It’s not often a car surprises me but when it came to the A3 I was gob-smacked. I simply couldn’t believe how much attention the baby Audi attracted. People would abandon their children and cast shopping bags aside so they could corner me in the parking lot before I drove off. They would stare at it in traffic and gawp as it drove by. It even attracted a small gathering of “youths” at a local restaurant, no mean feat considering I was in the drive-thru about 20 seconds when they descended upon me. If the A3 is an indication of what celebrity is like, I want no part of it, thank you very much.
That my test vehicle was an A3 3.2 S-line quattro had a lot to do with the attention, of course. Painted in Brilliant Red (a scarlet hue so vibrant the rear light lenses all but disappeared into the bodywork), boasting that aggressive S4-like front fascia and fitted with glorious (if optional) 18-inch, split-rim alloy wheels, the A3 simply looked spectacular. The subtle S-line badges and the black appearance of the sky-view glass roof only added to its allure, helping it to stand out even further from the everyday dross.
Even without all the S-line glitz, the A3 is still an aggressive little pit bull of a car with a muscular stance and a fearsome expression, but in full war paint with all the feathers, it’ll stop you dead in your tracks. It reminds me of Eva Menendez or Vin Diesel, I think. Not really good looking in a conventional sense, but striking enough to make you do a wide-eyed double take if you saw one on the street.
Inside you’ll find the best interior that Audi currently makes, excluding the one found in the TT. It’s dark and austere, as you expect from an Audi, but also ergonomically flawless and exquisitely made. The $34,000 S-line model comes loaded with toys like a six-CD changer with Bose speakers and a perforated leather steering wheel with audio controls, though the standard leather buckets lack the side-support needed in such a car and can also cause backache on longer journeys.
Rear seat accommodation is acceptable for a car of this size, allowing you to squeeze a pair of adults in there - provided the front seat passengers don’t mind scooting their seats forward an inch or two - while the trunk is simply massive for such a small car. Considering that it’s essentially a compact car, Audi has done an excellent job of packaging the A3 and giving it an exclusive, upmarket feel. At no point will you feel you’re in a poor man’s A4 or A6. In fact, in so many ways the A3 feels classier and better detailed than both its siblings.
Mechanically, this S-line A3 ticks all the right boxes. Under the hood lies a 3.2-liter V-6 engine producing 250 hp and 236 lb-ft of torque, driving all four wheels through a sophisticated quattro system that employs an electronically controlled Haldex (clutch-type) center differential. VW’s impressive six-speed DSG transmission is standard, as is a sports suspension and up-rated brakes, making it the spiritual successor to the previous generation, Europe-only Audi S3 quattro (which was driven by a 225 hp, turbocharged four-cylinder, incidentally). Why Audi didn’t make this car the new S3, I can’t imagine. Perhaps they don’t want it to cannibalize sales from the (mechanically identical) '07 Golf R32. Perhaps the cost of adding the full S3 pack, including Recaro seats and 18-inch wheels, pushed the price too high. Or maybe there’s an S3 in the works and it’s about to blow our sock off. Whatever the reason, I’m glad they didn’t go all out and call it the S3 because as a driver’s car, it really isn’t very good.
So what’s wrong with it? Well, nothing and everything. It’s not what it does that’s bad but how it does it. For example, the A3 3.2 S-line scorches to 60 mph in just 5.9 seconds but its perfect traction and smooth V-6 make it about as interesting as a documentary on Renaissance art. The DSG gearbox is a wonder, changing gears so quickly and smoothly you’ll want to shake the hand of the guy who came up with the idea of sticking two gearboxes and two clutches in the one transmission. But once you’re done gasping in awe, you realize that the satisfying sensation of cogs swapping and gears meshing is actually completely gone.
And when you find a corner to throw the A3 into, it clings to road with humorless vigor and offers only the basic amount of feedback through the steering wheel. Push it harder at it eventually begins to run wide but it’s a progressive occurrence and a lift of the throttle is all that’s needed to straighten it out. Competent? Staggeringly so. Fun? Absolutely not.
