|Longer, Wider, Roomier Audi A3 Builds On Past Qualities
New rear suspension, handling big plusses
Pity about the stodgy gearbox
Olbia, Sardinia When you first see the new A3, you will be hard pressed to tell it apart from the old one, but Audi says it is completely new from the ground up.
The new A3 is longer, wider and lower than the outgoing model and with more room inside. It has new independent rear suspension, compared with the outgoing models torsion beam system. The power steering is now electro-mechanical.
First drives at the launch in Sardinia revealed that the new A3 was superbly set up as drivers car, with precise steering and little body roll. But the six-speed gearbox used in some of the versions was a disappointment, providing a stodgy, inaccurate gear change.
The quality of the construction appeared first rate. The interior was typical Audi, functional, with a minimum of decoration.
At launch in May, available motors include a 2.0 litre petrol direct injection, a 1.6 litre petrol version, and two diesels. The Audi diesels - the 2.0 litre version hammers out 140 bhp, the older technology 1.9 litre a more modest 105 bhp use VWs high-pressure pump system, foreswearing the otherwise ubiquitous common rail set-up used by most of its rivals. The direct injection petrol motor develops 150 bhp and Audi claims this will deliver 40.9 miles per gallon.
A 3.2 litre, 250 bhp, V6 engine will be available later.
Dynamic Shift Gearbox
The most powerful A3s will also later have the option of a Dynamic Shift Gearbox, which allows fast gear changes using a clutch-less manual box, or by steering-wheel mounted paddles.
Inspired by motor racing technology, this remarkable new transmission system offers all the advantages of a sporting close ratio manual gearbox and a slick shifting automatic, with none of the pitfalls of either. Featuring twin automated clutches, it permits exceptionally rapid, 0.02 second manual gear changes via the gear lever or steering wheel paddles, with no interruption to the flow of engine power, yet it can also behave like a more traditional automatic shift for more relaxed urban driving, says Audi
Audis signature Quattro permanent four-wheel drive will also be available later.
You sometimes wonder when listening to company media conferences if the presentors and presentees are talking about the same thing. While Audi executives at the presentation in Olbia, Sardinia, waxed ecstatic at the outstanding looks of the handsome new car and its bold look which reflected emotion and precision, the presentees were thinking, it looks just like the old one; quite smart but nothing special.
Taut And Tightly Controlled
Under the skin though the A3 is certainly a terrific product. The chassis is taut and tightly controlled. There is little body roll through corners. The steering is precise and well weighted. The windy roads in Sardinia were no help in evaluating the A3s high- speed performance, but expect it to be a consummate highway cruiser.
The interior uses quality materials and the dashboard is efficient and understated, some might say drab. Much black plastic, with a little chrome relief. There are neat touches everywhere, from the cup holders in the rear seat central armrest, to the handbrake, which is V shaped and moves vertically up when you engage it, and down when you release. The rear seats fold down easily and release a huge amount of load space. On one of the test cars, there was a satellite navigation system with basic information appearing in a small screen between the rev counter and the speedometer. The cigarette lighter, sited next to the handbrake, can swivel so that it is completely out of sight and non-smokers can pretend it doesnt exist. Very neat. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his fellow anti-smoking fascists would approve.
The A3 will have to face down some formidable competition, mainly from the BMW Compact, Mercedes Benz Sport Coupe, and Alfa Romeo 147. Also at this price bracket, there is competition from bigger cars like the Ford Mondeo and Renault Laguna, not to mention expensive versions of Audis stable mate, the new VW Golf.
The base-model A3 is priced at 18,850 euros, compared with the outgoing models 18,300 euros. Audi says the new A3 includes 1,000 euros worth of extra equipment.
The A3 is the first vehicle to use Volkswagens next generation platform, which will also underpin the VW Golf, to be unveiled at Septembers Frankfurt Car Show, and the VW Touran compact MPV, currently being launched.
Audi has raised the lifetime production target for the new A3 to 1.2 million from the previous models 900,000 since its introduction in 1996, and a substantial part of that increase depends on selling the little hatchback in the U.S. for the first time, starting towards the end of 2004.
The first A3s will be available with only 3-doors, but 5-door versions will be available in the middle of next year. Sales of the new 3-door start across Europe on May 9.
Audis A3 annual sales target in Europe, believed to be around 170,000 compared with the maximum of 131,000 for the old model, is on the ambitious side, not least because of the weakness expected in Europes car markets over the next couple of years.
Neil Winton, May 3, 2003