Audi features some excellent technology on its roster of performance tech, the top three being its Quattro all-wheel-drive system, S-tronic dual-clutch transmission, and magnetic ride-suspension control. For 2009, the previously deprived Audi A3 gets this performance tech as a hand-me-down from its bigger, badder brothers. Now the A3 can take its proper place in Audi's performance legacy.
Unfortunately, it's still saddled with Audi's second-string cabin tech, which means a Multimedia Interface (MMI) controller on the stack instead of the console, no iPod interface, and mediocre navigation. However, it does have an excellent Bluetooth phone system.
On the road
Getting ready to set out in the 2009 Audi A3, we put an MP3 CD into the six-disc changer, which resides in the glove box, and watched as the onscreen CD interface showed nothing. This disc player can't read MP3 CDs. But there are SD-card slots behind the LCD, which do read MP3s, although the screen only shows file names, and not track tags--all in all, a primitive interface.
We're surprised you can still get disc changers that can't read MP3 CDs.
We settled on satellite radio and took off. The car immediately delighted with sprightly movement: nimble handling and responsive acceleration. We knew there would be some lag from the turbo, forcing air through the car's 2-liter four-cylinder engine, but it wasn't immediately apparent.
Befitting the bottom end of Audi's model line, the ride quality shows some harshness, but it's not bad. Cruising on smooth pavement at speed down the freeway, the A3 proved comfortable.
Exiting onto roads that demanded more driver input, we pushed the button marked with a shock absorber on the stack and put the shifter into Sport. That button puts the A3's magnetic-ride control into sport mode, resulting in a stiffer ride that could be felt in the cabin.
The long and winding road is the best place for the Audi A3.
The transmission's Sport program proved very aggressive in stepping down to lower gears and holding them, leading us to attack corners to see what the A3 could do. Typically, the computer-controlled dual-clutch manual transmission stepped down from fourth to third as we hit the brakes before a turn, putting the engine's power to the wheels. Accelerating through the corner, the suspension's sport mode kept the car stable while Quattro transferred torque to the wheels that needed it most.
Switching to manual mode, the car delivered the kind of hard shifts we would expect from a dual-clutch transmission, without the slushiness of a torque converter. We also ran the car through a little mud, rally style, and were impressed how easy it was to keep the A3 in line.
The A3 showed Audi's rally roots in negotiating thick and sticky mud.
But knowing that turbo lag lurked somewhere in this power plant, we set out to find it, first by doing a fast launch. There it was, lasting just a second as we pushed the gas. Similarly, while coasting on the freeway, we hit the gas and had to wait for full power to spool up. The A3 does exhibit some turbo lag, but it's far from debilitating.
In the cabin
With the navigation option in the 2009 Audi A3, the car features the same cabin gear we've seen in Audis for years. An update to this cabin tech is on the way, coming first to the new Audi Q5, but for now you're stuck with this older system.
Where the A4 moved the unique MMI controller from the stack to the console with the last model update, the A3 still uses plastic switchgear on the stack. And where the A4 picked up the Audi Music Interface, which offers excellent iPod integration, in its last update, the A3 just gets an auxiliary-input jack.
This infotainment unit is mostly disappointing, with a tedious interface and limited navigation system.
The navigation system itself is the same as what you get in other Audi models, even up to the pricey Audi A8. DVD-based, it handles the basics and shows decent-looking maps, but is devoid of advanced features. Address entry is tedious, whether you are using the rotary dial to input letters or trying to pinpoint a location on the map. Labeling is odd, too; for example, putting points of interest under a menu called Special Destinations.
We mentioned above how the six-disc changer doesn't read MP3 CDs, which means MP3 playback is relegated to the SD-card reader. The interface for SD cards is very rough, with no artist or song title display.
Even if music sources are limited, the 10-speaker Bose audio system sounds very good. This system produces audio with a light touch, not overpowering the music and letting the higher frequencies come through clearly. It could use a little better separation, but this system is overall very good.
The Bluetooth interface is the best part of the cabin tech, mostly because it makes a phone's address book available.
Audi has offered an excellent Bluetooth phone system for some time now, and makes it available in the A3. With the navigation system present, the phone system makes your phone book available on the LCD. Our only complaint is that the phone book and recent calls are under a menu labeled Memory, which isn't terribly intuitive.
Our review car also featured the A3's new Open Sky System, an option that puts a sunroof in front and a moon roof over the rear seats. It's a nice touch that adds an open feeling to the cabin.
Under the hood
The performance tech in the 2009 Audi A3 is excellent, combining the efficient and powerful 2-liter, turbocharged, four-cylinder engine, which uses Audi's direct-injection technology, with the S-tronic dual-clutch manual transmission. As this transmission uses clutches rather than a torque converter, shifts have that solid manual feel, although there is no clutch pedal. The computer-controlled clutches allow for two automatically shifted modes, plus the manual mode, which lets you change gears using the shifter or the paddles mounted to the steering wheel.
The S-tronic, dual-clutch transmission, can be used like an automatic, yet delivers shifts like a manual.
The engine's peak 200 horsepower comes on at 5,100rpm, while its 207 pound-feet of torque makes itself felt at 1,800rpm. That high torque figure at relatively low engine speeds accounts for the minimal turbo lag. Audi claims 6.7 seconds to 60 mph with this set-up, which is actually faster than the non-Quattro version.
The EPA rates the fuel economy at 21 mpg city and 28 mpg highway, numbers that comported with our observations. With a bias towards highway driving, and a good chunk of twisting roads, we came out with 25.3 mpg total. Emissions are a good story with the Audi A3, too, as the Quattro 2-liter turbo version earns a ULEV II rating.
Quattro all-wheel-drive and magnetic-suspension damping mean excellent handling in the turns.
The suspension uses a rheological fluid in the shocks that responds to electromagnets. A computer monitors road conditions and the way the car is moving to determine how much juice to give the electromagnets, tightening up the suspension when needed. That computer monitoring works in the overall program you set for the car, normal or sport.
Steering is responsive, and the Quattro system keeps the car from sliding around, traction control alternately minimizing wheel slip where needed.
Our review car was a 2009 Audi A3 with the 2-liter, turbo-charged engine, S-tronic dual-clutch transmission, and Quattro, which comes in at a base price of $30,500. The A3 is also available with a bigger, 3.2-liter, V-6 engine, for about $6,000 more. Magnetic-ride control came as part of the Sport package, a $2,550 option, while the navigation option, which includes the six-disc changer, added $1,950. Bluetooth, strangely enough, came as part of the S-Line package on our car, which adds sundry other features, for $2,000. And the nice dual sunroof option is an additional $1,100. With all the options and the $825 delivery charge, our total came out to $41,700, just a few thousand short of a fully optioned Mitsubishi Evo X.
In rating the A3, we give it an excellent score for performance tech, as it delivers superb handling, little turbo lag, and decent fuel economy. It fares less well in cabin tech, however, only gaining points for the Bluetooth and audio systems.