the top-of-the-line 3.2 quattro.

This technofest makes for a fascinating small car range that begins with the pedestrian 1.6-litre five-speed manual and finishes with a thundering, all-wheel drive V6 road rocket that gives a clue to what we can expect from the next S3.

The bulk seller is expected to be the 2.0-litre FSI direct-injection model. In base "Attraction" trim, with a six-speed manual gearbox, it’s tagged at around $40,000, or about five grand more than the very base 1.6-litre Attraction.

Upgrading to "Ambition" level costs less than $1500 and it’s money well spent because it buys bigger, 17-inch alloy wheels, a sports suspension, trip computer, leather-rimmed steering wheel and sports front seats as well as a few titillations like polished inserts around the interior, a rear sunblind, better-quality upholstery and, for what they are worth, front and rear fog lights (which seem to be mainly used to distract, blind and annoy other drivers).

The direct injection engine is an interesting arrival – a technology we are only just starting to see in Australia. It’s almost like employing diesel technologies in a petrol engine because, in addition to the direct cylinder injection, the FSI utilizes a common-rail delivery system and the compression ratio, although it’s not anywhere near diesel levels, is pretty high at 11.5:1.

Direct injection petrol engines have posed difficulties in terms of exhaust emissions in the past, but that’s all behind Audi with the FSI, which is clean, efficient and quite punchy.

Power and torque outputs are very good for the engine size (exactly the same in fact - apart from small rpm differences - as BMW’s new Valvetronic 120i engine) and the fuel economy is impressive despite the A3’s weight gains.

Hooked up to the manual six-speed gearbox that is the base transmission with this engine, the A3 will comfortably return fuel economy figures well below eight litres per 100km and is not ridiculously more thirsty than the thrifty A3 turbo-diesel.

And despite the manual version’s official zero to 100km/h claim of 9.1 seconds being slower than BMW’s figures for its new 120i, real-world experience suggests things might be the other way around.

The Audi always feels brisk, responsive and eager to rev, and has a nice crisp engine note to accompany it. If there’s any negative, it’s that the flat torque curve is reflected in the engine’s feeling of being maybe a tad too linear, with no tangible "spike" in the rev range to give an impression of high-revving efficiency.

The six-speed tiptronic auto - as fitted to our 2.0 FSI Ambition test car - works well in the A3 too. It provides ample opportunity to find the correct ratio for the occasion and, at 100km/h, has the engine spinning at a very economy-inducing 2200rpm.

More like a big, lazy V8 than a high-winding four-cylinder, and testimony to the generous torque spread of the FSI engine (despite shifting smoothly most of the time, the auto did deliver the occasional thump on kickdown, however).

The Ambition-specification test car meant it was fitted with larger, 17-inch wheels, sports suspension, sports front seats and leather-rimmed steering wheel. This fitted in nicely with Audi’s positioning of the A3 as a three-door with a sporting bias.

The result is a firmish ride that absorbs small impacts well enough, even if it becomes somewhat abrupt over larger undulations. It also contributes to the quick, precise steering reactions, and an ability to scoot around tight bends without degenerating into understeer.

The Audi sits nice and flat too, and the well weighted electro mechanical steering is geared to make the most of the chassis’ responsiveness.

With all this backed up by a bucket load of safety-oriented electronics (ABS with brake assist, electronic stability control, electronic differential lock and traction control), the A3 is a car that engenders immediate driver confidence.

Passive safety is well attended to of course, with dual front and side airbags as well as full-length curtain airbags and "active", anti-whiplash front-seat head restraints standard on all models, from the base 1.6-litre Attraction version upward.

Interior space is not always an important consideration for those buying a three-door hatchback, but the Audi’s increased dimensions mean it is noticeably more comfortable in front and back, with length as well as width to provide a nice, stretch-out feel. In this respect it could well be the best in class.

The boot is pretty big too, bigger than the quoted 350-litre figure indicates, with plenty of depth, height and width. Fold the rear seats and you can throw the odd mountain bike in without too much trouble.

Typically Audi, the A3 is exquisitely finished inside and out. No cheap, Korean-grade plastics here. The design isn’t likely to offend either, although it may be a touch too carefully contrived for some people.

The same applies to the exterior styling, which looked fine when the car was first released but already looks pretty plain when lined up against competition such as the BMW 1 Series and the Alfa Romeo 147. Even the new Golf looks more adventurous.

But this is a fine prestige hatch that would be an even bigger challenger to the 1 Series BMW if it had two more doors.

As it is, the A3 Audi is more than a match for its Bavarian competitor in terms of engine performance and economy, passenger space and quality. And it only concedes a narrow victory to the rear-drive BMW in terms of handling.

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