Karl Brauer, Editor in Chief
Sometimes Americans just don't get it. As consumers we tend to scoff at diesel powertrains, and our domestic automakers are way behind the curve on hybrid technology. At least we're slowly "getting it" in terms of personal transportation. There appears to be a slow-but-sure transition from 3-ton SUVs, with single-digit fuel mileage, to car-based vehicles offering superior driving dynamics and effective space utilization. It's this burgeoning wave of enlightenment Audi is hoping to ride with the all-new 2006 A3.
A New Take on the Estate One glance at the A3 and it's clear the vehicle is Euro-inspired. The car's exterior proportions are roughly one-third greenhouse, two-thirds lower body, giving it a confident stance that reflects its European moniker: Sportback. Certainly the eclectic exterior was enough to garner attention from fellow motorists as we picked our way through West Los Angeles en route to our favorite twisty roads. But it was the A3's penchant for repeatedly spinning the 45-series performance tires, often with barely one-third throttle application, that had us convinced this latest addition to the product line is more than just a unique styling exercise.
Audi has been offering this model in Europe and South America for 10 years (it won Brazilian "Car of the Year" in 2000), but starting this month you will find the next-generation A3 alongside the recently redesigned A4, A6 and A8 in U.S. showrooms. With nearly every model undergoing a complete makeover in the past 12 months, it's apparent Audi is mounting a serious campaign to capture the hearts, minds and monthly payments of U.S. buyers.
The 2006 A3 is meant to expand the brand's appeal to entry-luxury buyers, age 25-40, by offering the sporty proportions of a coupe with the practicality of a wagon. The A3's total interior volume is equal to the previous-generation A4 Avant, and despite the shortened cargo area behind the C-pillar you can still carry 13.1 cubic feet of luggage with the rear seat in place. Fold the 60/40 second row flat and cargo capacity jumps to 36 cubic feet.
A Replacement for Displacement?
The heart of the A3 is the same 2.0T FSI engine we've been fawning over since experiencing it in the new A4. This engine combines direct fuel injection with a high-compression ratio (10.5-to-1) to offer the type of low-end torque usually reserved for larger, normally aspirated power plants. With 200 horsepower at 5,100 rpm and 207 pound-feet of torque on tap from 1,800 to 5,000 rpm, the A3 scoots to 60 mph in just 7 seconds and blasts through the quarter-mile in 15.3 seconds at 93 mph.
Those are competitive numbers in today's sub-$30,000 market (a 227-hp Subaru WRX wagon, for example, gets to 60 just a tad quicker at 6.7 seconds), but the engine's true beauty comes from its ever-ready nature that keeps the A3 constantly poised to strike. With just a quick throttle jab, the stylish sportback transforms from statesmanlike luxury cruiser to uppity street punk — right now! Turn traction control off and the car will repeatedly light up the front tires in first and second gear, almost before you can register what's happening. Think of it as a Viper with six fewer cylinders — and three times the fuel mileage.
Trick Tranny In fact, if there's an Achilles' heel to the A3 it's that, initially, it will come with front-wheel drive only, which makes harnessing the 2.0T's torque a delicate balance between throttle application and available traction. By the end of 2005, a 3.2-liter, all-wheel-drive version will make an appearance, but until then the only drivetrain option is a six-speed DSG transmission (a traditional six-speed manual is the base transmission). We've driven the A3 with both trannys, but our test model was equipped with the DSG. And let us clarify one minor point right now — the traditional manual transmission is officially obsolete.
DSG stands for Direct Shift Gearbox, and as the name implies this transmission maintains a direct connection between the engine and the driven wheels without the use of a torque converter. Effectively reducing BMW's SMG, Toyota's SMT and Ferrari's F1-style manual transmissions to second-tier status, Audi's DSG uses two clutches to "preselect" the next gear before disengaging the active gear. The result is a truly "automaticlike" crispness between gears on upshifts, with all the rev-matching and rapid-fire responsiveness you could ever want on downshifts. Is there any downside to DSG? We noticed the car will roll a few extra inches before finally stopping when it's placed in "Park," and we didn't appreciate our test car's ability to upshift on its own at 7,400 rpm, even when operated in "manual" mode. The BMW, Ferrari and Toyota systems will let you bounce off the rev-limiter until the end of Robert Blake's latest murder trial. We wish Audi would incorporate the same philosophy.
More Than the Sum of its Parts In simple performance-per-dollar terms, the Subaru WRX wagon and Saab 9-2X have it all over the A3. Those models offer quicker acceleration and greater cargo capacity at a lower price. But consider the Audi's undiluted driving dynamics, opulent interior and upscale standard equipment list before writing off this latest sportback entry. The A3's electromechanical steering, for instance, does a superb job of dampening out unwanted road vibrations and kickback without marring the sublime feedback enthusiast drivers crave. Some editors commented that steering weight and resistance were on the light side, but they admitted it didn't actually reduce steering feel. And the advanced four-link rear suspension combines with McPherson struts up front to keep the car buttoned down, even as midcorner pavement imperfections try to knock it off line.
Slip inside and it's readily apparent the A3 continues Audi's tradition of utilizing first-class materials throughout the cabin. Real metal rings around the dash vents and audio controls are accented by high-quality plastic on the shifter and HVAC dials. Standard features include dual-zone automatic climate control, 17-inch alloy wheels, one-touch power windows, keyless entry and a 10-speaker, 140-watt audio system with satellite preparation for both XM and Sirius.
