Monday, November 15, 2010

An Audi Without Quattro? Say It Isn't So. [Road Tests]

2007 Audi A3 2.0 FSI S-Line
It's unclear why the Audi gnomes in Ingolstadt decided to ship the A3 to the United States.   Luxury hatchbacks might be all the rage in Europe, but stateside they're about as common as a chips and curry.

The good news is that there aren't many competitors for the Audi A3 on this side of the pond.  At least, not yet.

The bright red 2007 A3 featured in this story belongs to a Gear Thought's friend and neighbor;  Allan P.    His bone-stock, fire engine red, A3 features a 2.0 liter, turbo charged engine (2.0 FSI)  producing 197 hp and 207 lb-ft of torque.

Audi has a long love affair with turbos.  Back in the 1980's, the factory coupled turbo charged engines with a revolutionary all wheel drive system; a combination which dominated rally racing.   Not without significance, Audi has a history of breaking conventions, including putting a woman behind the wheel of its race cars.   Yes, turbos are good and quattro is good.   Breaking free of the orthodoxy is also good.

And if you don't know what I'm talking about, see the video below.

The 2007 A3 2.0 FSI tested by Gear Thoughts had 50% of Audi's magic formula.   Yes, it was indeed a turbo charged Audi.  Yet unlike every other Audi I've cared enough to drive over the last twenty years, this car was NOT a Quattro.   The power produced by that fiesty turbo would be going to the front wheels only.


And it got even worse.   This particular Audi was equipped with an automatic transmission.   Yet, the owner assured me this wasn't like any other automatic I'd driven.   This Audi had a dual clutch transmission, also known as a direct shift gearbox (DSG).   In theory, it would deliver more power and offer better control than a traditional automatic, while shifting faster than possible with a traditional manual transmission.

So would the DSG 6 speed automatic transmission make up for the lack of Quattro?   The owner was foolish enough to let me take it for a test ride.

Road Test
2007 Audi A3 2.0 FSI
We started with a spin on some twisty roads around Boulder.    I swear, we were only rolling a few minutes before the owner started urging me to try the DSG's paddle shifters.

"Try it, Try it... " he pleaded.

I rolled my eyes.  He was obviously feeling guilty for having purchased an automatic, I thought.   But after a few minutes of taunting, I caved.

First a little background info.  Tiptronic was developed by Porsche to let those who can't operate a clutch feel sporty.  It's now the normal "automatic" transmission for Audis, Volkswagens, and Porsches.    The vast majority of Audis and VW's sold in the United States come with a tiptronic tranny between the front seats.

But not all of them have the paddle shifters and DSG.   Would this change the experience? 

Switching over to using the paddles beneath the steering wheel was intuitive, and yes, it was very simple to select the right gear as I swung the car through the turns.    Yet, despite squinting my eyes and repeatedly telling myself that F1 drivers use paddle shifters, the feeling was all wrong.  It felt like playing a video game instead of doing it for real.
A manual transmission compared to Tiptronic? That's like masturbation compared to sex with a partner.  There's just no comparison.   
I admit, I hoped the paddle shifters would magically improve the Tiptronic experience.  Sadly,  I discovered that despite two decades of development, Tiptronic still sucks and paddle shifters don't make it much better. 

A well balanced, manual gearbox creates a direct link between driver and machine. It's a connection that fly by wire simply can't replicate.   If I want to drive, I still prefer to do it the old fashioned way.  The proper way.  With a honest to god manual transmission and a clutch pedal, the way God intended. 

With that elephant off my chest, I admit that the A3 handled damn well.  Sure, it's easy for all that torque to spin the front wheels, tires chirping in quatrro-less frustration but this hot hatch will put a smile on your face.  It's tossable, tight, and perky.     It almost feels like...  well, a sports car.  And yet... there's all that room behind the front seats.

Which brings us to our next phase of testing...

The Beer Run
The Beer Test
Every road test should include a usability study.  The ski pass-through on the winter package equipped A3 confirmed its ability to cope with long objects.   There won't be a problem stuffing a few sets of boards back there.

