Powerful yet smooth engine, refined interior, flexible cargo space, lively handling, impressive braking power, aggressive styling.
Pricey options, minor ergonomic missteps, excessive wheelspin during hard acceleration, down-market engine note.
Great Face, Less Thrilling
Let's face it, we're all getting older, and for many, with age comes refinements in taste. Whether it's fashion, food, entertainment or cars, tastes tend to evolve as the years tick by. The 2009 Audi A3 represents a way for maturing hatchback lovers to make a graceful transition from inexpensive hatchbacks to more luxurious cars from Europe. Audi's sporty A3 hatchwagon is offered with varying degrees of performance potential and luxury accoutrements, but even the entry-level trim gives off an air of maturity — something you'd be hard-pressed to find in more typical economy-biased hatchbacks.
For 2009, the Audi A3 received some additional features along with a few cosmetic changes. The most noticeable styling changes include a sculpted chin spoiler and redesigned headlights with Audi's signature LED daytime running lights. Our front-wheel-drive A3 2.0 T test vehicle represents the entry-level drivetrain, but $6,775 worth of options has it knocking on the upper reaches of the line. Though it lacks the more powerful V6 and all-wheel-drive performance of higher-spec A3s, our test car retains much of the driving excitement while surrounding the occupants in a relatively upscale cabin.
As an entry-level luxury car with some hatchback, wagon and crossover SUV characteristics, the Audi A3 appeals to a smaller niche market. More performance-minded drivers would likely find more enjoyment in a Mazdaspeed 3, while luxury- and brand-conscious buyers could spend just a bit more to acquire an Audi A4 or BMW 3 Series. For those less affected by brand appeal, the Volkswagen GTI sedan is essentially the same car for a lot less money. However, if you find your tastes climbing upward from more economical cars, but still desire a decent amount of utility and luxury, the Audi A3 is definitely worth a look.
Our 2009 Audi A3 2.0T is powered by a peppy 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine delivering 200 horsepower and 207 pound-feet of torque to a six-speed manual transmission. This direct-injected engine sounds a bit rattley at idle and a tad buzzy at higher revs — which would likely be a turn-off for those desiring a more upmarket experience. Our test vehicle was front-wheel drive but buyers can opt for an all-wheel-drive version as well as a more powerful V6 and a six-speed sequential-shift automated manual gearbox.
Acceleration is brisk; our test car reached 60 mph from a standstill in only 7.2 seconds — which is about average for most competing cars, but more than a full second slower than the sportier Mazdaspeed 3. We also found that aggressive acceleration is usually met with an abundance of wheelspin and a nasty shudder when the front wheels bounce in search of grip.
Once under way, power is plentiful when you floor the throttle — with an impressive wallop halfway up the rev range from the turbocharger. Unlike many turbocharged cars, though, the A3 is graceful when driven conservatively, with barely a hint of turbo lag. And we were truly impressed with the brakes that stopped this Audi from 60 mph in a mere 107 feet — which is shorter than many high-end sports cars — with little or no fade after repeated runs.
The EPA estimates fuel mileage at 21 mpg for city driving, 30 mpg on the highway and 24 mpg in combined driving. These figures should be attainable, especially since the A3 has a readout that suggests when to change gears for optimum fuel economy. However, we only managed to eke out a combined average of 18.9 mpg — a testament to the A3's fun and sporting nature as well as our penchant for performance.
The suspension soaks up ruts and bumps and sticks tenaciously in hard corners, but the feather-light feel of the clutch, shifter and steering wheel don't lend themselves to higher-performance driving. The steering effort builds slightly as speed increases, but not enough to "feel" the road. This may be a drawback for the few who seek excitement in the curves, but most drivers will appreciate the lack of effort in tight parking spaces and heavy traffic. Equipped with the optional Sport package, our A3 still exhibited a fair amount of body roll when approaching the handling limits, but remained neutral and controllable. Surprisingly, handling test data places the A3 among much sportier cars, despite its wagonlike appearance.
