Now in its fourth year stateside, the 5-door Audi A3 remains a strong contender in the entry-level luxury market. Although much of the car remains unchanged for 2009, Audi has made a few new drivetrain combinations available that are sure to please. Various aesthetic tweaks are also sprinkled both inside and outside the car, creating a marginally new appearance. But with pricing extending well into the $30,000’s, the A3 faces a host of new competitors.
As before, the 5-door wagon is available in two main trim levels, based on engine: the 2.0 TFSI and the higher-end 3.2. The 2.0 TFSI features a 2.0-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder engine, while the 3.2 features a 3.2-liter V6. The S Line and Premium packages remain standard with the larger engine and optional on the 2.0 TFSI. Additionally, both versions can be equipped with the Titanium package, which offers unique wheels and tires as well as black accents inside and out.
The most significant mechanical differences for 2009 lie in the long-overdue addition of extra drivetrain options. Most notable is the availability of quattro all-wheel drive combined with the venerable 2.0-liter turbocharged engine. As before, Audi’s impressive dual-clutch transmission (dubbed S tronic) is optional on the 2.0-liter, but is now standard when you check the box for the larger 3.2-liter engine.
On the outside, the A3 receives a subtle yet reasonably effective face-lift, and includes the addition of Audi’s now-signature LED running lights in the headlight clusters. Although the overall length remains the same as in 2008, the reduced front overhang makes for a sportier stance, as does the slightly reworked front fascia. Rounding out the changes are smaller details such as redesigned door handles, mirrors and taillights.
Under the Hood
The unchanged engine options mean you’ll choose between a lively 200 horsepower, 2.0-liter turbocharged inline four and a 250 horsepower 3.2 liter V6. While the narrow-angle V6 is smooth and strong, enthusiasts will no doubt continue to prefer the lighter-weight direct-injected 2.0.
Both the S tronic and regular manual transmission feature six forward gears, although the S tronic is capable of shifting between them in milliseconds, as well as operating as smoothly as a conventional automatic when required. It’s hard to deny the appeal of this advanced transmission; however, if you’re a purist you can always opt for the 6-speed manual and brag about the weight savings over the dual-clutch option.
Lastly, a cheapened version of Audi’s new drive select finds its way aboard, which allows the driver to adjust suspension stiffness between two self-explanatory modes, "sport" and "normal."
Cabin design, fit and finish are current Audi strong suits, and this car is no exception. With excellent materials and build quality, and a dash layout that is clear and logical, the interior is practically without fault. Although there are no particularly dramatic or striking design elements, it’s neither drab nor depressing, conveying a clean, mature design.
The 5-door layout makes for plenty of interior space, particularly when the rear seats are folded down. A massive Open Sky dual sunroof remains an option, and ensures that no occupants will experience claustrophobia. Leather seats are now standard, which should be no surprise at this price range.
The 10-speaker sound system finally includes an auxiliary input for MP3 players, as well as standard SIRIUS Satellite Radio. The standard CD player is capable of playing MP3 CDs, and if you opt for the Audi Navigation system, a 6-disc CD changer is installed in the glove box along with two SD card slots. Why this goes hand-in-hand with a navigation system we’re not quite sure, but it seems Audi is determined to let buyers play their music however they darn well please.
On the Road
For the most part, the new A3 is quite a pleasant drive. Our test car, a fully loaded 2.0 TFSI quattro, did well to convince us that this is the combination to get. The shockingly grunty 2.0-liter handled everything we could throw its way, from steep inclines to a cabin filled with five passengers. It’s smooth and the torque is — dare we say — addicting, with 207 lb-ft starting at a low 1800 rpm and not subsiding until 5000 rpm. This makes passing a breeze and lends itself well to freeway cruising.
While we love a good old-fashioned manual transmission, we’d be remiss to ignore the brilliance of the dual-clutch gearbox. The S tronic truly bridges the gap between automatic and manual. When controlled manually, shifts occur quickly through either the steering wheel paddles or the console lever. On the other hand, come rush-hour traffic, the smooth dual-clutch transmission is all but indistinguishable from a true automatic.
Like previous models, the A3 chassis feels solid and well-composed on both rough roads and smooth curves. The Audi magnetic ride suspension is an improvement, and switching between sport and comfort modes is easily done, producing a noticeable difference. Like many Audis that have come before it, the 2009 A3 will understeer when pushed to the limit. While perfectly acceptable for everyday use, enthusiasts may take issue with the conservative handling. The A3 3.2 carries a weight penalty of roughly 500 pounds, but its 50-horsepower advantage is still enough to bring the A3’s zero to 60 mph time under six seconds.
Right for You?
With prices starting at around $27,000 for a base trim and reaching well into the $30,000’s for a fully loaded 3.2, the A3 has many competitors, including the 1-Series from BMW. In terms of power and speed, the A3 is at risk of falling short against new competition, but it never feels insufficient. The quattro all-wheel drive is a significant plus in this price range, and the recent design direction of Audi models nets some serious style points. It’s an ideal car for those who appreciate quality over quantity, and those who find understatement beautiful. For those looking to "make the scene," or simply maximize bang for the buck, it may be wise to keep looking.
James Tate cut his teeth in the business as a race team crew member before moving to the editorial side as Senior Editor of Sport Compact Car, and his work has appeared in Popular Mechanics, Automobile, Motor Trend and European Car. When not writing, Tate is usually fantasizing about a vintage Porsche 911.