But this is Boulder, a college town where alcohol remains the primary fuel to social events.  We care about the after party.   So, how about a good old fashion case of beer case test?  Off to Liquor Mart, Boulder's famous wal-mart of alcohol.

Sadly,  we failed to convince the manager to loan us a few cases.   Initially, he seemed to like the idea but then grew suspicious when we told him we didn't want Coors.   No, we needed good beer.  Lots of good beer, in fact.

Failing to obtain the cases as a gesture of goodwill, I handed over my credit card and bought a dozen cases of Boulder Beer's Hazed and Infused.    We're professionals, trust us.  It's good beer.     Maybe not New Belgian good, but still damn good.

The Key Question:  Can you stack 144 bottles of beer in the boot?   The answer is yes, but only if you stack the cases sideways.

Beer WIN. 

Nice Legs - The Legroom Test
How many 6'2 people will fit? 
Maybe this isn't such a big factor for you stubby types.  But as far as I'm concerned, if a car has  four seats, you better know whether you can pack 'em in.  

The short answer is no.   With the driver's seat fully back, an adult male cannot fit behind the driver's seat.   The leg room in the back seat is only suitable to dogs, children, and short people.

The good news is that you won't be taking your in-laws on a road trip with the A3.   And unless you're an Umpa Lumpa, forget about those back doors. There just isn't much room back there.

Umpa Lumpas WIN.   Adult Leg Room FAIL

What Else Could You Buy
Allan's purchased his A3 after a nationwide search.   The fact is, there aren't many automatic Audi A3 Sportline models out there.    With it's super flash red on all business black interior, this puppy is a rarity.

If you were looking to buy a similar car today, here's what thinks it might cost you:

As you can see from the diagram, you might expect to pay between $17,325 and $21,775 for an excellent condition vehicle.

The question: What else could you buy in that price range?     A brief review of eBay offers more than a few ideas:
  • Subaru WRX
  • Mini Cooper S or Clubman
  • BMW X3
  • Mazda Speed3
  • Volkswagen R32

OR, if you were willing to deal with higher repair and maintenance costs - and cut your purchase price in half - you could look for an Audi that remedies all the faults of the A3.   You could find a low mileage, well loved 2001 Audi S4 Avant.    In bone-stock condition, it produces 250hp and is only available with Quattro.

To wrap up this review, Gear Thoughts will rate the 2007 Audi A3 2.0 FSI on six criteria.  

Performance:   The lady is fast and frisky.  She looks sexy too and despite two gargantuan club feet, she can move fairly well.   Oh...  if she only had a traditional manual transmission and Quattro.  SCORE:  6.0  (note:  Gear Thoughts would be pushed to rate any automatic equipped vehicle above a 5.  This is a good score, for an automatic). 

Fuel Economy:  The EPA says 22 mpg in the city and 29 mpg on the highway, with a combined score of 25 mpg.   That's not particularly good, especially when the lady's thirst requires premium fuel.   Then again, with nearly 200 ponies chirping the tires, you're getting decent acceleration.    SCORE:  7.0

Style: This little Audi is very nicely put together car and it literally turns heads.  Inside and outside, you're looking at efficient, purpose driven design.  It's a thing of beauty.   SCORE:  9.0
Versatility:   The hatchbox design is the true Swiss Army Knife of the automotive kingdom.   The A3 can easily carry odd shaped items, a huge volume of luggage, or even - as we proved - a dozen cases of beer.  And that's WITHOUT putting the seats down.   SCORE:  9.0

Execution:   As every designer knows, each design has an intended purpose.  This car was designed to offer sophisticated, versatile transportation for a driver of discerning taste; someone who likes to play hard and dress fashionably.   It's a design largely uncorrupted by deviating ideas. SCORE: 8.5

Bang for the Buck:   Shop around, and you can put this 2007 A3 in your garage for under $20K.   That's remarkable given the engineering, design, and execution of this vehicle.   Of course, it's also darn similar to a well equipped Volkswagen GTI.  According to KBB, for that same $20K, you could buy a 2009 GTI.    SCORE: 7.0  

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