You don’t have to have a long memory to recall the time when bigger was considered better and you bought a bigger car when you wanted a more prestigious drive. Thankfully our market is much more sophisticated today and prestige also now comes in smaller packages, like the Audi A3.
Small cars once spelt poverty, they were cars you gave your wife to drive or if you drove one yourself it was because you couldn’t afford anything bigger. The normal family car was a Commodore or Falcon and you stepped up to the prestige of a Statesman or Fairlane when you’d made it.
Now, largely since the influx of European makes over the last 20 years or so, prestige is no longer measured in metres of metal. It’s also true that the European makes have downsized as they’ve attempted to make their cars more affordable, and therefore more available to more people. You no longer have to be well heeled to get behind a three-pointed star or blue-and-white spinner.
The big European makes, BMW and Mercedes-Benz now have smaller models, and other makes like VW and Audi have become more serious players in the local prestige market.
The A3 brought new choice in prestige small cars when it arrived here in 1997. BMW’s 3-Series Compact was already on the market, setting a trend in delivering European prestige to those who would normally be able to afford it, and the A3 added another choice. At first there was only a three-door hatch on offer, but a five-door hatch replaced that in 1999, which added to the appeal of the small Audi.
Audi offered a choice of three engines in the front-wheel drive A3 hatch. The entry engine was a 1.6-litre 12-valve single overhead camshaft fuel-injected four-cylinder unit that put out 74 kW at 5600 revs and 145 Nm at 3800 revs for brisk performance.
There was also a fuel-injected 16-valve double overhead camshaft 1.8-litre engine that boasted 92 kW at 6000 revs and 173 Nm at 4100 revs and boosted performance nicely to be the pick of the bunch. For the most zip Audi also offered a turbocharged 1.8-litre engine that pumped out 110 kW at 5700 revs and 210 Nm at 4600 revs.
A3 buyers also had the choice of a four-speed auto transmission or a sporty five-speed manual. All of that rode on a nimble front-wheel drive chassis with power steering, four-wheel anti-skid ABS disc brakes and alloy wheels.
As would be expected given its prestige tag the A3 came with plenty of fruit, including central locking, immobilisers, power windows, tinted glass and four-speaker sound. After the 1999 update to the five-door hatch it also came with air-conditioning, CD player, power windows, remote central locking, leather steering wheel and a tilt adjustable column. Atop the range the turbo had sports suspension, sports seats, steering wheel and shift knob, along with exclusive cloth trim.
ON THE LOT
To enjoy the prestige of driving an A3 you will need to part with at least $12,000-$17,000 which will get you a 1997/99 1.6-litre three-door hatch. Add another $1000 for the extra zip of the 1.8-litre model. For a post 1999 five-door hatch pay $17,000-$28,000 for a 1.6-litre model, add $1500-$2000 for one with the 1.8-litre engine. For the thrill of the 1.8-litre turbo pay $16,000-$19,000 for a 1998/99 three-door, for a five-door 1999/2004 pay $19,000-$32,000.
IN THE SHOP
While Audi quality has improved markedly in recent years there was a time when it wasn’t up to the standard set by BMW and ’Benz, so inspect early A3s carefully. Look for collision damage on the body, particularly for doors or hatches that down open or close properly. Paint overspray and mismatching colours can also be a give-away of crash repairs.
Audi engines are known to consume oil, which isn’t a problem if owners dip their engines regularly. Many owners who bought Audis simply didn’t bother to check the oil between services and only discovered their engines thirst for oil when they developed the death rattles. Lift the dipstick and check the oil level, and take a look inside the oil filler cap for sludge, the presence of which would suggest poor servicing. It’s important to have a service record, some owners might have been able to afford to buy prestige, but might not have been able to afford the upkeep that goes along with it.
IN A CRASH
Early A3s came with dual front airbags; later ones also had side airbags fro front seat occupants providing decent secondary crash protection. Anti-skid ABS brakes and decent handling gave drivers a chance of avoiding a crash.
Paul Skaraiev was looking to downsize from his Holden Berlina V8 when he bought his 2000 Audi A3 Turbo in 2001, but he still wanted a prestige model. The A3 had done 56,000 km when he bought it and it has now done 105,000 km without any significant problem. He says he’s rapt in its looks, loves its performance, reckons the 7.9 L/100 km fuel consumption is great and is happy with its reliability, but he isn’t so enamoured with the cost of servicing and parts.
• oil consumption
• service record a must
• check for damage to body
• spirited performance from 1.8 and 1.8 turbo
• agile and responsive handling
• European prestige
• BMW 3-Series Compact – 1996-2001 – $11,000-$25,000
• VW Golf – 1998-2002 – $11,500-$20,000
• Mercedes-Benz A160 – 1998-2001 – $11,000-$19,000
THE BOTTOM LINE
Good handling and performing small prestige hatch with the 1.8-litre the best choice.