As soon as I arrived at the rental counter in Stuttgart, I realized I’d made a fatal miscalculation. In the weeks and months preceding my trip, I thought the task would be easy – obtain two back-to-back rentals of vehicles that aren’t sold in the US. Simple. But that fickle foe of the flat-earth car enthusiast, globalization, had conspired against me. Turns out that despite my “premium class” upgrade, the EU-spec vehicles made from pure unobtainium that I’d reserved failed to materialize. Instead, my options in Dusseldorf – our first roadside waypoint on this European Vacation® – were limited to either a Toyota GT86 or an Audi A3 Sportback. Great, I thought. Two cars that, despite being sold in slightly different configurations abroad, were still known quantities back home. I went with the GT86 for the first leg because, well, I wanted to tear into it on the mother of all public racecourses, the Nurburgring. You can read how that went here. I also figured that in Stuttgart, there’d be a larger selection of rental vehicles to choose from, since the city’s slightly more populous and naturally the airport must be larger, too.
Whoops – the airport’s not larger. Less passenger traffic by half, as it turns out. In fact, the rental garage has only about a third as many cars as we witnessed in Dusseldorf, and not nearly as many interesting ones. Sauntering up to the counter, I am offered – a Toyota GT86. S#*%! After much begging and pleading my options open up to a Ford Focus diesel, a BMW 3-series, and…..an Audi A3 Sportback. Wonderful. Well, let’s take the car least like something we get in the US (for the moment) and hope it turns out to be interesting enough to write about.
I say “the least like something we get in the US” because, for the moment, the US doesn’t get this car. Nor are we likely to ever get the 1.4TFSI-powered Sportback version I drove since, with 138 blazing ponies and front wheel drive, it doesn’t quite fit in with the upscale-techie-hip-urban-luxury vibe Audi’s been cultivating in this country for some time now, with moderate success. In Germany, you purchase this car when you’ve graduated from junior to lower-middle management and need the requisite notch up from your Golf to prove it. In America, I’m not quite sure who buys the A3. Not too many people, mind you, but some people. Probably the same people that used to drive Golfs and want more or less the same thing, but with a bit more cachet and a nicer interior. Such is the Audi A3’s raison d’etre, to serve as a cleanly styled and practical stepping stone to other brand purchases down the line, like the A4, A6 and (step on enough corporate throats and cross your fingers) A8.
Anyway, I’ll dispense with the build-up and give you the car itself – in all its glory. It’s a nice looking thing, the third-generation Type 8V A3 Sportback. I always prefer a hatch to a trunk, so while the A3 sedan we’ll be getting in a few months isn’t exactly frumpy in its 15/16ths scale A4 sheetmetal, it’s just a bit too “been there, done that” for my eyes. Flinty headlights and requisite LED running lamps give the new car a more slimmed down, sleek appearance compared with the previous 8P-generation car. Inside, the Audi is a clear step up in both design and materials over its Mk7 Golf platform mate.
Comfortable cloth sports seats (good luck ever seeing those again in a US-bound Audi) provided all-day comfort, while the rest of the major touch points in the cabin were all leather-trimmed. There’s a clear absence of buttons and clutter in the A3, with everything besides basic climate controls being handled via the MMI knob and motorized display screen. Everything functions intuitively enough and it’s a nice place to spend time; in traditional Audi fashion, the interior is likely to be the trump card for over BMW and Mercedes-Benz competitors for many shoppers.
Out on the road, the A3 continues to acquit itself quite well. Around town and trundling up to highway speeds, the 1.4TFSI builds speed smoothly and predictably, with little turbo lag or flat spots. Nor will it ignite your loins on the way there, with a quoted 0-60 time of around 8 seconds. Autobahn left lane velocities were achieved with much less fuss than in the Toyota GT86 – the A3 felt more composed at high speeds (130 mph indicated) than the Toyobaru did, with obvious care put into wind and tire noise suppression and overall stability.
Granted, the Toyota got to those speeds more quickly, but once there, the Japanese coupe was far less happy. It’s one thing to “feel” the German-honed qualities of a car on pedestrian American highways and byways, but out where they are truly in their element, you gain a newfound respect for the difference in where engineering attentions are paid for the Audi versus the Toyota. It might not make a lick of difference in terms of long-term resilience or the ability to crack 200k miles without putting a dent in your retirement account, but at the very least, for regular Autobahn cruising it’d be hard to recommend the Toyota over the Audi.
In terms of driving involvement though, there’s no contest. The A3 is as isolated as the GT86 is involving. Being that they’re not competitors, these differences are beyond academic. But it highlights an interesting quandary that cross-shoppers of the upcoming Mk7 GTI and FR-S/BRZ will face – what type of driving pleasure do they value? The damped responses and rounded edges of the GTI, a car that will cruise happily at 150mph all day long and take up a back road in stride, but leave the driver wondering whether all that ground he just covered was actually curvy or straight? Or a car that will strain every sinew in the hunt for more enjoyment and send all that feedback directly to its driver? It’s an interesting difference, and one I felt was worth pointing out.
Unlike the GTI, the A3 is no hot hatch. Nor does it pretend to be. It is comfortable transport that’s as happy pootling around in congested urban centers and shutting itself off at every stoplight to save fuel as it is soaking up the autobahn at 130 mph. The perfect car for Germany, then, and a pretty damn good car for the rest of Western Europe and Asia. It’ll be interesting to see how that character translates when it makes its way back across the pond to the US. Hopefully the larger engines and heavier options necessitated by our new car marketplace don’t blunt the inherent “rightness” of the relatively basic version tested here.
2013 Audi A3 Sportback S-Line 1.4 TFSI 6MT (Mad-tite Euro Edition)
Base Price: 28,700 EUR
Powertrain: 1.4-Liter turbocharged 4-cylinder engine, 6-speed manual transmission, front-wheel drive – 138 horsepower, 184 lb-ft torque
S:S:L-observed fuel economy: 31 mpg US
This vehicle was rented, insured and fueled on the author’s dime. Photos by the author.