The North American automotive market is a fickle one, and no manufacturer, including Audi, can ignore its demands. Thus, the entry-level A3 is now only a sedan in the United States and Canada.
I really liked the old A3. After American Audiphiles gazed longingly for years at the overseas-only first-generation A3 and its high performance derivative, the S3, Audi brought us the second-generation A3 in 2006, with models ranging from the über frugal TDI to the 3.2L 247hp VR6 S-line. And, joy of joys, it was only available in a 5-door Sportback. One could enjoy the versatility of a hatchback as well as the upmarket image that comes with the Audi badge.
Or, that was the idea, anyway. However, hatchbacks continue to have a bit of a stigma in this part of the world, so, to the general buying public, it was perceived only as a cheapening of Audi’s lineup. So, it sold rather poorly, and Audi saw fit to drop the hatchback body style for North America. I know, I know. Hatchbacks don’t deserve the image that’s been tacked onto them. It isn’t fair.
To quote Cracked.com’s famous 6 Harsh Truths article, “These are simple mechanisms of the universe and they do not respond to our wishes.”
So, right off the bat, the third-generation A3 has sacrificed some of that versatility in the name of mainstream acceptance.
But what about the rest of the A3? Does it still retain some of its left-field appeal?
My test car was the A3 2.0T quattro with the S tronic transmission, which is Audi’s terminology for Volkswagen’s DSG dual-clutch transmission. Output from the 2.0L turbocharged TFSI 4cyl engine is 220hp and 258 ft-lbs of torque, and with that drivetrain combination, the A3 can very easily claim real estate in the deed-restricted sport sedan neighborhood. Even with the S tronic’s reluctance to do a proper hard launch off the starting line in the interest of preserving itself, it operates magnificently the rest of the time, with fast, crisp, and smooth downshifts and upshifts, further solidifying my opinion that VAG has the best dual-clutch transmissions in the entire industry. It gets the A3 to 60mph in 5.4 seconds and through the quarter mile in 14.1 seconds at 98mph.
The A3 2.0T quattro is a genuinely and surprisingly fast little car in a straight line.
Now, thanks to Audi’s revered quattro all-wheel-drive system, those acceleration numbers are available on a wide variety of road surfaces. However, quattro can only do what it can with a given amount of traction, so the lateral acceleration figure of 0.74g comes with an asterisk: conditions were wet when I did the A3’s performance testing. On a dry surface, the A3 handles very well indeed, with trace amounts of understeer at the limit, which is common in all-wheel-drive cars. I can’t describe the A3 as sprightly; 3,365lbs is a considerable amount of weight for a car that’s only fourteen and a half feet long. But its short overall length means it also has a short wheelbase, and the multilink rear suspension along with the fantastic 17-inch Continental all-season tires mean that you can initiate a change of direction very easily and very quickly; quickly enough, in fact, that you can encourage the rear tires to help do some of the turning for you.
That takes a bit more effort than I’d like it to, however, as the A3’s only letdown (albeit a minor one) is the electrically assisted steering, which I feel should be geared a little bit faster to properly match the A3’s size and cornering abilities.
But the Audi A3 otherwise goes about its duties as a German compact sports sedan with ease, and not with drama. Likely due to the above-average weight, it’s surefooted and confident, and I was still able to drive it very, very fast through some snaking S-curves without ever feeling like I had my hands full. The weight also gives the A3 ride quality deserving of the four-ring emblem.
Inside the A3 is, strangely, a lot of nothing, at first glance. The A3 is among the first cars to receive Audi’s new MMI, or Multi Media Interface, and it’s easily my favorite infotainment system in any automobile I’ve tested yet. There’s no traditional ‘head unit,’ so every function, menu, and text input is handled by a small and uncluttered grouping of 7 buttons, 2 toggle switches, and a wheel in the center console behind the shifter, and presented on a touchless screen that arises out of the dashboard on startup. Yet it still has navigation, iPod integration, Bluetooth, and all the tech you would expect in a 21st century car, especially one that’s German. It may sound frustrating to operate all those gadgets with such a small number of controls, but as someone who considers himself tech-savvy, I found Audi’s latest MMI to be refreshingly easy and quick to learn. It’s intuitive, but most importantly, it’s not distracting.
That’s perfect for the A3’s easily distracted demographic, which is something that skewed the impression of my test drive, I’m afraid. I live just 10 minutes from Rollins College, and I drive past it frequently. When I did, I couldn’t help feeling like the freshmen girls were all looking at it and saying to their classmates, “That’s so cute! I’m going to get Daddy to buy me one!”
Whereas the old A3 found favor with scarved hipsters who had already known what it was way before you did (who probably also read Cracked.com), the new A3 is now a first car for sorority girls to drive from business administration class to cheerleading practice.
Those girls’ fathers will, furthermore, have to be well to do, because the MSRP of my test car was $37,195, which is quite a lot of money for a car of the A3’s dimensions and a car that, for example, doesn’t have automatic A/C.
But I digress. I’m supposed to be reviewing the A3, not its intended buyer. Image problems aside, the A3 is now a supremely nice to drive small European car with a terrific engine and transmission, the all-weather capability that quattro affords, possibly the most user-friendly infotainment system currently available in an automobile, and, if I’m honest, a bit more style, if not practicality.
That sounds more like something the North American market would appreciate.
Price as tested: $37,195
0-60mph: 5.4 sec
1/4-mile time: 14.1 seconds at 98mph
Lateral skidpad acceleration: 0.74g (wet)
60-0 braking distance: 125ft
Torque: 258 ft-lbs
Weight: 3,362 lbs
Fuel economy: 24.3 mpg
Test vehicle provided by Audi of America.
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