By Jonathan Crouch
Can a relatively affordable compact convertible be genuinely, heart-stoppingly, aspirationally desirable? Audi thinks so and, in the form of their second generation A3 Cabriolet, brought us an open-topped car that was an enormous improvement on its predecessor. All the Audi attributes you're used to - cool design, fantastic build quality, engine efficiency and strong residual values - were here matched to sleek looks delivering that 'want one' factor. You can't really ask for much more from a compact convertible. Let's check out this one as a used buy in its original 2014 to 2016-era production form.
We've always found it puzzling that car manufacturers frequently pursue an idea obviously flawed from the outset. Perhaps they get a bit mired in the details and lose sight of the bigger picture. Sports cars that don't handle? That worked really well for TVR didn't it? Economy-minded electric cars that cost three times as much as a diesel model? You know who we're talking about. Or how about convertible cars that.. just don't look very elegant? That last trap is one Audi blundered into with its original A3 Cabriolet but one that was firmly rectified by this, its second generation replacement.
To be fair, there wasn't much else wrong with that original drop-top A3, a car we first saw in 2007. It was well built, had a range of great engines to choose from and made all sorts of sense on the balance sheet thanks to decent efficiency and strong resale values. The problem lay in its underpinnings, which had to be based on those of the A3 Hatch, hence the short, stubby shape and pram-like look when the roof was down. BMW knew not to do this, basing the Audi's closest rival, their 1 Series Convertible, on a coupe platform for a sleeker, more elegant look.
So the Ingolstadt engineers went back to the drawing board, resulting in this second generation version, a car we first saw in the Spring of 2014 and a design clearly based on a very different approach. For a start, this MK2 model was spun off the chassis of the A3 Saloon rather than the hatchback, which meant that it could be both lower and longer than the model it replaced. Perhaps indeed, the car to suit owners of the long lamented A4 Cabriolet unable to stretch to its A5 replacement. And certainly an Audi guaranteed to tempt buyers in search of something just a touch nicer than mainstream family hatch-based compact convertibles can offer. The original version of this MK2 A3 Cabriolet model was produced until 2016, when it was then lightly facelifted and some fresh engine and technology options added.
What You Get
If you were familiar with the first generation A3 Cabriolet, you'll find this MK2 model a far more elegant thing. The original was based on the A3 hatchback bodyshell which, perhaps inevitably, led to somewhat dumpy, pram-like styling. This car, in contrast, is built on a modified version of the longer chassis used by the A3 Saloon and, as a result, is 183mm longer, 28mm wider and 15mm lower than its predecessor. You'll find it classier too. Take the lovely satin metallic finish of the windscreen header rail, part of a whole range of beautiful detailing that carries on around the waistline to the neat rear tonneau cover. It's all made quite a difference, giving the impression of a far more desirable, far more substantial car: and one that you'd be far happier to move into if you were downsizing from a larger Convertible.
As well as the dimensional changes, Audi's designers employed virtually every trick in the book to accentuate the longer, wider, lower look, with more shape in the doors and a strong so-called 'Tornado' swage line that runs from the tail light cluster all the way forward to the wedgey front headlights that flank the usual classy single-frame radiator grille. The previously flat waistline is with this MK2 model canted up at the rear too, offering a squat, power-packed impression. As a result of all this, buyers ended up with a much more dynamic-looking car, even without the sports suspension that can drop it up to 25mm lower to the ground. More important though, is what you can't see, the hi-tech MQB modular transverse platform that underpins the ultra-lightweight construction primarily responsible for the kind of weight saving that sees this car up to 60kgs lighter than its predecessor.
But of course, almost any Cabriolet looks good roof down. How will it be top-up? Like every convertible Audi, this one's hood is made of cloth and in this case opens or closes in 18 seconds at speeds of up to 31mph.
It's quite sleek for a compact convertible, with a nice touch being the way that the rear section has been sculpted to mirror the shape of the saloon. Of course, it's quite tempting to dismissed cloth-topped cabrios as being technically inferior to folding metal-roofed models but there's plenty of high tech on offer here, with magnesium used in the large roof peak, while the parts that give the roof its shape are fashioned from aluminium. The hood itself has three-layers and a headliner - and on plusher models is supplied in 'acoustic' form, with a layer of foam inserted that's supposed to reduce cabin noise levels by around 30%. The idea of that is to offer all the refinement a folding metal roof would provide without the boot space compromises that approach entails. Has Audi managed that?
Yes. The boot certainly isn't massive and bulkier baby buggies will be tough to fit in the rather odd-shaped space when the roof's down - you've just 275-litres to play with. But the 320-litres you get with the hood is up is substantial in comparison to what you'd get from a folding metal-topped model. Like BMW's 4 Series Convertible for example, which is supposed to be a much larger car yet which offers you 100-litres less. More directly competitive fabric-topped cabriolets can't match the carriage capacity of this one either: a Golf Cabriolet offers 70-litres less, a Vauxhall Cascada 50-litres less. As with these cars, there's the option to extend the luggage space on offer by pushing forward the 50:50 split-folding rear bench, a process that in this case frees up 678-litres of total fresh air.
