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Car reviews - Audi - A3 - Sportback 3.2 5-dr hatch

Our Opinion

We like
Instant power transfer of DSG transmission, smooth and willing V6, build quality, compact size
Room for improvement
Price, some snatchiness in DSG on takeoff, reversing smoothly is difficult

7 Jul 2005

GoAuto 07/07/2005

UNIFORMITY is one thing, but if you are an Audi A8 owner and watching a new A3 Sportback glide by, you might be figuring there are too many visual similarities between your $170,000-plus investment and the mid-$30,000s hatchback.

At this point you may start wondering if you were making the right social impact.

Like all other models - apart from the three-door A3 that has yet to pick up the "single-frame" front-end visual rework - the new five-door A3 Sportback is easily identifiable as an Audi.

The look is aggressive, distinctive and integrated enough into the overall style that it is not too visually challenging.

And it signals Audi's fully armed assault on the bottom end of the prestige market, where it has been forced, so far, to send a three-door only version into battle.

The advent of the five-door Sportback gives the entry-level Audi not just an extra couple of doors, but also adds boot space through a stretching of the body length by 83mm.

This has given the Sportback 370 cubic metres of boot space (350 litres in the three-door), or 1120 litres with the split-fold rear seat lowered.

This is welcome in a car which, in three-door form, was already pretty spacious inside and is consistent with the added practicality that comes with the two extra doors.

There's a premium to pay though. Even though the top of the range 3.2-litre quattro five-door is only $2000 more expensive, the startup price is still well on the way to $75,000.

You must pay extra for things like metallic paint, power seats, park-distance control, the new, super-long "open sky" sunroof, or even roof racks. It's not at all difficult to give $90,000 a decent nudge.

The Audi is not only a premium small car it's also an expensive one.

But, especially in 3.2-litre V6 all-wheel drive quattro form, the A3 Sportback is a mighty package.

The ultra narrow-angle, 24-valve V6 - that has been familiar now in the VW family for some time - came to the A3 with the latest three-door model in 2004, and in this application wields a towering 184kW, as well as an impressive 320Nm of torque.

This is more than the figures produced by the turbocharged Subaru WRX, which means that, when the extra weight of the Audi is factored in (it's quite a hefty 1565kg) the power-weight ratios are virtually identical.

Add all-wheel drive and you've got a classy, compact European with enough clout to mix in some pretty tough company.

The claimed zero to 100km/h acceleration of 6.3 seconds places the Audi squarely as an on-road competitor with the current WRX - although the latter has the advantage of a full-time all-wheel drive system that works constantly to maximise traction and minimise wayward behaviour.

The Audi's system is part-time all-wheel drive that is, there's no third differential to apportion power between front and rear, meaning the A3 quattro operates as a front-wheel drive car unless there's a shortage of traction.

Then, the back wheels kick in via an electronically controlled multi-plate clutch that is able to progressively vary the torque distribution between front and rear.

It's a different system to that used in other Audis such as the A4, A6 and A8, which have a longitudinally mounted engine (the A3's, like the Golf, TT and other family members have a laterally mounted engine).

An electronic differential lock at the rear further aids the A3 in grabbing whatever traction is available.

The V6 engine is the same ultra-narrow angle design first seen in the VW Golf and now appearing in vehicles such as the VW Touareg SUV and forming the basis for the W8 seen in the Passat and the W12 used way upmarket in the Bentley Continental GT.

The compact design allows the cylinder banks to be bridged by a single cylinder head and makes for an overall size not much bigger than a decent-size four-cylinder. The engine is very short, and narrower than any other living V6.

Even more interesting is the six-speed, direct-shift (DSG) transmission that is standard in the 3.2 quattro. This is just one of the many transmissions Audi offers, and is similar to current Formula One design in that it's based on a regular manual but is devoid of a clutch pedal.

It is able to function fully automatically if the driver wishes.

Perhaps one of the cleverest things about DSG is the twin-clutch mechanism - one operating odd ratios, the other operating even ratios - used to shift gears.

It's a bit complex to explain, but what basically happens during a gearshift is that the appropriate clutch is activated to engage the pre-selected ratio.

Thus it's not a matter of shifting gears - rather a matter of the clutch slurring the next gear into action. The result is a wonderfully smooth transmission that, at most times, shifts more cleanly than a regular auto with its planetary gearsets and torque converter.

The only time the DSG feels a little strange is when you're reversing and the clutch can be felt feeding out the power with somewhat less progressiveness than a conventional auto.

But, because the DSG suffers no such thing as torque converter slip, and because the shifting is ultra-fast and efficient, the acceleration times and fuel consumption figures are better than a manual transmission.

Around town, it's best to leave the DSG making up its own mind, but on tight, twisting roads it's an absolute pleasure as you squeeeze the steering wheel paddles, Formula One-style, smoothly and neatly through the ratios.

If you prefer, the regular, console-mounted shifter can be set in sequential mode like a conventional auto, flicking forward for an upshift, backwards for a downshift in the conventional pattern.

Hook all this up to the sweet 3.2-litre V6, and the on-demand four-wheel drive, and you have an unremittingly fast, efficient Audi.

On the road, the 3.2 quattro feels eager yet refined. There's a mellow, muted exhaust note from the 186kW engine, a tightness to the suspension and a sharpness to the steering that are a constant delight to those who appreciate a finely-tuned, compact car.

The steering wheel (a new design in the Sportback, mimicking the single-frame grille in its hub shape and incorporating controls for things such as the sound system) is thick-rimmed and directs operations with a precision that implies the designers know how to make a fast, stable, compact hatchback.

Like other A3s, the 3.2 quattro Sportback leans towards sportiness in terms of its suspension behaviour and ride quality. The standard 7.5 x 17-inch alloy wheels wear 225/45ZR17 tyres that grab the bitumen tenaciously but do extract a penalty in terms of tyre noise and a certain firmness in the ride.

It's all in keeping with expectations though.

The Audi's brakes are pretty impressive too, with massive ventilated discs on all four wheels backed up by the usual electronic safety aids including four-channel ABS, brake assist and electronic brakeforce distribution. Like all A3s, it comes with electronic stability control too.

The Sportback interior is pretty much the same as we've become familiar with in the latest A3s plenty of space front and rear - and easily accessed now with two extra doors - firm but grippy seats and a finely crafted interior that uses plenty of real stainless steel trim to add to the air of refinement.

The extra 20 litres of boot space is welcome too, although the use of a space-saver spare wasn't - even if it's a 17-inch space-saver.

One thing was a surprise: The 3.2 quattro Sportback is actually quite an efficient little monster. On test, we averaged around 10 litres per 100km in a mix of driving that favoured suburban use, which is pretty good considering the performance.

The only downside is that Audi would prefer you feed it with 98-octane fuel.

Although it will run happily on premium unleaded, its best is only experienced (in terms of economy as well as performance) if you opt for the top-shelf stuff.

The Audi A3 3.2 quattro Sportback is a more useful, equally as stylish a sports hatch as the three-door, yet doesn't demand a high premium for the functionality of the extra doors and bigger boot.

It's a sure-fire way of upstaging WRX drivers, and a more passenger-friendly ultra-fast hatch than Alfa Romeo's slightly more focused, but tighter-fitting 147 GTA. The Alfa feels a little quicker, and probably is, but there's no question which would feel more secure on a wet, stormy night.

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