January 21, 2009
2009 Audi A3 2.0T. Click image to enlarge
Manufacturer’s web site
By Paul Williams; photos courtesy Audi
2009 Audi A3
It wasn’t long ago that Audi was pretty much a one-model brand. Now, the company boasts a full range of vehicles that represent every category, from R8 supercar down to entry-level A3, a compact, four-door wagon (called a “Sportback, by Audi), about the same size as a Volvo V50 (which would be an obvious competitor).
They all boast superb drive-trains, exceptional fit and finish, and distinctive design; so much so that Audi vehicles are often mentioned by rival carmakers as a standard to which they aspire.
Mind you, this is a luxury brand, and when we talk about “entry-level,” we are looking at a base price for the A3 of $31,800 for a front-wheel drive version. My test car — an S-Line with the $3,050 Titanium Package that includes 18-inch wheels, black headliner and “piano-black” interior trim, all-wheel drive and automatic transmission — took the price up to $43,650. However, this is not out-of-line when comparison-shopping in this segment, and will supply you with a very complete package indeed.
Perhaps the most notable features of the A3 are its wonderful drive-train and chassis dynamics. The engine is Audi’s refined 2.0-litre, turbocharged and direct injected inline-four cylinder (TFSI, or Turbo Fuel Straight Injection). It makes 200-horsepower and 207 foot-pounds of torque (available between 1,800 and 5,000 rpm), and is truly a delight to experience. Smooth, quiet, responsive, fuel efficient and powerful, you can’t ask for much more in an automotive powerplant. And when mated to Audi’s six-speed “S tronic” direct shift transmission, you have the benefit of selecting between a fully automatic gearbox and a sophisticated manual mode that can really make the engine sing.
2009 Audi A3 2.0T. Click image to enlarge
Under the car, McPherson struts up-front, and a four-link independent suspension in the rear combine to produce a smooth ride and sharp handling. And of course, you have Audi’s all-wheel drive to enhance traction and stability (although quattro purists will know that the A3 uses a Haldex system, as opposed to the “true” quattro technology found on larger Audi models). Since the A3 quattro’s introduction in August, 2008, it has outsold the FWD version by almost two-to-one.
The A3 is also equipped with electronic stability control (Audi’s ESP) which includes anti-lock brakes, electronic brake pressure distribution and Brake Assist, which automatically senses an emergency braking situation and applies maximum available power boost to reduce stopping distance. The ESP is driver-selectable, should you wish to modify the car’s behaviour in certain conditions.
Other standard equipment on the Premium S tronic specified A3 includes automatic climate control, self-levelling bi-xenon headlamps, tilt and telescoping steering column, large sunroof, rain sensing windshield wipers, steering-wheel mounted audio controls, leather seating surfaces, power driver’s seat, extended range remote door locks, auto dimming interior mirror, foldable armrest between the seats, red ambient lighting, Audi “Concert” audio system with radio display and Bluetooth, power and heated mirrors, and power windows (all auto up/down).
My week in the A3 saw conditions change from wet roads with temperatures hovering around the freezing point, to severe snow, blowing snow and ice. The thermometer plunged to minus-22 and stayed there.
2009 Audi A3 2.0T; photo by James Bergeron. Click image to enlarge
Clear roads enable the A3 to accelerate briskly and show off its agility when passing or negotiating on-and-off ramps. The car feels substantial without being heavy, with light but positive steering and little body lean in corners. It is a firm and sporty ride; enjoyable to drive, especially in manual mode.
The gearbox deserves more mention, however, as it is high-value piece of technology that is not common in vehicles of modest performance like the A3 (compared with something like a Porsche 911 or Mitsubishi Evolution, which also use a twin-clutch transmission). In this car you can shift up and down through the gears in what is effectively a manual transmission with an automatic mode, rather than a more conventional automatic with an optional “sport shift.”
This double-clutch transmission (formerly called DSG, or Direct Shift Gearbox) uses one clutch for the odd gears (1,3,5), and the other for even gears (2,4,6), which enables it to pre-select the next gear, and engage it almost instantly as you gently squeeze the paddles behind the steering wheel. When downshifting, the transmission will “blip” the throttle, sounding for all the world like you’re a master of heel-and-toe shifting, and in rapid succession, no less.
Believe me, even die-hard manual shifters won’t miss a foot-operated clutch once they sample this transmission, and when automatic mode is selected, the shifts are butter-smooth up-and-down through the gears, and authoritative when required. The best of both worlds!
2009 Audi A3 2.0T; photos by James Bergeron. Click image to enlarge
The AWD and ESP systems were well-exercised in the very challenging winter conditions I experienced, keeping the car moving, and moving in the desired direction when the weather turned bad. Fitted with Pirelli winter tires, the A3 provided a reassuring feeling of connectedness to the road surface, whatever the conditions. Driver inputs were typically rewarded with completely predictable vehicle behaviour, and will definitely inspire confidence on snowy surfaces. However, when cornering on slick ice, all the systems are defeated, so it’s certainly not infallible.
Front-seat passengers enjoy supportive and well-crafted seats that reduce fatigue on long trips, but rear passengers my find legroom a little tight. Those seats fold fairly flat (but not fully), enabling some quite large items to fit in the cargo area behind the front seats. Liftover is low, and cargo slides easily in and out. This is not a big car, however; but it does use the space that it has intelligently.
While the A3 gets pretty well all the important things right, it can use some work with the smaller items. I know it’s not a huge deal, but why is the gas pump icon on the left side of the fuel gauge, when the filler is on the right side of the car? And why is the windshield wiper stalk designed so you have to turn off the rear wiper in order to activate the front windshield washer?
More importantly, in the tough conditions I endured, visibility was often a problem. The front windshield wipers were regularly overpowered by the snow, which built up and packed at the base of the windshield, blocking the washer nozzles. Additionally, the front-side windows frequently fogged up, and took a long time to clear.
2009 Audi A3 2.0T; bottom photo by James Bergeron. Click image to enlarge
Some controls on the centre stack are small and difficult to operate (it’s time for a full redesign), and the black headliner, part of the Titanium Package, makes the interior sombre and dark. The major gauges are easy to read, but supplementary information can be difficult to discern at a glance (there’s a lot of it; maybe too much). The standard audio system, prewired for Sirius satellite radio, delivers notably superior sound (no USB interface, though…too bad).
However, the fundamentals are excellent. The car looks good, drives great, and returns enviable fuel economy (I achieved a combined figure of 9.0 L/100 km (31 mpg) city/highway, without particularly trying; 9.6/7.5 L/100 km (29/38) city/highway are the official numbers). The A3 is practical and stylish, with build quality that is typical Audi (which means it’s of the highest order). Numerous detail touches, like the stainless vent surrounds on the dashboard that double as airflow controls, the clever remote audio volume wheel and the superior operation of the cruise control distinguish Audi from other brands.
And by the way, in markets outside North America, Audi sells a sweet A3 convertible and two-door Sportback that look very appealing. The grass is always greener… right?
Pricing: 2009 Audi A3 2.0 TFSI quattro Premium
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