Of course, whenever you find a compact cabriolet with a reasonably sized boot, there's always the fear that rear seat passengers will be compromised as a result. Is that the case here? Yes and no. It certainly isn't what you'd call spacious in the back - but then no car in this class is. What's undeniable though, is that basing this second generation design on a longer wheelbase has freed up a little more space for knees, shoulders and legs and it also helps that the two main seating positions are sculpted into a comfy shape. True, this is still an environment best suited to kids and shopping bags and we certainly wouldn't want to be trying to lug a heavy child seat in and out when the roof was up. But that said, we're now no longer talking about rear seat berths you'd be embarrassed to point adults towards for short journeys.
Time though, to get to the part of this car Audi does really well: the front of the cabin. Quite simply, nothing else in this segment can match it, the cabin, as in all A3s, dominated by an electrically-extending 5.8-inch colour screen centrally positioned on top of the dash. Via this, you can marshal the many functions of a redesigned MMI infotainment system that prevents all but the most vital controls from cluttering up the minimalist dashboard. Just as distinctive are the four air vents, styled to look like miniature jet engines and made up of no fewer than thirty individual parts including bright metal outer rings that are shaped for perfect grip.
Otherwise, you've an interior that'll be familiar fare to anybody who speaks fluent Audi design language, everything clear, classy and easily accessible. Only the thick windscreen pillars represent any sort of departure from the usual A3 feel, beefed up to withstand a rollover impact. This apart, it's just as you'd find in an A3 Hatch or Saloon. So the instrument panel's styled in a wing-like profile and an electric parking brake switch replaces the traditional - and preferable - handbrake lever so as to free up space for an MMI infotainment system controller by your left hand that can now be ordered with a touchpad on top. Ultimately, what it all adds up to is a cabin that wouldn't be out of place on a car costing twice the price. And how many models of this kind can you say that about? Exactly.
What to Look For
With this second generation A3 Cabriolet, Audi seems to have sorted out the occasional electric folding roof problems that blighted a few examples of the first generation model. Still, check the folding roof mechanism out very carefully before you buy and look out for discolouration from UV, road salt or bird lime.
Otherwise, the things to look out for are the same as those in any other third generation A3 model. Oil sump failure in 2.0 TD diesel variants was the most regularly reported issue we came across as part of our customer survey, this engine also sometimes exhibiting loud turbo noises too, so listen for that on your test drive. The 1.4-litre TFSI petrol variant has also occasionally faltered too. We came across a couple of owners complaining of a 'whooshing' noise with this powerplant in 120PS form which is apparently due to vacuum hose issues and a vibrating actuator rod.
Other issues we came across that you might want to look out for included a random lumpy engine idle, a faulty coolant expansion tank, worn wheel bearings, warped rear brake discs and sticking rear brake pads. Also look out for a crunchy gear change between 1st and 2nd gear, plus faulty turbo hose seals, motor brushes in the small radiator fan that get stuck and suspension drop-link ball-joints that are worn out.
Less serious issues we came across included windows creeping open, alloy wheels corroding badly, issues with the central locking mechanism, loose door handle outside trim bits and constantly high levels of humidity in the car after being parked up. Also listen out for a rattle from areas like the driver's side B pillar, dash vent and glovebox area. On the models fitted with low profile tyres, check the expensive alloy wheels for kerbing damage and insist on locking wheel nuts.
(approx based on a 2013 A3 Cabriolet 2.0 TDI) An air filter will be priced in the £14 to £20 bracket, an oil filter will sit in the £8 to £11 bracket and a fuel filter will be around £5, though go for a pricier brand and you could pay as much as £25 for one. A timing belt will be around £45 and brake discs we came across sat in the £42 to £62 bracket, with pricier-branded discs costing between £72 and £84. Wiper blades cost in the £10 to £25 bracket, but you can pay up to £40 for a pricier brand.
On the Road
In theory, the first question you should ask when looking at a convertible should relate to how the chassis copes with having the roof chopped off. Some don't manage very well, the rear view mirror getting the shakes as soon as you set off down the road and encounter a few bumps. Think of a shoe box - and how much less rigid it is once you take the top off, unless of course, you strengthen the base and the sides. It's the same with a car. But strengthening adds weight, which equals stodgy handling and high running costs. So compromises are made - and we're back to wobbly rear view mirrors and chassis set-ups that flex all over the place with the vagaries of the road surface.
Compromises of course, aren't the Audi way - Vorsprung durch tecknic and all that - but even their engineers had to scratch their heads in creating this MK2 A3 Cabriolet. Large luxury convertibles with their heavier weight are easier to sort out in this regard but small drop-tops are notoriously difficult to get right. It was fortunate then for Ingolstadt, that in developing this car, they had access to the Volkswagen Group's hi-tech MQB platform that all this conglomerate's modern era products are based upon, stiffer, lighter and better. This second generation A3 Cabriolet would see its use in a convertible model for the very first time: a real test.
But one the technology seems to have been well equipped to meet. We'd be lying if we said there was no shake or shudder at all with this car over poor road surfaces, but there really isn't very much. It helps in this regard if the car you have in mind hasn't been fitted with one of the over-firm optional 'Sports' or 'S line Sports' suspension set-ups. Ideally, you want one that either has the standard set-up or was fitted out with the optional 'Audi Magnetic ride' variable damping system.
