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Car reviews - Audi - A3 - 3-dr range

Our Opinion

We like
More athletic styling, turbo engine, smoothness of DSG
Room for improvement
Numb steering, DSG predilection for self-shifting

Audi logo21 Jun 2004

PHOTOGRAPHY struggles to do justice to the new A3. In three-dimensional metal it’s much more hunkered down, cutting and aggressive than the old car’s more organic shape.

From any angle there’s a tautness and crispness that pleases. It’s like the car has spent serious time in the gym. It’s an evolution but an entirely successful one.

Get inside and you’re struck by how deep and dark the cabin is, That’s because the rising window line gives the car high shoulders that make rear seat passengers feels almost claustrophobic.

There’s no question that they get more knee room back there than the old car though, and head and elbow room (for two) is also acceptable.

It’s the same story up front in that there is more separation between the two passengers, who enjoy comfortable if typically Euro-firm seating whichever version they choose.

The driver’s rearward vision is hurt somewhat by the shrinking glass area in the rear and the chunkily-sized C-pillar, and looking forward toward the dash there is a typical Audio issue – a plethora of dials and switches.

No thoughts of an intuitive controller along the lines of the MMI system used in the A8 and soon to be soon in A6. Just buttons, dials and switches galore.

The good news is that it’s a very pleasant environment to study, such is the quality of all the fittings, be they plastic, leather or even metal – yep real metal trim on the dashboard and real metal door pulls. Such luxury.

It’s an appropriate metaphor for the car as a whole, such is its solidity. Which is hard to pin down in some ways, because its 1200kg-1300kg kerb weight range is in the ballpark of the $20,000 small cars the likes of Toyota and Mazda sell by the thousands, but it feels that much more refined and secure to drive it’s remarkable.

The ride quality is well beyond the class norm, capable of isolating most bumps with little sign of distress even in the versions with sporting suspension. Interior noise intrusions are similarly restrained.

There’s plenty of grip to boot. Sure, the natural tendency is to understeer, but that’s not excessive by any means.

Instead the A3 turns in with alacrity, keeps it bearing with determination and avoids almost all signs of those traditional front-wheel drive bugbears, like inside front wheelspin on tight rutted corners, steering wheel kickback and rack rattle.

The letdown from the new steering is that it is devoid of feel to the point of numbness. It also feels curiously heavy but quick at low speeds, although that side of it becomes more sorted as speeds rise.

It’s a chassis combination that tackles a mountain pass with professionalism rather than elan, but also feels like it will live very capably within the hurly-burly of city life.

And so to the driveline. The 1.6 is enthusiastic but struggles against the weight the FSI accomplished and a far more meaty revver, but lacks in character the TDI the pick of the three for its low-down torque and instant power accessibility. Just the rattle-rattle at idle in such incongruous metal is a little disconcerting.

The simplest way to describe the TDI’s driving characteristics is to enlist a motorcycle analogy. The petrol engines (particularly the 2.0) drive like traditionally high-revving Japanese four-cylinder units, the TDI like an Italian V-twin Ducati - all guts and grunt where gearshifting becomes far less important to keeping forward thrust in the heart of the wide torque zone.

You still have to shift gears of course, which introduces the rather neat DSG gearbox. Because of its three-shaft twin-clutch design power is always being applied to the wheels, the gearbox cleverly pre-selecting your next gear.

Sounds weird but it works a treat, although when combined with the TDI there’s at least one too many ratios.

And for a manual gearbox it’s far too self-intuitive, electing to shift gears for you even when you’re trying to do that job yourself via the lever or the steering wheel buttons. Most of the time it’s easier to leave it in self-shifting mode.

That predilection for self selection combined with the TDI’s off-the-bottom grunt sometimes produces more accleration than expected, a result of kick-down when accelerating hard from low speed. Something to get used to.

The other gearboxes sampled were the five-speed in the 1.6, which got the thumbs up over the notchier six-speed in the 2.0. Clutches were fine all-round with plenty of feel, as were the brake combinations.

In fact there weren’t any real weak links apparent from our first meeting with the new generation A3. Like its predecessor this is a quality piece of gear, well designed, well built and impressive to drive.

Maybe not outright fun, for like the old car it lacks a little in terms of that sporting sharp edge. That should be delivered by the V6 quattro in spades though.

Of course the big test comes in October when the A3 faces up to 1 Series - now that will be a worthwhile battle.

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