FANS of the hottest of Audi’s previous generation A3, dubbed the S3, were no doubt disappointed to hear that there wasn’t a sporty version in the initial line-up of the second generation car. However, with the arrival of the 3,2-litre quattro version, they have access to something that promises to be even better.

You’d be hard-pressed to spot this hardcore A3 though, because Audi has chosen to go the restrained Q-car route. There are no bigger airdams and no spoilers. It only gets a small quattro badge on the grille, big 17-inch alloys, and double exhaust outlets at the rear. And that’s it. But arguably it is enough, because the A3 3,2, especially painted in the black of our test unit, is a very attractive car. Of course, the fact that the new A3 is a sportier looking car than its predecessor, even in base-line form, no doubt helps the cause. Compared with the previous generation A3, the new car’s side windows are slimmer (to resemble a chopped hotrod, according to the car’s designer, Gary Telaak) and the front treatment more aggressive. Expect Audi’s new corporate face – the BIG grille – to become available shortly on this model (An upgrade kit will be available). The wheels on our test car were also styled by Telaak, apparently inspired by ninja stars…

When we first tested a new generation A3 back in February 2004, we weren’t exactly blown away by the appearance of the car’s facia. Quality was fine, if a little less impressive than the previous model’s, but it had a strange blue colour that made it look as if it had spent many years parked in the sun. Thankfully, the 3,2-litre test car had a more traditional black finish, and looked all the better for it. It even lifted our estimation of the car’s perceived quality.

This may be the flagship of the A3 range, but there is little to mark it out as such. It has traditional Audi controls and instrumentation, which is to say all is neatly laid out and everything works with a klik-klak precision. It’s really hard to criticise, but our testers did lament the absence of a driver’s armrest. And Audi could have done a little more to differentiate this range-topper from the rest of the A3 range.

Most of the necessary features are standard; dual zone climate control, CD loader, electric front windows, height-adjustable front sports seats, electrically adjustable mirrors and six airbags.

The car’s compact dimensions disguise a surprisingly spacious cabin. Certainly there will be no reason to complain if you’re seated in front – those sporty chairs are excellent for comfort and support, and the seats have a good range of manual adjustment. Access to the rear is reasonable, but does go along with some twisting and bending by the passenger. Rear headroom is surprisingly good and legroom sufficient. The only problems are that no additional ventilation outlets are provided back there, and the windows do not open.

The A3’s basic platform is shared with the Golf 5, and features MacPherson struts in front and a four-arm set-up at the rear. But, similarly to the Audi TT quattros, this model has permanent all-wheel drive and an hydraulic multiplate clutch between the driveshaft and rear differential that varies the distribution of power to the front and rear wheels. A number of plates run in an oil bath in the clutch housing, and are pressed together by hydraulic power to provide a variable lock between the front and rear axles. The higher the pressure on the multiplate clutch, the more power is sent to the rear wheels. The system is electronically controlled, and responds instantaneously to any loss of traction.

The A3 3,2 rides on 17-inch alloy wheels, shod with substantial 225/45 rubber. Providing stopping power are ventilated discs all-round, measuring 345 mm in front and 265 mm at the rear. Backed by ABS, EBD and hydraulic brake assist, they performed faultlessly in our emergency brake test routine (10 stops, from 100km/h to rest), clocking an average stopping time of 2,79 seconds. The A3 3,2 also features Audi’s latest ESP stability programme, and this can be deactivated.

Unlike the previous S3 model, Audi has fitted the new hot A3 with a normally aspirated 3,2-litre V6, and not a turbocharged 1,8-litre four. The V6 engine pumps out an impressive 184 kW at 6 300 r/min, and the 320 N.m of peak torque comes on stream at a nice and low 2 800. Just like the A3 2,0 TDI we tested in February 2003, the 3,2 quattro’s sixspeed manual gearbox has two final drive ratios to optimise gear ratio progression.

So, it certainly has all the ingredients to make a spicy hot hatch. Pity then that initial driving impressions are not favourable. The A3 3,2 is a very jerky car to drive in traffic – the clutch doesn’t “take” cleanly, and the resultant kangaroo jumps in slow-moving traffic will make you look like an idiot. It gets better with familiarisation, but always demands concentration to pull away and drive smoothly. And there is another problem that applies specifically to traffic driving. The angle of the clutch pedal is too upright, with the result that most of our testers complained of foot and lower leg pains after driving in stop-go traffic for a while. And resting your left leg against the hard, plastic “leg brace” causes further discomfort.

Thankfully, the A3 puts in a much more impressive showing away from traffic situations, and especially so on our test strip. Of our list of selected rivals, only the Subaru Impreza WRX beats the Audi’s 0-100 km/h time of 6,85 seconds. But in terms of top whack there is no question, the A3 is the boss, with a figure of 247 km/h. It is a delight to use the car’s overtaking surge – drop a gear, mash the pedal to the floor and the result is a strong push in the back, accompanied by a raspy engine sound that is music to the driving enthusiast’s ears. In fact, according to the press kit, Audi’s “acoustic specialists” spent many hours trying to find the perfect engine sound. Predictably, fuel economy is not the car’s strongest talent, as our fuel index figure of 13,04 litres/100 km clearly shows.

Away from the straight and narrow, Audi’s legendary quattro all-wheel drive system ensures levels of grip that will leave most rivals floundering in its wake. But now comes the crunch. The fun part of driving the A3 3,2 comes more from the strong in-gear acceleration, and the grip through corners, than steering feedback, accuracy and driver involvement. You may be dazzled by its cornering speed, but the lack of feedback means you never become “involved” in the action and, in addition, the car’s natural tendency is to understeer determinedly when the driver is pushing hard. Consequently, the A3 3,2 cannot be classified as the true driver’s car it is made out to be. Driven at about eight tenths, however, it is a refined, blisteringly fast hatch. If Audi can sharpen the basics up a bit, then the upcoming RS3 should be a real blast.

Test summary

It is fast and it sounds gloriously furious. This A3 may not be labelled S3, but for all intents and purposes it is a spiritual successor to that car. The engine is a winner, and the car exudes a hewn-from-solid feel that few rivals can match. But for all its gravity-defying grip, it’s not really a driver’s car, because there is a numbness through the steering that excludes the driver from the fun. However, few will buy it to race over mountain passes, and most will be blown away by its combination of hard-core performance, superb quality and class.

Original article from Car