Review and road test of the Audi A3 (1996 - 2003)
BY ANDY ENRIGHT
Premium quality was the concept behind Audi's original A3 range. The Ingolstadt company have never subscribed to the fact that small car equals small status, and the A3 has the quality feel of a far larger car. Everything is firmly screwed together and high quality materials are used throughout. For this privilege the A3 commands a higher price than its VW Group siblings, which brings it into competition with far larger opposition. However, we all know what comes in small packages.
3 & 5dr hatch [1.6, 1.8, petrol, 1.9 diesel. Range incl, TDi , Sport, SE, T, T Sport quattro, S3 quattro]
Many observers thought that the Audi A3 would simply be a sawn off A4, much as BMW had done with their Compact range, but the styling was fresh, chunky and well received. It carried forward the high-waisted good looks of the old Coupe but with a squat, purposeful stance that looked good from every angle. At the time of the A3 launch in September 1996, seven models were initially available.
The base 1.6-litre model with a 4 cylinder 101bhp engine was joined by the more luxuriously-appointed SE version and the 1.6 Sport which, you've guessed it, was sportier with racy wheels, uprated suspension, bucket seats and sports steering wheel. The same trim levels were carried by the 1.8-litre range of cars. which utilised a four-cylinder unit, developing 125bhp in this instance. At the top of the range was the 1.8T Sport, which was fitted with a turbocharged 150bhp version of the 1.8 litre engine as seen in the Golf GTi. Despite Audi's loyalty to four-wheel drive, all of the first wave of A3s were front-wheel drive, and all were offered with a four-speed automatic option.
In August 1997, 1.9-litre turbodiesel engines were introduced. These units developed 110bhp and were available in the same base, SE and Sport trim designations as the petrol engined cars. A small round of revisions was made at the same time consisting of front side airbags and an improved RDS audio system. In August 1998 high security locks and, remote central locking were added to the line-up.
In keeping with Audi's devotion to the 'quattro' system, the A3 1.8 T quattro Sport was launched in July 1999. This model ran an uprated version of the 1.8-litre turbo engine, developing 180bhp. Many saw it as a taster for Audi's eventual A3 range-topper, the S3 quattro. This model stretched the power of the 1.8 turbo engine still further to 210bhp and gained a subtle but muscular body makeover.
July 1999 saw the launch of a five-door option on all models bar the S3 quattro and also the introduction of 1.9 TDi 90bhp models to slot in beneath the existing diesel engined cars. The 90bhp diesels were offered in base and SE guise.
The 90bhp diesel was firmly knocked on the head in 2001 when the A3 range underwent a series of revisions, with the lights and grille being facelifted. In came 100bhp and 130bhp 1.9-litre turbo diesels, punting the A3 range towards the top of the fast expanding diesel market. In early 2002, the S3 model was given a power hike from 210bhp up to 225bhp. This A3 was replaced by an all-new model in summer 2003.
What You Get
Call it chic, arriviste, unruffled, whatever, the Audi A3 exudes effortless cool. The interior is not that spacious, but buyers will put up with that to sport the four interlocking rings on the grille. That symbol has come to represent independent thinking and an insistence on spare, thoughtful design. The A3 range typifies this approach. All models wear stylish alloy wheels, and are supplied with driver, passenger and front side airbags. The first impression is that there's a lot of plain black applique dashboard on display, but look closely and all of the controls are apparent, tidily clustered and dripping with quality. Flick any switch, press any button and Audi's investment in the A3 stands out clearly. Even the grab handles are silicon-damped for a smooth return.
Sport models are perhaps the most attractive, with their tastefully dynamic appeal. The SE models will have all but rear seat passengers checking twice to make sure they're not in a far bigger A6. Luxurious touches run to twelve-spoke alloys, Alcantara upholstery, electronic climate control and remote central locking. Even the key is beautifully designed, a chunky black transponder into which the key blade slots like a flick knife.
What to Look For
It's a testament to the quality of modern Audis that most used guides have little to report. Reliability of the A3 has been excellent so far but if you want to nitpick, some higher mileage models suffer from suspension problems, there are issues with the ignition coils on the 1.8T engine and the TDi cars have been known to experience expensive catalyst failure. Generally speaking though, 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 £110 and a starter motor a comparatively inexpensive £150. An alternator costs in the region of £130, and front brake pads should cost £50. An exhaust system is circa £170 and a clutch assembly around £130. Not too painful is it?
On the Road
Packing all that quality into the A3 had a slight drawback. Quality weighs, and the A3 is far from the lightest car in its class. The horsepower figures won't serve to fling the car up the Queen's highway with quite the abandon of its more lightweight counterparts. For instance the range-topping Audi S3 weighs more than the original Audi Quattro, and makes some Volvo estates appear positively anorexic.
That said, the A3 has a great reassurance to its controls. The 1.8T manages 0-60 in 8.1 seconds, yet can still achieve over 45mpg on a run, and feels bulletproof. The familiar Audi characteristic of very firmly servoed brakes is still there and the steering insulates a lot of road feel, but these are minor points.
Of the diesel engined models the 90bhp variant is perhaps most perplexing. Somewhat dull to drive, it raises the question that if somebody is so concerned about penny pinching, why buy an Audi? The TDi 110 is a far more pleasing unit, doling out its great reserves of torque generously, and a modest right foot will return 57mpg. The 130bhp option is better still, it's a unit that cropped up all over the VW-Group product range around the turn of the century and is characterised by a sudden punch of acceleration when the revs hit the meat torque band. It's great fun.
Of the sports models, the S3 could have been the quickest point-to-point car in Audi's range at the time it was on sale. The 1.8T Quattro Sport represents a capable, and significantly cheaper, alternative.
The bulletproof build quality of the Audi A3 has resulted in it becoming an almost foolproof used car purchase. With the added versatility of the five-door, the A3 makes a great compact choice if interior space isn't too much of an issue.
You could certainly buy more metal for your money from other manufacturers, but given the choice of an A3 on the drive, most people can't resist the big-boned baby Audi. It's a feel-good car that can justify itself in the bends and on the balance sheet.
Audi A3 (1996 - 2003) review by ANDY ENRIGHT