In 1978 Audi withdrew from the lower end of the market when the daring and distinctive 50 ceased production. While it might have been a landmark for Audi, it was a molehill for everyone else.
The 50 didn’t sell awfully well and Audi felt it ought to focus its efforts on larger cars. However the penny dropped that premium car makers could offer smaller cars as the 90s wore on. BMW chopped up the 3-series to make the Compact (1993) and Mercedes got with the programme in 1997 with the A-class.
In between, Audi reworked the Golf platform so it could carry a higher price tag. In order to widen the expanse of silver metallic water between the little Audi and the mighty Golf, Audi offered the car initially as a 3-door only. That gave it a little coupé character for a company short (at that time) of coupé glamour.
The 1.6 litre in-line 4-cylinder engine sat transversely in the engine bay and, of course, it typically came with two-wheel drive. So, initially, Audi was offering a more athletic-looking car than the equivalent 3-door Golf but there were really too few beans in this tin. So, with the initial magic of a “bargain” Audi wearing off, Audi endowed the A3 with more powerful engines and, more importantly, all-wheel drive.
The pumpier engines included a 1.8 petrol turbo and a 1.9 turbo diesel. For the halo quattro car, Audi fitted the 1.8 petrol four with two grades of power output: 150 or 180 PS and directed the motive force to the tarmac via a Haldex Traction four-wheel drive system. That allowed Audi to remind buyers of their rally success of the previous decade and fight off VW’s Golf. The Quattro, shown in 1998 and on sale in 1999, came with an optional extra pair of doors, erasing somewhat the original ambition to cast the Audi as a distinctly different ball of wax from the Golf.
That said, the five-door looked remarkably different to the three-door (and Golf), with its six-light glass house and semi-estate tailgate. Visually it had a lot in common with the successful A4 saloon, and shared the same high-quality level of interior fittings. As much as its austere styling, a robust and clinical character was part of the emotional appeal of these cars.
Buyers seemed not to be too concerned that despite the speed and grip of the 4-wheel drive cars they didn’t manage to provide the extra soupçon of engagement that Alfa Romeo or BMW provided in cars of a similar size. Reviewers might have noticed this difference when getting from one car to another but for customers in Audi’s showrooms, the damped grab-handles and straight-forward performance provided enough of a rush to the brain.
The question is whether the A3 Quattro is a Driven to Write kind of car. The 4-wheel drive system gives is a bit of technical interest. It’s an electro-hydraulic system that waits quietly until the front-wheels begin to slip whereupon the extra power is ordered to the back to where it can do something. It isn’t in operation the whole time.
The A3 (whether Quattro’d or not) is certainly a thoughtfully executed example of late Ulm styling. The bodyside has just enough form to bring it alive and there’s a small light-catching surface on the sill to bring some interest to the lower body. The blacked out lower front and rear valence even appeared on Fords of the early Chris Bird era (no surprise as he was working at Ingolstadt before moving to Merkenich in 1998).
Extracting something from that, we find the A3 is sort of, kind of DTW sort of car for its formal attention to detail yet also a vehicle that dodges our firmer affections (there have been no proper articles here about it until now, barring something about the smoker’s pack in 2015).
Like the superlative elegant first-generation A8, the simplicity of the A3 was hard to repeat in a new way. For the replacement A3 Audi added some more busy, not enough to make it fussy but still, additions for addition’s sake. The German adverts of the time called this sharp: indeed the mark 2 is more firmly defined but not any better.
The current car is another overlooked vehicle in the DTW universe, far from bad and probably very good in many ways and very well able to avoid our close scrutiny for good or ill.