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Driven: Audi raises the A3 roof

Red devil: Audi has distanced its new-gen A3 soft-top further from its shared VW Golf origins.

Audi’s new A3 moves further upmarket, judging by our first drive

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Audi logo26 Nov 2013

By BYRON MATHIOUDAKIS

AUDI’S latest A3 is designed to shrug off that ‘Golf Cabriolet’ image when the all-new open version arrives in Australia in time for spring next September.

To be priced at or under the levels of the current car that kicks off from $52,150 plus on roads, the third-generation 8V-series A3-based droptop will continue with a fabric roof as well as the Cabriolet name.

But the similarities with the existing six-year old model end there thanks to a significant wheelbase stretch, the upshot of using the new A3 Sedan as a base instead of the hatchback as previously.

Besides bringing measurably more interior and boot space – now average-sized adults won’t have to hunch over while a 390-litre boot with a load-through facility ups the ante by 75L – the move has allowed Audi’s engineers to incorporate a different style of roof operating mechanism known as K-fold.

Lighter and more compact, it brings an added level of complication as well as sophistication due to a newly incorporated body-coloured flap that also opens and shuts to accommodate the structure.

In turn, the new lower roof in partnership with the longer body and wheelbase has freed up designers to fashion what they consider a far more elegant, stylish and aerodynamic convertible silhouette.

Mirroring the BMW 1 Series Convertible that acted as a benchmark, the latest A3 drop top loses the more downmarket Golf Cabriolet bustle-back boot for a more traditional three-box style.

The goal was to achieve the same streamlined look of the newcomer’s bigger A5 Convertible sibling – a mission that’s been easily accomplished.

The total roof folding process takes 18 seconds, regardless of whether it is the standard three-layer type, or the optional Acoustic item that adds more insulation, and can be operated at speeds up to 50km/h. The structure itself is cloth folded over a magnesium-steel skeleton.

Fixed rollover hoops give way to a pair of hidden stumps that fire up in milliseconds should the car sense an inversion, to provide full occupant protection.

During our two days on the ground in Monaco, the remnants of Cyclone Cleopatra prevailed over southern Europe, bringing bucketing rain and strong winds.

While this forced us to appreciate just how quiet and closed-coupe-like the erect Acoustic roof fit is in such conditions, it was also a great opportunity to assess the newly developed neck-heating fan and seat warmers.

Even in such inclement weather, at 110km/h-plus, with the side windows and standard wind deflector that covers the rear-seat area up, the A3 Cabrio remained a comfortably warm and bluster-free environment.

Audi has worked very hard to provide a premium convertible experience here, and it really shows.

Mixing MQB platform components from both the A3 sedan and hatch, the Hungarian-built Cabriolet’s body and chassis has been strengthened in key junctures to provide further refinement, as well as better crash-test safety and improved overall dynamics.

Overall mass, meanwhile, falls by 50kg, though the equivalent fixed-roof A3s weigh upwards of 100kg less due to the added kilos brought on by the upgraded body.

Right now just two engines have been confirmed at launch, and both will be powering the more upmarket Ambition variants in front-drive only specification.

The volume seller is expected to be the 132kW/250Nm 1.8-litre direct-injection four-cylinder (premium unleaded) petrol engine, currently serving the A3 Sportback 1.8 TFSI in Australia.

In the latter we’ve applauded this unit’s strong step-off acceleration and punchy mid-range oomph while the same applies in the Cabrio, the extra weight – combined with the standard seven-speed S-tronic dual-clutch auto’s slight hesitation at launch – does seem to blunt the performance feel slightly, though once on the go the power outputs is certainly sufficient enough.

More to the point, this is a refined engine application that suits the A3’s upmarket aspirations to a tee, particularly when driven with the roof down.

Not surprisingly, a 110kW/340Nm 2.0-litre TDI four-pot turbo-diesel is also on the way, bringing a welcome dollop of extra torque.

We sampled the Cabrio 2.0 TDI, and enjoyed its effortless speed and smoothness, but wondered whether the topless A3’s demographic will put up with the diesel din when the roof is deployed. It’s not loud or intrusive at all – but the petrol is definitely quieter, in the way it always is.

Besides that bonus torque shove, the 2.0 TDI is the fuel economy champ of the Oz-bound A3 Cabrio range, returning an impressive 4.2 litres per 100km, compared to the 1.8 TFSI’s 5.8L/100km result.

A little later the as-yet unseen S3 Cabriolet will follow, upping the stakes with a 206kW/380Nm version of the EA888 2.0-litre TFSI turbo found in the A3 Sportback and Sedan.

Sitting 25mm closer to the ground, torque will be transmitted to all four wheels via a new permanent AWD system, using a six-speed transmission in either trad manual or dual-clutch automatic formats.

That ought to give the S3 Cabrio a circa-5.5s 0-100km/h-dash time, as well as a combined-cycle 7.1L/100km fuel average.

Finally, at the other end of the spectrum, it’s highly likely that a sub-$50K 1.4-litre four-cylinder TFSI front-driver will lob in a little later.

As the latest Cabrio is based on same modular Volkswagen Group MQB architecture as the A3 and Golf 7, it promises – and delivers – exceptional steering, handling, and ride characteristics.

Sitting some 15mm lower to the ground, and employing a MacPherson strut front end and a four-link rear suspension set-up, the ragtop provides sharp (electromechanical rack and pinion) steering response, combined with stable and controlled cornering characteristics.

Over the hilly and often ragged roads into Southern France, the helm felt smooth and connected, without any of the shimmering or scuttle shake that we’ve come to expect from full convertibles.

Turns can be taken at quite high speed with lots of grip even though the roads were soaked with rain, backed up by a feeling of composure and control, while the ride quality actually exceeded our expectations.

That’s on the standard 215/45 R17 wheel and tyre set-up. We wonder whether the larger alloy packages on our rubbish local roads will upset the equilibrium we enjoyed during our time with the Cabrio?Like all of the latest A3 range, the 1.8 TFSI Ambition’s cabin ambience is best-in-class, thanks to restrained yet functional dash architecture, combined with exceptional material quality and some real eye-catching design detailing.

Fab front seats do a great job supporting the car through corners, while the rear bench – though a tad upright for taller folk – is just spacious enough for comfy short-haul trips.

Beyond that, the boot is big enough for it to be useful as an everyday proposition, even if some 45L is lost when the roof is in situ.

A host of optional driver-assistance features will be offered, including adaptive cruise control, Audi side assist, active lane assist, camera-based traffic sign recognition, park assist with selective display and pre-sense braking.

Audi says equipment levels will be high, and ought to include satellite navigation as part of the standard MMI central controller system. In Europe the roof will be available in three colours.

After our day dodging storms in the A3 Cabriolet, we came away impressed with the higher levels of dynamics, refinement, and practicality the latest model achieves.

The previous version felt too much like a Golf Cabriolet with posher styling and higher pricing, and the car suffered when the 2011 Mk6-based Volkswagen version arrived, boasting almost all of its benefits at a sizeably smaller asking price.

This time that’s unlikely to happen, as the A3 ragtop adopts the look and feel of a proper Audi product.

We look forward to driving it on Aussie roads next summer.

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