Shortly after introducing a redesigned version of its A4 series during the 2005 model year, Audi was ready to launch a second compact model. Unlike the A4, which has been part of Audi's lineup for years, the new A3 is a brand-new vehicle for the U.S. market. Even more surprising, the A3 is intended to appeal to new Audi customers; it's offered in only a wagon body style.
Audi says the A3, which falls into the premium compact category, "is the first four-door car with sportiness similar to the TT coupe." A new FSI engine family makes its world premiere under A3 hoods. Initially, A3s will hold a free-revving 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder that develops 200 horsepower. Audi says it's the first production engine to combine FSI direct gasoline injection with a turbocharger. The same technology is found in the Audi R8 racecar, which was victorious at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Either a six-speed-manual gearbox or a Direct Shift Gearbox sequential manual mates with the four-cylinder. Sales began in May 2005.
A 250-hp, 3.2-liter V-6 will be available in the A3 toward the end of the calendar year. That version will be fitted with quattro all-wheel drive and the Direct Shift Gearbox. Inspired by racing technology, the Direct Shift Gearbox permits quick gear changes with uninterrupted traction, combining the advantages of a six-speed manual with an automatic transmission.
A single-frame tapered grille — patterned after the one on the company's redesigned A6 — dominates the front end of the A3 and is flanked by clear-lens headlights. Audi claims the front end imparts an "extremely self-confident and forceful character." Like typical coupe models, the A3's profile gets flatter toward the rear. Round wheel arches enhance the A3's stance.
Rear-end styling "is as discreet as it is impressive," according to Audi. It includes dual exhaust outlets and wraparound taillights. MacPherson struts are used for the front suspension, while a four-link independent suspension is used in the rear. Electromechanical steering offers speed-dependent power assistance. Alloy wheels hold standard 17-inch tires.
Audi says a low seat position in the five-occupant interior is reminiscent of sports cars and couples with a tall, wide center console. The steering wheel contains a trapezoidal central element that matches the shape of the A3's grille. Round air vents have aluminum surrounds like those on the TT coupe. Aluminum trim is evident on the door and glove box handles. Wide-opening rear doors are intended to ease entry and exit.
Standard equipment includes dual-zone automatic climate control. An optional two-section "Open Sky" glass sunroof includes separate blinds to keep the interior from overheating and to guard against the sun's glare. Xenon high-intensity-discharge headlights also are an option. Sport and Premium packages are available.
Under the Hood
Audi's new turbocharged 2.0T FSI four-cylinder produces 200 hp at 5,100 rpm and 207 pounds-feet of torque at 1,800 rpm. The 3.2-liter V-6 generates 250 hp and 237 pounds-feet of torque. Four-cylinder-powered models can have a six-speed-manual gearbox or the Direct Shift Gearbox sequential manual, which is standard with the V-6. Four-cylinder-powered A3s have front-wheel drive, but quattro all-wheel drive is installed in V-6 models.
Side-impact airbags, side curtain-type airbags, active front head restraints and an Electronic Stabilization Program are standard. Rear side-impact airbags are optional.
Apart from its wagonlike cargo versatility, handling is the A3's No. 1 attribute. Steering is on the light side, but it's precise and yields good maneuverability. You get a nice ride with the regular suspension; you feel bumps, but it's not bad.
Audi's Direct Shift Gearbox works surprisingly well by shifting smoothly at appropriate times. You can feel it move from gear to gear like a manual transmission, with a little engine-rpm loss between each ratio and an occasional jerk if you're accelerating hard. Still, it cleverly combines the benefits of both manual and automatic shifting.
Audi's six-speed-manual gearbox is reasonably smooth, but the clutch doesn't quite cooperate to yield the gentlest takeoffs. The manual transmission works better between higher gears and coming out of curves, but there's no compelling reason to pick it over the Direct Shift Gearbox.
Few luxury touches are evident in the down-to-business interior. Large instruments are easy to read. Excellent seats deliver good support and their bottoms are fairly long, but the windowsill is so high that the driver can't rest his elbow on it. Front space is a bit snug, but headroom is great and elbow space is acceptable. Some drivers might find their right knee resting against the center console.