October 9, 2004
Article & Photos By: Mike Magda, Associate Editor
Eager for a head start on developing products for the soon-to-be-imported-to-North America Audi A3, Nik Saran of VF Engineering recently traveled to Germany to purchase a left-hand-drive 3-door hatchback. After registering it in England, where he has citizenship, Saran was allowed to bring the spirited coupe over to the states on a 1-year permit. He’s already had it on the dyno to record baseline numbers and has started measuring the engine bay to see where a supercharger can be nestled next to the 3.2-liter V6 engine.
Saran may be getting ahead of himself as the American market won’t see this model for some time, if at all. Audi will first import a 5-door A3 hatchback called the Sportback beginning in May 2005. Early Sportbacks will be front-wheel-drive and powered by a turbocharged 2.0-liter direct-injection 4-cylinder engine that produces 200 horsepower and peak torque of 210 lb-ft. In calendar year 2006, the Sportback will be offered in Quattro all-wheel-drive and available with the 3.2-liter engine and 6-speed Direct Shift Gearbox (DSG).
The 3-door models are not scheduled for import as they would compete with the Volkswagen GTI, which sports the same 3.2-liter engine and shares chassis components. Following a drive through a few twisty Southern California canyons in Saran’s 6-speed manual A3, one could easily cross-shop the coupe with such highly regarded sports cars as the Audi TT and Mazda RX-8. Sure-footed in the turns, confident on the brakes and brisk off the line, the A3 blends excitement, comfort and style in the right proportion.
While the Sportback will be marketed to a premium audience the coupe is geared for the performance driver, making it an ideal platform for Saran to develop power upgrades from his Anaheim, CA, shop. He already has experience with the engine, having built a Volkswagen Golf R32. But he admits the packaging under the hood is different, and fabricating new brackets and other hardware will be necessary to install the Vortech centrifugal supercharger that he prefers. During baseline tests on an AWD chassis dyno at GIAC in Irvine, CA, the A3 recorded a high of 202 horsepower at 6250 rpm and peak torque of 194.4 lb-ft at 3500. The torque band was relatively flat, pulling more than 175 lb-ft from about 2500 rpm up through 6300 rpm. Saran calculated the horsepower at the flywheel was 250, 10 more than he recorded on the R32.
Easily identified as a member of the current Audi family, the A3 coupe sports an athletic appearance tempered with a strong dose of European precision. The proportions and stance are classic in stature but modern in character. The same effort is found in the interior: spacious elegance with a traditional seating position and sports car accoutrement. Premium compact hatchback may be a $35,000 oxymoron in the truck-hungry United States, but Audi knows this market and meets expectations with the A3.
While the 6-speed manual was temperamental at times, the 3.2-liter V6 never missed a spark or a yellow traffic light. Throttle response was predictable, given the rpm range and gear, and shift points were reached in a timely manner. But horsepower isn’t the only measure of a true performance car. Braking was most impressive on the A3, and the electromechanical steering was calibrated with plenty of assist without losing road feedback. The suspension setup of McPherson struts up front and 4-link in the rear is stabile and agile without being overly stiff. There is enough compliance to make the ride pleasant but enough structure to minimize body roll.
The A3 3-door hatchback is certainly a well-integrated package than most performance enthusiasts would enjoy driving. But right now it’s just a hunk of sirloin dangling in front of the caged tiger. Saran’s A3 has teased us too much, knowing that a less powerful yet bigger and heavier A3 is coming across the pond. But there is comfort in knowing that Saran will have the right equipment to turn a family-friendly hatchback into a street sleeper by the time the 3.2-liter engine is available in the Sportback.