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Audi A3 1.9 TDi Quattro review (1999-2003)
Engine: 1.9 in-line 4-cyl
Fuel type: Diesel
Transmission: 6-speed manual
Date of test: June 2002
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What is it?
BMW’s Compact was the first ‘premium hatchback’ but Audi’s A3 is the car that made the sector truly desirable. It may well be based on the same platform as the VW Golf, but you’d never guess it from the styling; the A3 is a classy-looking car with an ultra-desirable badge on its nose. Since the A3’s launch in 1996, Audi has barely had to tinker with the concept to keep sales on the boil; the subsequent launch of a five-door variant to complement the original three-door only served to reinforce its popularity. We’ve tested the latest, most intriguing model – a TDI diesel three-door, incorporating quattro four-wheel-drive hardware.
Where does it fit?
Volkswagen Group’s TDI diesels are some of the most popular on our roads, thanks to their punchy performance and great fuel economy. Other manufacturers have cottoned on to this though, hence the number of potential rivals for the stylish diesel-powered A3. They include the BMW 320td Compact, Ford Focus TDCi, Mercedes C220 CDI Sports Coupe, Peugeot 307 HDi and, from inside the Volkswagen family, the Golf TDI. Crucially though, the A3 offers the combination of diesel power with four-wheel-drive; to find four-wheel drive elsewhere, you’ll have to go for petrol power, and even then you’ll be limited to the Skoda Octavia 4x4 or (at a push) a Renault Scenic RX4 – unless you go for a mini-off-roader…
Is it for you?
If you live in a fashionable part of town, you may well already have considered an A3 - perhaps even own one already. And thanks to its classy yet discreet styling, an attractive and superbly-built interior, plus all the durability that comes from Golf mechanicals, it’s still very much in vogue, even after all this time.. The TDI diesel engine is also very, very punchy at most revs, yet provides fuel economy which can easily crack 50mpg – a very desirable combination indeed. It’s not the cheapest car in the segment, nor the most spacious or practical in three-door guise, but it is nevertheless a highly desirable one.
What does it do well?
If you’re in a hurry, the A3 experience is dominated by the reassuring reserves of grip provided by the quattro running gear. The electronically-controlled system is very efficient indeed, meaning there’s no wheelspin away from junctions, even in wet or icy conditions, and a strong feeling of composure when speeds rise and road conditions worsen. There’s effortless pace from the engine too – gaining speed is simply a matter of squeezing the accelerator, rather than changing down a gear, which makes motorway trips very relaxing. As with all A3s, refinement is good too.
What doesn't it do well
Ride quality is decidedly firm, and can be harsh, especially when 17-inch wheels and sports suspension are fitted, so although the A3 is not actually uncomfortable, its ride is never as relaxing as its engine. Handling also lacks the ‘interactivity’ and ‘feel’ found in rival BMWs or Fords, with particularly lifeless steering. Space in the rear, especially legroom, is tight and although the options list is extensive, it is also potentially very expensive.
What's it like to live with?
They’re pretty familiar now, but the A3 is still a fairly exclusive car if that’s what you’re looking for. Thank the premium badge and staggering levels of build quality; it’s a real treat to sit in. It should also be cheap to run – depreciation is minimal, fuel economy is excellent, and servicing intervals are lengthy thanks to variable servicing schedules – the car decides when a visit is needed, depending on your driving style.
Would we buy one?
The A3 is one of those cars whose faults you tend to forgive. The ride is firm, it’s none too roomy in the back, handling isn’t the sharpest in the world, and although the TDI engine is powerful it’s also gruffer and noisier than the latest designs. But compensation comes in many ways, not least from the refined and still-attractive styling both inside and out. It’s a real quality item, built to levels even Mercedes can’t match. Combine this with the security of the ultra-grippy quattro chassis, and fuel economy better than a supermini, and only a heady list price stands between you and long-term motoring satisfaction.
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