Watch That Bottom Line If you're after more than what the base A3 has to offer, an $1,800 Sport Package provides stiffer suspension tuning, foglights, a roof spoiler and leather seating surfaces. The $2,025 Premium Package also adds leather, plus a power driver seat, auto-dimming rearview mirror and HomeLink. Neither package strikes us as a particularly great value, and choosing either one, plus a few stand-alone items like xenon headlights or the upgraded Bose sound package, will have an A3's sticker rapidly approaching $30,000. That kind of money opens up a whole new set of competitors, not the least of which is Audi's own A4 Avant. Our advice? Stick with just DSG and the Sport or Premium Package and you can escape the dealer's clutches for under $30 large.
As corporate officials stated recently, Audi wants to be "the most progressive brand in America." Whether you focus on the A3's distinctive shape or its cutting-edge technology, one thing's clear, these guys aren't playing follow the leader. Drive around in the new A3 and you won't feel like you are, either.
Heck, people might even look at you and think "now there's someone who obviously gets it."
System Score: 8.0
Components: The A3's optional Sound Package is by Bose and includes a 225-watt amplifier, four midrange speakers (one in each door), four tweeters (one in each A-pillar and one in each rear door) and a central dash-mounted speaker. There's also a rear subwoofer and Audio Pilot technology that uses noise cancellation technology to overcome ambient noise within the cabin. An in-dash six-disc CD changer, a cassette player and either XM or Sirius Satellite Radio (Audi has an agreement with both companies) allows for a full range of media options with this system.
Performance: Clean highs, punchy lows and generally clear imaging earn this system high marks in terms of sound quality. On a CD-R with converted MP3s we noticed a drop in terms of clarity and separation, especially on the low end of the sound spectrum, but this was almost a nonissue on a store-bought CD of the Dave Matthews Band. In this case we'll mark off only a few points because the system's overall sound is still quite strong.
Because our test car had no navigation system, the controls were easy to access, with a simple "Tone" button allowing quick adjustment of treble, midrange and bass. Some may not like the red neon glow of the head unit's display, but it can't be faulted for pure clarity and ease of use.
The steering wheel thumb dials are a great control feature that we'd like to see more of in other marques, but the "Mode" and "Return" buttons on our test car's steering wheel didn't work. We did appreciate the textured metallic rings on the primary head unit dials; these not only look good but provide a solid grip when fine-tuning a station or tonal settings.
Best Feature: A multitude of media options that few will find lacking.
Conclusion: Clean up the separation a bit, and fix the steering wheel controls (this was probably unique to our test car), so we can give this system the "10" it is clearly chasing.
Senior Editor Scott Oldham says: Is it just me, or does Audi's new trapezoidal steering wheel hub, which is now in the company's entire lineup, remind you of the painting "The Scream" by Norwegian painter and printmaker, Edvard Munch?
Whatever, the A3 is as special as I anticipated, and if the pigheaded American public can get over its rear hatch, it should lead the way in the emerging entry premium segment, which already includes the Saabaru 9-2X and will soon see the debut of the BMW 1 Series.
First of all, it looks cool — part five-door Mini, part A4 wagon. I also think the new 2.0-liter turbo engine and the six-speed DSG transmission is the best drivetrain out there for the money, the amount of cargo room is amazing and the suspension is sorted.
Open a door and it's clear the A3 is an Audi — it's just nice inside. But look closely and you'll find a few small compromises, which, I guess, should be expected at a base price around $26 grand. The front seatbacks, for instance, are pocketless and the beautiful damped drawer that pops out of the center stack is missing the felt lining it has in the A4, A6 and A8. These aren't deal breakers, just small reminders you got the cheap one.
Get it anyway.
Manager of Vehicle Testing Kelly Toepke says: I knew that Audi was launching the A3, but somehow I had managed to avoid knowing much about it prior to it showing up in our test garage. Going in with a clean slate, I racked up a couple hundred miles shuttling the A3 to the California Speedway where we perform our instrumented testing.
As I headed into the first curving freeway transition, I was stunned by how lively and fun the A3 was. It was quick and light, and no matter how hard I pushed it while carving my way through a series of back roads, it always had plenty of power waiting in reserve. It was also the first car I had driven in weeks that I really enjoyed. I actually had fun behind the wheel, something that doesn't occur often enough in heavy Los Angeles traffic.
Inside, the A3's black leather cabin is trimmed with bright silver gauge and vent bezels, giving it a sporty interior that matches its energetic driving dynamics. And its rear hatch offers more utility than you'd get from a typical sedan, functionality I couldn't live without.
With pricing below $30,000, this is an Audi I would not only recommend, but one that could head up my personal shopping list.
"Today I took out a DSG with premium package. Well, I'm a converted fan of their DSG. Wow. That's one amazing tranny. It feels a tad creepy getting lightning-fast shifts and the sensation of coasting at the end of a stop is odd. I was a bit uncomfortable with it at first, but within a few miles goofing around I got used to it. Fast." — blueguydotcom, May 8, 2005
"I test-drove an A3 today. I'm 5'10" 220 lbs and it was fine. It certainly is not overly roomy, but it feels nice and snug. It drives and handles great. I sure would like to talk my wife into one." — dhamilton, May 5, 2005
"The A3 thingie actually is kinda sexy for a wagon/hatchback. Has a surefooted, progressive, almost cocky look about it. I don't know which of the two you'd actually call it, because it's kind of a combination of both." — Andre1969, May 5, 2005
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