Audi has just unveiled its 2017 A3. No major changes, just improvements here and there, but they are significant nonetheless There’s a new 2.0-litre engine and the Audi virtual cockpit. That alone is worth the trip to Germany for a test drive.
Firstly, Audi has slightly updated the exterior of its smallest car sold in North America. The headlights are new and feature the same design as those of the most recent A4, the grille is larger and the taillights have been tweaked as well.
Europeans will get Matrix headlights, which look a little like Acura’s Jewel Eye headlight clusters, but much more sophisticated. They can illuminate a portion of the road or adjust their brightness depending on conditions. Unfortunately, they are not yet approved by the NHTSA, the American highway safety agency. The taillights are also different: when they blink, a slim bar lights up gradually. It’s very nice.
There’s nothing new in the cabin, with the exception of the Audi virtual cockpit that comes in the plushest grade of the A3 family, the Technik. This system replaces the conventional gauges and includes a digital screen that displays basic information (speed, engine revs, fuel, engine temperature, etc.), connectivity, radio, navigation, and the list goes on. The “basic” gauges are always visible and move around the various screens in a very interesting ballet of sorts.
Note that this virtual cockpit, first seen in the 2016 TT and scheduled to appear throughout the Audi lineup, displays crystal clear images that are easy to read and understand—even while driving. You can control the various features using buttons on the left spoke of the steering wheel. Frankly, it’s excellent—even a technology dummy like me can figure it out with ease.
Consequently, the MMI system, which works in concert with the virtual cockpit, has also been improved. Its voice recognition is less restrictive and the handwriting recognition system on the top of the MMI button needs fewer symbols to understand what you’re getting at. To illustrate this, an Audi engineer showed us how, when the GPS is turned on, you just have to draw two letters with your finger and the system immediately displays a drop-down menu with locations that begin with those two letters: easy as pie, and efficient to boot.
A3 times three
Canada will get three variants of the A3, as is the case now. There will be the sedan, the cabriolet and the hatchback, known as the Sportback at Audi. The sedan will still be offered in the basic version or the S3, while the Sportback remains the plug-in hybrid with which we are already acquainted.
Gone from under the hood of the basic, front-drive A3 is the 1.8-litre TFSI engine, replaced by a new 2.0-litre TFSI that delivers 186 horsepower between 2400 and 6000 rpm. This is the 2017 A3’s only new mechanical component and it’s teamed up with a seven-speed, S tronic dual-clutch gearbox.
Even though 186 horsepower is much better than before (that’s 16 additional ponies), this is no dragster. Audi claims that it goes from 0-100 km/h in 6.9 seconds, which seems to me a tad optimistic, but we’ll have to conduct a real acceleration test to be sure.
This engine stands out mainly due to its smoothness and flexibility. There’s almost no lag with the turbo, but the accelerator response is a little too slow. The seven-speed gearbox works wonders. It always finds the right gears, which are shifted in the blink of an eye, helping take full advantage of the engine’s entire power range.
The quattro version remains unchanged for 2017 with a 2.0-litre TFSI that generates 220 horsepower and 258 lb.-ft. of torque. This engine is more than adequate and guarantees decent acceleration, and it’s still paired with six-speed S tronic gearbox. It’s a safe bet that the seven-speed transmission will find its way into the entire A3 lineup in short order. And then into the entire Audi lineup!
S3: an A3, but better
As one would expect, the S3, which accounts for about 20% of sales in Canada, is quite a bit more playful than the A3. With 292 horsepower and 280 lb.-ft. of torque in a car that weighs less than 1600 kg, it stands to reason that this would be the case. Only all-wheel drive is offered with this version.
By choosing Dynamic mode in the Audi drive select system, the car’s senses are heightened and the slightest curve becomes an invitation to excess. The sound of the exhaust when you release the accelerator is a soft crackling that you won’t tire of hearing. However, Dynamic mode may be a bit much for city driving. In the other A3s, this mode is adapted perfectly to their character.
We were also able to briefly drive the A3 e-tron, which is also unchanged for 2017 and only offered in Sportback configuration. When we started, its all-electric range was 9 kilometres, but that quickly evaporated after 4 or 5 km. As has become the tradition with hybrid cars, rechargeable or not, switching from the electric motor (101 horsepower and 243 lb.-ft. of torque) to the gasoline engine (1.4-litre TFSI generating 150 horsepower and 184 lb.-ft.) is completely smooth. Those of you who want a hybrid car that’s fun to drive should give the e-tron a good hard look.
The A3 was already an excellent car. With the changes made this year, Audi has managed to keep it at a nearly exceptional level. It’s good for the image projected to the public and, more importantly, it keeps the Mercedes-Benz CLA in the role of foil and the BMW 2 Series in the background. And that should make the folks in Ingolstadt very happy.
The pricing for 2017 has yet to be unveiled. That will happen right before the A3 rolls into dealerships this summer.