In this regard, luxury car companies of late have brought their brand of bourgeoisie to the masses with "affordable," value-for-money vehicles that can somewhat elevate owners' social status. A perfect example of this is the recently launched Audi A3 sportback. Whether it proves itself worthy of challenging the BMW 1-Series and the Mercedes Benz B-Class as decent movers for the common folk is the basis for today's test drive.
Mobile living, compact space
The car's outside proportions are roughly one-third greenhouse (thanks to the two-section Open Sky System) and two-thirds lower body, giving it a confident stance that reflects its sportback moniker. Interesting tidbit: design inspiration for the new A3 came from (German furniture designer) Werner Aisslinger's LoftCube, a 6.6m x 6.6m modular living unit that can be brought by helicopter or crane to anywhere, with emphasis on the nomadic life. Certainly the eclectic exterior was enough to garner attention from fellow motorists as this writer picked his way through Metro Manila, Laguna and Batangas en route to his usual testing areas.
The 2006 A3 is meant to expand Audi's appeal to entry-luxury buyers (i.e., the 25-40 age range), by offering a coupe's sporty proportions with the practicality of a wagon. With the rear seat upright the A3 can carry 13.1 cubic feet of luggage, roughly the same cargo carrying capacity of the Mercedes Benz B180. On the other hand, fold the 60/40 rear seats flat and load capacity jumps to 36 cubic feet.
Inside, it's apparent the A3 continues Audi's tradition of using first-class materiel throughout the cabin. Real metal rings around the dash vents and audio controls are accented by high-quality plastic on the shifter and HVAC dials. Standard features include a strong dual-zone automatic climate control, bright lighting within the cabin and glovebox, aftermarket-level-ready audio entertainment, rubberized lining for certain storage areas, a first aid kit (within the rear backrest divider) and blinds for Open Sky System light glare reduction (along with a retractable front area sliding roof).
Not quite Audi performance
Just when you think the A3 has everything down pat, there are certain quirks that can make you consider your options before throwing in the required P2.25 million for this entry-level A3 (a 1.6L MPI variant). There's no power assist feature for both front seats and the front passenger cupholder (under the right middle aircon vent) is rather intrusive to climate control airflow. The glovebox is narrow but tiered enough to handle small bric-a-brac. There's a slight delay when twisting the climate control system's temperature knobs. The doors, when closed, gave a hollow tune instead of a solid slam. And that's not all.
The 1.6L engine that came with the test unit totes 102 hp and 148 NMs of torque, but felt sluggish at the rev counter's bottom end. Acceleration can be somewhat remedied with the six-speed Tiptronic's manual mode, but powerband entry is high (2500 rpm onwards) and the last three gears are quite tall. Even the stock automatic transmission seems reluctant to downshift, going down a gear or two only at full throttle or during 30 to 45-degree inclines. Nevertheless, this writer got a (Batangas) Star Tollway-tested 195 kph top speed and a 10.65 kms/liter rate on 2.5 days of city driving.
The A3's advanced four-link rear suspension combines with McPherson struts up front to keep the car buttoned down, even as midcorner pavement imperfections try to get it off line. The traction control (billed as ASR) intervenes in the engine management system, reduces power and activates the anti-lock braking system (ABS) should wheel slippage occur, but is more self-regulatory than BMW's Dynamic Traction Control. Its light electromechanical steering does a good job of dampening out road vibrations without marring feedback. Unfortunately the Dunlop SP Sport 205 55/R16s have little grip, giving loud squeal at 45-60 kph and plowing at 65-plus kph.
But there are some pluses to the A3 driving experience. The aforementioned ABS kicks up quickly, and the brakes (along with the handbrake) are quite grippy. The steering wheel tilts and telescopes to handle short arms and long legs. Exterior lighting, whether from foglamps or headlights, are as bright as HID (high intensity discharge) units. The dashboard gauges and driver menu screen are big enough to be seen from the rear, although the temperature and fuel gauge designs have a striking simliarity with the current Ford Focus.
Although the test unit provided was a bit underpowered, the A3's creature comforts are enough to elevate his or her social status. Just make sure that you have over P 2M to spare, and get the diesel two-liter TDI (turbocharged direct injection) or the 3.2L quattro version instead.