The cabin of the 2009 A3 is typical for an Audi — comfortable for the average-size driver and comprised of excellent materials, though it does look a bit austere. We found the optional sport front seats to be firm, with plenty of lateral support, and well-suited to long road trips. The Open Sky sunroof gives the space an airier feeling, but taller occupants may bemoan this feature's resulting reduction in headroom. Shorter drivers may take issue with the lack of forward seat travel in order to reach the pedals. Nearly every driver, however, noted that the driver's dead pedal was not level with the rest of the pedals, likely a result of being mounted on the protruding wheelwell. On the plus side, the tilt-and-telescoping leather-wrapped steering wheel is well-placed.
The rear outboard seats are comfortable and supportive despite their flat appearance, but taller adults may run out of legroom and headroom. The center seating position is handy in a pinch, but its taller seat cushion and convex seatback is uncomfortable even for smaller occupants. The rear quarters easily accept forward-facing child seats, but rear-facing seats force the front seats into a more cramped and upright position. Child seat installation is simplified by the easily accessed and clearly marked LATCH anchors.
Whether commuting in heavy traffic or cruising down the highway, the A3's cabin remains pleasantly refined. Tight-fitting doors, windows and a streamlined shape all serve to quell wind noise to almost luxury car standards. Road noise and pavement imperfections are likewise kept in check with plenty of sound insulation and suspension compliance.
The A3's all-around visibility is as good as a conventional hatchback's, and despite its wagonlike profile and thick rear pillars, maneuvering in reverse poses little difficulty. Critical information is a quick glance away thanks to legible gauges that are thoughtfully situated. We're especially fond of the high-resolution multifunction display in the gauge cluster that displays a variety of data, including radio channels, maintenance-related information and the ability to scroll through contact lists on Bluetooth-enabled phones.
Switches and dials on the center console are within easy reach and simple to operate, but we were not fans of the driver-side door controls. Switchgear for the windows and mirrors are set too far aft, requiring an awkward crane of the wrist to reach them. Also, the trunk and fuel door releases are buried in the door panel pocket, forcing some drivers to open the door to use them. Fortunately, the stereo operation was easy, especially via the steering-wheel-mounted controls. Sound quality was above average, with clear tones from big bass to operatic highs. An auxiliary input jack was placed under the center armrest, but sadly, iPod integration is not offered with the A3.
The A3's luggage capacity lies somewhere between hatchback and wagon categories. The nearly 20 cubic feet of luggage space can accommodate medium-size golf bags as well as larger suitcases, and the center pass-through enables stowage of longer items. The 60/40-split rear seats can be folded down, but not flat, for bulkier items and loading is aided by a low and wide trunk opening. Elsewhere inside the A3, storage is decent, with a compartmented glovebox and medium-size cupholders, but we found the center armrest bins a bit too small to be useful.
Design/Fit and Finish
Overall, the A3 appears larger than a sporty hatchback, but smaller than a typical wagon. From nearly any angle, this entry-level Audi is clearly styled to blend in with the rest of the brand. The new styling changes for 2009 add a touch of aggression to the nose, making it a dead ringer for the A4, and the new eyelinerlike LED running lights are unmistakably Audi.
Inside, occupants are treated to an understated cabin, with black leather upholstery and dark gray surroundings that give off a businesslike demeanor. Its surfaces feel as high-quality as more expensive Audi models, and the few hard plastic bits are well textured to easily blend in. The knurled metallic vent surrounds and radio knobs are positively upscale in appearance and feel, and the same can be said about the rest of the switchgear. The many panels are tightly fitted, silencing almost all creaks, squeaks and rattles. Of the few gripes we have, the placement of the handbrake in relation to the center armrest drew some scowls, as they tended to bump into each other.
Who should consider this vehicle
The 2009 Audi A3 is a compelling choice for shoppers looking for hatchback fun and versatility, but with maturing tastes. So when you're ready to trade in your Mazda 3 and torn jeans to be taken more seriously, the A3 deserves a look.
Others To Consider Mini Cooper Clubman, Saab 9-3 SportCombi, Subaru Impreza WRX, Volkswagen Jetta SportWagen.
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.