BY ANDY ENRIGHT
How quickly things change. The first Audi A3 was hailed as a landmark in small car quality but seven years is a long time in this market and by 2003, things had changed. What was once deemed superior build quality had become rather run of the mill. Audi realised that if they wanted to preserve their pricing differential over the Mk V Volkswagen Golf, something special was required. That something special was the second generation A3 range. As a used buy, a compact car doesn't get much more bulletproof than this.
The original Audi A3 changed the way many premium manufacturers thought about small cars. Although Mercedes had a go at adding value to the sector with the C Class Sport Coupe, it just wasn't special enough and nor was BMW's 3 Series Compact. Audi had thought long and hard about what buyers in this sector wanted and they certainly didn't want a 'lite' option of an existing model - which was what the BMW and Mercedes in effect represented. Therefore the A3 had to be substantially different to the A4. This formula has served the Ingolstadt company well and was reprised when the second generation A3 was launched in summer 2003. With a range of high tech engines, the A3 was launched as a three door variant only, with initially no sporty 'S' versions and quattro all-wheel drive transmissions only fitted to the top of the range 3.2-litre cars. In summer 2004 the A3 Sportback five-door model was announced, offering a longer car for five-door customers and later that year a 1.6-litre FSI engine was introduced. The impressive 2.0-litre FSI turbo unit that powered the Golf GTi was also made available in the A3.
All 3-door cars sold from early summer 2005 were given the Audi 'single frame' grille. This featured on the Sportback from launch as well as on most of the other Audi models by this time. The S-line sport pack was also made more widely available, bringing an added sporty dimension to the car. The 2.0 TDI 170 diesel engine was introduced in the summer or 2006 and the impressive DSG gearbox became known as S Tronic at around the same time.
The S3 put in its appearance during the autumn of 2006 and it did so with a 263bhp version of the 3.2 V6 engine up front. Then, later that year, the normally-aspirated 2.0-litre FSI engine was given the old heave-ho in favour of a 1.8-litre turbo FSI unit with 158bhp. This was followed in mid 2007 by the 1.4 TFSI which replaced the 1.6 FSI.
In mid 2008 the A3 underwent a facelift across the range. Stylish improvements to the vehicle included the front wings and the grille becoming shapelier, the headlights were made sharper-looking and the side repeaters were incorporated into the door mirrors. A 2.0-litre common-rail engine was introduced. This was followed in summer 2009 by a 1.6-litre TDI common-rail engine.
What You Get
Longer, wider and lower than its predecessor, here is a car that has punted the A3 back into pole position as the item of choice for the discerning young professional. The most obvious change over the previous generation car is the increase in wheelbase. The styling is largely evolutionary, remaining obviously an A3, only looking a little stretched. The additional 65mm in wheelbase has rectified one of the old A3's faults, namely that rear seat accommodation was a bit pinched. The extra 30mm of width also helps a little with shoulder room.
Three-door versions arrived first with five-door Sportback models arriving later. That mirrors the evolution of the old A3 range and, like the old A3, this version rides on Golf underpinnings. Not just any old Golf though. The A3 was the first car to use the 2004 model Golf chassis, a vehicle platform that allows for far more customisation than before. In a way, it's the Volkswagen Group's tacit admission that certain Audi/SEAT/Skoda/VW models of the past were a little too similar to justify their vastly divergent prices. The Mk V Golf platform allows more far more components to be chopped and changed, making for more variation and more choice for customers.
Standard safety equipment includes window airbags, electronic stability control, ABS, brake assist, a part-electric power steering system and anti-whiplash head restraints. The cabin has been restyled to offer a little more design flair, Audi realising that high quality alone isn't enough to lure buyers into showrooms. There has to be some style on display too. The fascia struts ape the interior design of the TT, as do the round air vents and chrome-rimmed dials. It's still not what you'd call revolutionary, but it's beautifully executed.
What to Look For
It's a testament to the quality of modern Audis that most used guides have nothing to report. 'Too new to report any problems' or 'nothing significant' are the usual commentaries on the A3, and it's the same across the Audi range. Reliability of the A3 has been excellent so far, so just look for main dealers service stamps, a sheaf of receipts and check for the usual accident or misuse damage.
On the models fitted with low profile tyres, check the expensive alloy wheels for kerbing damage, and insist on locking wheel nuts. Other than that, buy with confidence.
(approx based on an A3 1.6) Potential buyers will be cheered to know that premium pricing does not stretch to Audi's parts prices. A replacement headlamp unit is £165 and a starter motor a comparatively inexpensive £150. An alternator costs in the region of £145, and front brake pads should cost £50. A clutch assembly is around £155. Not too painful is it?
On the Road
The A3 certainly offers a few mouthwatering selections. The two most popular engines are the 150bhp 2.0-litre FSI petrol engine that was so successful in the A4 range and a 140bhp 2.0-litre TDI diesel that had never been seen anywhere before. The 168bhp 2.0-litre TDI 170 unit that was introduced later is a great compromise between pace and economy. You can also order a more affordable 105bhp 1.9-litre TDI, a turbocharged 2.0-litre petrol and a less affordable 250bhp 3.2-litre V6. A 1.6-litre petrol engine is also offered as an entry-level model. The V6 is fitted with quattro all-wheel drive transmission as standard and it's optional on the 2.0-litre diesels as well as the 2.0-litre FSI Turbo.
The popular TDI 140 diesel offers the sort of performance you'd expect from Audi. It hits 60mph in 9.2 seconds and tops 130mph, which makes it only marginally slower than the 2.0-litre FSI. With 60% more torque, however, there's no doubt which of the two cars will feel the stronger when accelerating down a motorway on-ramp. It's pull matches the 3.2-litre V6 model, a car which makes 60mph in 6.7 seconds and tops out at 153mph. Driving manners across the range were improved over the previous generation car with even the humblest versions riding on multi-link rear suspension.
Where Audi really pulls clear of the opposition is in the availability of its revolutionary S Tronic Dynamic Shift Gearbox (DSG on the early cars but known as S Tronic on later models) on the most powerful petrol and diesel models. First seen in the TT 3.2 V6 coupe, this system is based around a sequential manual gearbox but utilizes an ingenious twin clutch system to ensure creamy smoothness. Engage first gear and the gearbox will pre-engage second gear in advance, the second clutch engaging as soon as you flick up to slot instantly into second gear. This means a seamless flow of power. The electronics predict what gear you're about to engage, depending on whether you're accelerating or braking and the result is astonishing, making every other gearbox look distinctly clunky. The other option is to slip it into 'D' and drive it like a normal automatic. Even in this mode it's butter smooth and makes other attempts at sequential manual systems appear distinctly clunky and yester-tech.
Although BMW's 1 Series and Mercedes' C-Class Sport Coupe arrived to challenge Audi's A3 as the premium compact executive hatch, neither can match the A3 in terms of packaging and practicality. Plus Audi's range of engines and fitment of quattro all-wheel drive to their upspec models offers them a competitive edge. Factor in the engineering genius - for there is no other word to describe it - of the DSG gearbox and you have a car that justifies its own existence without recourse to badge equity. You'll find plenty of well looked after used examples. Just don't expect any screaming bargains right now.
3rd September 2010