Munich, GERMANY—Attending the launch of a new vehicle in Europe is always interesting, and it isn’t just because of the highway stretches with no speed limits. It’s also a chance to see the new stuff we’ll be getting, and the stuff we won’t.
In the case of Audi’s A3, which undergoes a mid-cycle refresh for 2017, there’s a lot of cool stuff that I sure wish we could drive over on this side of the pond.
As with the current 2016 Canadian lineup, we’ll see five models for 2017, which should start trickling into dealerships around September: the A3 sedan in two driveline configurations, the A3 cabriolet (convertible), S3 sedan, and the E-Tron Sportback plug-in hybrid. All of them use four-cylinder turbocharged engines.
What will we not see that European drivers will? Diesel engines, of course, which were curtailed in the wake of the Volkswagen/Audi emissions scandal, and which may come back eventually but definitely not in the near future.
There are Sportback (hatch/wagon) versions of our 2.0-litre-equipped A3 sedans, along with an S3 cabriolet, and a Sportback with a surprisingly perky little one-litre engine and seven-speed dual-clutch transmission.
For the Canadian market, all models get a styling update, with a sharper-edged grille, new headlights and taillights (including a neat LED turn signal on some trims that sequentially whisks across in a bright orange line), and new wheel designs.
All engines now have start-stop capability, which was always on the E-Tron as part of the hybrid system. New standard or available features include a USB port, xenon headlamps, aluminum door sills, smartphone interface, rearview camera, heated steering wheel, and front and rear parking sensors, depending on the model or trim line.
Pricing has yet to be announced, but the current 2016 starting prices range from $31,600 to $45,400.
That base price will probably rise a bit, since the entry-level A3 sedan is the one that changes the most. Right now it uses a 1.8-litre turbo four-cylinder producing 170 horsepower, along with a six-speed dual-clutch automatic and front-wheel drive.
For 2017, it’s still front-wheel only, but it substitutes a 2.0-litre that makes 186 horsepower and is mated to a seven-speed dual-clutch. It will come in two trim lines, Komfort and Progressiv.
Everything else retains its current drivelines, including a six-speed dual-clutch transmission in all other models. That gives you the all-wheel A3 sedan Quattro with a 2.0-litre making 220 horses; the A3 Quattro Cabriolet with the same engine; the S3 Quattro sedan with 292-horsepower four-cylinder; and the A3 Sportback E-Tron, which carries a 1.4-litre four-cylinder with hybrid system that makes a combined 204 horsepower (150 from the engine itself) and is front-wheel drive.
It plugs into the wall to give it an electric-only range of up to 30 kilometres, and when that runs out, it reverts to conventional hybrid operation.
So why does only the hybrid come in Sportback mode when Europe gets almost everything else with a hatch—especially when Canadians tend to like wagons? There are a couple of reasons, actually.
It costs a great deal to homologate an overseas model to meet Canadian and U.S. standards and regulations, and Americans don’t like hatchbacks enough to generate the volumes to make back the cost. On top of that, Audi’s Q3 compact utility vehicle, built on the A3 platform, sells well enough in Canada to make an A3 wagon redundant.
I drove the A3 lineup on an unseasonably cold and rainy day, on highways and rural roads outside of Munich. Since all of the cars were European-spec, none were configured exactly as we’ll see them in Canada, and so I was checking out the driving experience rather than the body style. I started out in the new entry-level front-wheel 2.0-litre, but in a Sportback rather than the sedan that we’ll get.
I expect this model to appeal mainly to those who want the Audi badge but who can’t afford to move up any more rungs on the ladder. That’s not because there’s anything terribly wrong with it, but the Quattro all-wheel drive it lacks is justifiably very popular with drivers.
The new engine handles its duties without any fuss, and the seven-speed automatic glides buttery-smooth through the gears, but the steering is considerably much lighter than I prefer. The wheels do what they’re told, but a little more weight would make it that much more fun, as well as inspire a bit more confidence in spirited driving.
I’d even like just a bit more heft in the Quattro’s steering feel, but it’s much better than in its lower-horsepower sibling. The stiff body and well-planted stance keeps it flat and stable around hard corners, and acceleration is quick, smooth and linear.
But it’s the S3 that’s the smile-maker of the bunch, which I drove as a convertible instead of the sedan we get here. For someone who grew up with the old-school “there’s no replacement for displacement” mantra in my head, it’s incredible to realize that an engine with the equivalent of an empty soda bottle’s airspace carved into it can whip up 292 ponies.
After trying out the pointless and too-soft “Comfort” setting on the drive selector, I popped it into “Dynamic.” The wheel and suspension tightened up, and I hit the throttle hard. There’s a moment of turbo lag and then it heads for the hills, with each blink-fast gear change — either automatically or with the wheel-mounted paddles — resulting in a satisfying crack out the tailpipes.
So where does the A3 fall down? The cabin is put together very well, but the dash is an enormous beam of rubberized plastic from one window to the other. That plain design looks out of place in a car that, if you check enough option boxes, can get very close to fifty grand. The mirrors come to a very sharp point, limiting visibility, and while the car glides smoothly over bumps, you hear a lot of road noise.
Still, there’s enough goodness to satisfy fans, as well as intrigue cross-shoppers. The front-wheel drive version with new seven-speed—a transmission I expect to eventually make its way throughout the lineup—will be the advertised price-point car, but I predict most will go for the 2.0-litre Quattro sedan, which is simply a better driver.
As for me, I sure wish Audi would put a few of those S3 convertibles on the ship and bring them over this way for some summer driving fun.
Disclosure—This writer’s travel and accommodations were provided by the automaker for the purposes of this first-drive review.