Some say it's an overpriced economy car. And that it has a fat bulldog nose. All I know is, it's my environmentally friendly hoonmobile and I absolutely love it.
(Full Disclosure: Audi wanted me to drive the 2012 A3 TDI so badly that they made me search the entire state of California for three months, almost give up and get a Golf TDI, and finally tell a salesman for six hours that, no, I didn't want his $300 mudflaps, "bro.")
Miss Ashley the A3 has served me well over the last 26,000 miles, simultaneously being a practical daily driver, a fun canyon companion, and a great long-distance road trip car (at least for two people.)
I find the A3 to be a handsome little car. All its lines are well sculpted, and there are no unnecessary adornments. Its proportions look good, and the rear spoiler is a nice touch included with the S-line package. Some people find the large Audi grille to be ostentatious on a small hatchback like this, but I've always been fond of the gaping maw. My one issue with it is how in a front-plate-mandatory state like California, the car looks like it has a giant buck tooth. Also, my car has the 17" 5-spoke S-Line wheels, and while they look nice, 18s would look even better. With the base, flower-looking 16s, the car loses a lot of its attitude. The A3 doesn't really have any bad angles, but hands down, its best angle is the rear three-quarter view.
Overall, the interior of the A3 is a very nice place to be. Plastics are high-grade, and the touch points on the steering wheel and shifter feel great in hand. The steering wheel itself is delightful: small, perforated-leather-wrapped and easy to hold with its thumbgrips. It has aluminum paddle shifters placed conveniently at the 9 and 3 positions, and volume/radio station controls opposite them on the front of the wheel.
The seats are comfortable for long highway stints and made of high quality leather. However, lateral support is lacking and I find myself sliding around a little bit during spirited driving.
There are two front cupholders. One can fit basically any beverage you might want while driving, and the other will fit approximately one shot glass. Awesome.
My particular A3 has wood and aluminum trim accents throughout the interior, which create a warm atmosphere when joined with the beige leather.
A feature that always amazes passengers is the double moonroof which spans the entirety of the cabin. It is certainly a fun feature, but comes at the expense of headroom, a precious commodity for a 6'2er like your author.
As James May kindly pointed out, when you put the handbrake up, it bumps into the armrest and pushes it up. To properly reach the gearshift, the armest has to be down. Thus, when I first start the car, I 1) disengage the handbrake, 2) wiggle the armrest and put it fully down, and finally 3) put the car in gear. Not the end of the world, but definitely a design flaw.
A combination of short gearing and ample torque make the A3 TDI feel energetic during initial takeoffs, but at the end of the day 140 horses is 140 horses. Power comes on at 1300 RPM and dies off around 3500. 0-60 feels faster than Audi's quoted 8.3 seconds would suggest, but when matting it from a stop there's a short period of turbo lag. Best acceleration results come from brake-torquing and shifting out of first as soon as possible before winding out second, third, and fourth to around 3700 RPM. The torque of the diesel means that highway passes in 6th gear are easy, and since cruising at 70 puts the engine in its torque peak, spooling/lag isn't really an issue.
BIG BEEFY BRAKES in the front and little brakes in the back. Makes sense since the fronts do most of the stopping, especially in a car with a forward weight bias such as this one. Anyway, they stop well and feel very safe. Initial bite could be better, but overall feel is good once you get down into the meat of the pedal. Also, last week when I got my Pilot Super Sports mounted, they checked my pads and found that I still have 90% front and 80% rear at 26,000 miles. Can't complain about that.
For me, the A3's sporty suspension tuning is fantastic, transmitting road feel and not rolling much in corners. Dive under braking is very well controlled. However, the suspension does crash over bumps, booming, reverberating, and jarring. While this doesn't bother me, it could definitely be a problem for someone with a bad back or just someone looking for a cushier setup. There is a lot of road noise at highway speeds, but it has been significantly reduced with the new tires.
This is where the A3 really comes into its own. Under the skin, this is basically a Golf TDI with sportier suspension. GTD anyone? Turn in is crisp and immediate, steering is well weighted and precise. The variable-assist, electric rack-and-pinion setup delivers some feel, and loads up naturally as you attack a corner. At low speeds, I find the steering to be a little too light and vague, but over 20 MPH it is a delight. On my new Pilot Super Sports, grip feels limitless and understeer is very difficult to invoke. This car is way more fun than it should be on a mountain road. I couldn't bear to give it a 9, just because a one point gap between a FWD hatchback and pure supercar perfection seemed a little too close for comfort, so there. 8.75.
I admittedly have not driven a PDK, but the 6-speed dual-clutch automatic (I hate the term automated manual) in the A3 is fantastic. It's the same transverse 'box that goes by the name DSG in the GTI, R32 and other VWs, except Audi calls it S-Tronic. This transmission is whatever you want it to be. It's a playful partner on a canyon blast, blipping downshifts and whizzing upshifts in under 100 ms. In manual mode, it listens to your every command and is hardly ever caught off guard. In auto mode, it will remain in second through traffic unless you come to a complete stop, saving fuel through smoothness. With this dual-clutch, you don't instantly roll forward the second you take your foot off the brake like you would with a torque-converter auto. Instead, there is a one-second pause before you feel the car feather the clutch and begin to roll. This is something to keep in mind on hills as the car can roll back very slightly. It loses a point for being a bit clunky when cold, and another point for requiring a service every 40k miles.
The 2012 Audi A3 TDI comes complete with climate control, heated seats, navigation, four wheels, and an engine. It doesn't park itself, tell you when there are people in your blind spots that you should have seen yourself, or give you a massage. It doesn't have a backup camera or FaceTwitSnapBook integration. While I, a Hated Millenial, find it refreshing to come upon a car which is primarily focused on being a car rather than a supercomputer, I concede that some might be put off by a $35,000 car in 2012 that doesn't come with the latest and greatest in tech.
The sound system is Bose, and it is very good. I'm a music lover but admittedly not a hardcore audiophile, and everything from EDM to hip hop to jazz to country sounds pretty darn good on it.
The engine is a mix of diesel clatter and turbo whoosh. Under hard acceleration and full boost, it sounds awesome as it pulls hard through the midrange. At a highway cruise, the engine is pleasantly subdued.
Okay, this is an admittedly biased view. $35,000 is a lot of money for a hatchback. However, these days, in California diesel costs about $4 even whereas regular costs $4.20 and premium commands $4.40. Combine that with the 41 MPG I get in mixed driving (including a lot of canyon runs and stop and go LA traffic) and the value proposition becomes more interesting. You might argue that a Prius will get 50 MPG for $25,000. Can a Prius entertain you on a curvy road, coddle you in German cow and take 500 mile road trips in stride, though? Since the A3 TDI and its platform sibling, the Golf TDI and upcoming GTD are relatively alone in the field of fun-to-drive yet economical cars, their pricing takes into account the fact that they effectively function both as fun-to-drive hatchbacks as well as economical cruisers. Also, keep in mind the stellar residual value of diesels. Early 2000s Jetta and Golf TDIs still merit over $10k with 200k+ miles, roughly half what they cost new. When you consider all the things the A3 TDI excels at, its price seems very reasonable. Or at least, it did to me.
Engine: 2.0 liter turbodiesel I4 (transverse)
Power: 140 hp @ 4000 RPM, 236 Lb/ft torque @ 1750 RPM
Transmission: 6-speed Dual-Clutch DSG Automatic
0-60: 8.3 seconds
Top Speed: 129 MPH
Curb Weight: 3200 lbs
MPG: 30/42. For me: 41-42 combined.
MSRP: $30,000 base