'Magnetic ride' operates through the functionality of the 'Audi drive select' driving dynamics system that's standard on all but base-trimmed models. It's the kind of set-up you might be getting familiar with by now on premium cars, enabling you, at the touch of a button, to alter steering, throttle and gearchange responses to suit relaxed, performance-orientated or efficiency-prioritised styles of driving. For us, the inclusion of the extra-cost suspension element to the equation properly completes the package. Either way, 'drive select' operates with a touch of this dash-mounted button here prior to your selection between the various self-explanatory settings. Mostly, you'll be switching between 'comfort', 'dynamic' and 'efficiency', but there's also an 'auto' option if you can't make up your mind and an 'individual' option enabling you to bespoke some of the settings to your personal preferences once you've spent an hour or so with your head buried in the Owners' manual.
With all this sorted, you can really start to enjoy this Audi. As we've already suggested, it's not really supposed to be any sort of sportscar, but that doesn't mean that, once you've got over the slight vagueness of the steering, you can't have fun in it. Enjoyment of this kind is possible because this car is so good through the corners, thanks to a front end endowed with prodigious levels of grip. There's a quattro 4WD option on top models but in the dry, we can't see that you'd need it. We'd think twice about going for a car fitted with the S tronic twin-clutch auto transmission too, unless we really were urban-bound. First because on the diesel models most will be looking at, it's the relatively inefficient 6-speed system. And second because the stick shift model is already so good, the pedal placings perfect and the change action light and direct.
As for the convertible issues, well roof-down, buffeting for front seat folk isn't much of an issue and won't be on the motorway unless you really are venturing up to autobahn speeds. Inevitably, as in all cabrios, it'd be a different question for those sat in the rear. Of course you can't have anyone sat in the rear if you fit the rather inelegant wind deflector which sits across the back passenger compartment and leaves you with only two seats. This feature was optional from new, but worth having for serene, unruffled progress - the kind of thing you certainly get when driving with the roof up.
As with most modern cabriolets, the mechanism's operable on the move - at speeds of up to 31mph. And once the hood's up, there really isn't much more road noise than you'd get in a fixed-top A3. Certainly not more than you'd get roof-up in one of those folding metal-topped convertibles. This is all provided that you get yourself a MK2 model A3 Cabriolet fitted out with what the brand calls an 'acoustic hood'. From new, this was an extra cost item on base-trimmed models, but one very well worth having, with an extra layer of foam inserted between the hood's three fabric layers that improves cabin refinement by 30%.
On to engines. Many will want to avoid the entry-level units (a 125PS 1.4-litre TFSI petrol and a 105PS 1.6-litre TDI diesel) in favour of the two powerplants that make up the heart of the range. The most obvious choice is the one most buyers will probably make, the 150PS 2.0-litre TDI diesel. And, sure enough, it's a very impressive engine, with eager pulling power delivering the rest to 62mph sprint in 8.9s en route to a 139mph maximum that ought to be enough for anyone. Personally though, if we were buying this car, we'd take the other mainstream option, a 140PS version of the 1.4TFSI petrol unit with clever CoD, or 'Cylinder on Demand' technology. It's almost as efficient as the diesel, significantly quieter (especially of course with the roof down) and just as quick (62mph from rest takes 9.1s en route to 135mph).
We're not sure we'd really want to go much faster than that in this car, but those with a further need for speed do have other options in the engine line-up. Diesel folk get a pokier 184PS version of the 2.0 TDI unit. While those preferring petrol have the further alternative of a 180PS 1.8-litre TFSI powerplant, the engine you have to have if you're looking for a mainstream petrol-powered A3 Cabriolet with the option of quattro 4WD. This variant also gets a slicker 7-speed S tronic auto transmission set-up than diesel drivers can have and with this fitted, 62mph is just 7.8s away en route to 150mph. The same system is also an option on the ritziest version of this car you can buy, the potent S3 flagship model, which mates quattro 4WD to a 300PS 2.0-litre TFSI turbo engine able to power you to 62mph in just 5.4s on the way to 155mph. Toupees will very definitely need to be firmly tied down.
It's hard to think of any other car in Audi's recent history that's been improved so dramatically from one generation to the next as this MK2 model A3 Cabriolet. You name it, it's better. Clever design, the way the car drives, practicality, running costs, equipment; everything's all a big step on, an observation which perhaps is truest when it comes to the way this thing looks. Where the original version was a convertible that seemed pretty good on paper, it just didn't have that essential element of desirability that marks a great open-top car, too dumpy to really cut a dash. This MK2 model rectified that. By any measure it's a seriously handsome piece of styling, effectively turning the tables on its nearest BMW rival.
Provided you don't enter the purchasing process with unrealistic expectations that this model will be mainstream brand-affordable - or some sort of sportscar - it's hard to see how you could be disappointed by what's on offer here. In MK2 form, the A3 Cabriolet matured - got a little more Vorsprung durch Technik. And the compact convertible class got a new benchmark.