Unlike other over-engined Audis, you’re not really aware of the transfer of torque fore and aft in the A3 quattro and this is likely because the Haldex center differential is proactive, rather than reactive, in deciding when the rear wheels need torque. For example, when powering through fast sweepers you reach a point where you expect the A3 (which feels like a front-driver under normal circumstance) to start running out of grip but you soon learn that you can actually dial in more throttle here and by doing so you can maintain that exact cornering attitude while actually increasing the car’s cornering velocity. Torque has passed seamlessly to the rear wheels, thereby transferring some of the cornering load rearward and helping the A3 hang on for longer.
Gs or peas?
In low-speed corners, where computers opt to keep the rear wheels out of the picture, the A3 understeers alarmingly easily and with the stability control switched off it can be pitched spectacularly sideways with aggressive use of the gas pedal - just like any half-decent, front-wheel-drive car, in fact. That about the most fun I had with the A3, it pains me to report, which is why I say the A3 quattro is a disappointing driver’s car. It is a fantastic piece of engineering and feels more composed and poised than even the manual S4, but in the relentless pursuit of perfection Audi seems to have neglected to make it any fun.
That it’s so closely related to the VW Jetta GLI and shares the basic transmission with the previous Golf R32 has me, once again, gob-smacked. I should have been grinning like a buffoon every minute I was behind the wheel, but instead I simply marveled at its astounding competence for a while before wondering what I would have for dinner that night.
No, the Audi A3 3.2 S-line quattro’s primary function is as a crowd pleaser: impressing occupants with its wonderful interior; filling passersby with unbridled envy and making passengers shriek as lateral acceleration builds with each subsequent corner. It’s quite simply an excellent car that everyone in its vicinity can enjoy, appreciate and admire. Everyone, that is, except the driver.
2006 Audi A3 3.2 quattro S-line
Base Price: $33,980
Engine: 3.2-liter V-6, 250 hp/236 lb-ft
Transmission: Six-speed automated sequential gearbox, all-wheel drive Length x width x height: 168.7 in X 77.1 in X 56.1 in
Wheelbase: 101.4 in
Curb weight: 3660 lb
Fuel economy (EPA city/hwy): 21/27 mpg
Safety equipment: Anti-lock brakes and stability control; front, side and curtain airbags
Major standard equipment: Six-CD changer; leather sports seats; 17-inch alloy wheels; dual-zone climate control
Warranty: Four years/50,000 miles
I really wanted to love this car. I really did. But I’ve driven a Jetta GLI with the DSG transmission and a TT 3.2 with the DSG transmission. It’s not all good and plenty as every automotive journalist would love to tell you. Upshifts are quick. VERY quick. Quicker than humanly possible. Downshifts are slow. Slower than humanly possible? I don’t think so, however there’s a delay you don’t get when you’re using your left foot and right hand to do the changing. I thought it was just me, but when my friend and I switched spots she was even more pissed off than me.
“SHIFT you German-Mexican downshift disaster!!!” She actually said it was no better at downshifts than a 300M autostick. I didn’t think it was nearly that bad.
And the really terrible news is that the base price in an Audi (or other German cars for that matter) doesn’t include paint. It includes Black (with so much orange peal that you might as well be looking at a Cobalt), plain red or plain white. You actually pay extra for silver or any other “pearl” color. This ranges from $450 to $800
And more than just “leather seating surfaces.” If you want REAL leather on most of the seat you pay another $800. And it’s not even that great of leather. In the 2.0t model I looked at you might as well get the fake stuff, because the real leather wasn’t convincing me. In other words–the fake leather was really good fake leather and the real leather was really bad real leather.
Heated seats and washer nozzels are paired with a very exquisite ski bag. They must make it out of elephant stomach because the cold weather package costs $700.
Rear side airbags an option in a luxury car? This should be standard. $350
Xenon headlights not standard on your $34k audi? $800
And then I really want a sunroof because I really like to look at the sun while I drive. $1,100 but it’s an “open sky system.” I’m guessing it’s one big huge pane of glass. Well I gotta have it.
Cold weather package $700
Destination Charge $720
Open sky system $1,100
Rear side airbags* $350
Bi-Xenon Adaptive headlights $800
Price as configured: $39,200
And it doesn’t even have navigation! I would have to pay extra for the wheels-too-large package which would make me very chic among the euro crowd.
It is a very good looking car, and it’s fun to drive with the 2.0 and 6 speed. But a $40,000 car it is not, and most of those features should be standard.