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Audi A3 FSI Ambition Test

Innovative engine technology but no substitute for the abandoned turbo model.

By Michael Knowling

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At a glance...

  • Improved interior space
  • Excellent build quality
  • Attractive
  • Three door only
  • 2.0 litre FSI engine responsive but no match for the discontinued turbo engine
  • Poor handling balance on dry roads
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Here it is – at last. The long-awaited second generation Audi A3 offers improved space, a sportier appearance and a new range of engines to tempt existing A3 owners. But unfortunately the new A3 line-up doesn’t carry over Audi’s turbocharged petrol engines – ignoring the expensive new A3 quattro V6, the performance mantle is handed over to the A3 with direct fuel injection (FSI).

But is FSI a substitute for a turbocharger?

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No. Despite having the same 110kW power output as the previous A3 Turbo, the FSI can’t match the all-round torque of the turbocharged engine. With 200Nm at 3600 rpm and peak power at 6000 rpm, the DOHC 2.0 litre FSI engine is sweet and willing but it never gives you a turbo-like surge of grunt. You only need to compare the performance figures. The old A3 turbo accelerates to 100 km/h in low 8s, while the FSI trails by approximately a second.

But the FSI engine does have advantages.

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The direct fuel injection engine – also featuring variable inlet cam timing and a variable intake manifold - provides wonderful tractability and throttle response. Audi also claims an impressive 6.9 litres per 100km average fuel economy figure, but we were unable to come anywhere near that. We achieved 9.0 litres per 100km across a variety of driving conditions - pretty average for this type of vehicle.

The engine’s high 11.5:1 compression ratio also means 98 RON fuel is required for optimal performance but it can accept 95 RON fuel. Fuel tank capacity is a typical-in-class 55 litres.

What is FSI

FSI is Audi’s name for their direct petrol injection system. This system was used by the 2001 Le Mans winning Audi R8 racecars.

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The direct fuel injection process involves injecting fuel directly into the combustion chamber. To achieve this, over 100 Bar of fuel pressure is required. The Audi achieves this with high-pressure single piston pump and electromagnetically actuated injectors mounted in the combustion chambers.

One of the biggest claimed advantages of FSI is reduced fuel consumption.

At part throttle, the FSI system provides a stratified combustion charge with a rich mixture only around the spark plug. The rest of the combustion chamber contains a relatively lean mixture.

This stratified charge is achieved by controlling the charge movement inside the combustion chamber and injecting fuel immediately before the moment of ignition. Optimum charge movement is delivered by the A3’s continuously variable “flaps” in each intake port and a special piston crown shape.

At times of high engine load, the FSI engine employs a homogeneous air-fuel charge of 14.7:1 (Lambda 1). This further reduces fuel consumption compared to a normal engine, which generally operates at a rich mixture at high load.

As fitted to our test vehicle, the A3 FSI comes standard with a 6 speed manual gearbox. It’s a relatively notchy gearbox with an awkward push-down-for-reverse arrangement but we never missed a gear or crunched synchros. The clutch pedal is light and engagement is smooth.

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The A3 FSI – which is available in front-wheel-drive only - feels great on a short zip-zap test drive. It turns in sharply, sits flat and feels very stable. Push it harder, though, and you’ll discover there’s no handling balance or finesse. Enter a corner fast and the front-end understeers a long way wide of the apex – the standard electronic stability program (ESP) doesn’t do anywhere near enough to maintain composure. On a slippery road surface, however, the ESP lets you get some oversteer happening to help balance the understeer.

This is a car that handles better in the wet!

The A3 FSI tips the scales at 1275kg so its Dunlop Sport 9000 225/45 17 tyres aren’t as oversized as they first seem. As a result, grip levels are nothing more than adequate for a sporty hatch. Off the line, the A3’s traction control and so-called electronic diff lock (which merely brakes the spinning wheel) allow just enough slippage to achieve a quick get-away.

The A3 FSI Ambition is fitted with a firm sports-tuned suspension comprising MacPherson front struts and a four-link IRS. Ride quality is fine for normal driving conditions, but broken bitumen and sharp road shocks cause some harshness. Note that the less sporty A3 FSI Attraction uses softer suspension.

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The second generation A3 employs a speed-sensitive electro-mechanical steering arrangement that feels typically Audi dead. Steering weight is about right and there’s good response, but there’s very little feedback through the wheel. It’s difficult to feel when the vehicle is about to push into one of its big understeer moments.

The A3’s brakes performed well during our test. The new A3 comes standard with ABS, EBD, emergency brake assist and larger diameter discs than the previous model. The front discs are ventilated while the rears are solid.

The A3 is currently available in Australia only as a 3 door - but it is practical and useable.

The front doors open very wide and there’s easy access to the front and rear seats. The only criticisms are the hard side-bolters on the front seats (which dig into your leg while stepping in and out) and the stiff slide/tilt seat action.

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Front seat accommodation is comfortable and the low seats provide enough headroom when the optional electric sunroof is installed. Unfortunately, the driver’s side centre console brace (see photo) encroaches on driver space - by the end of our test period we had a sore leg where it had been rubbing... This can only be described as poor design.

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The A3’s back seat gives excellent knee room and there’s good foot space despite the ventilation ducts beneath the front seats. Headroom is not a problem for anyone up to about 185cm tall. Unfortunately, the rear seat needs more under-thigh support and the rear side windows are fixed. An optional fold-down centre armrest (which doubles as a ski port) is available at extra cost.

Rear cargo space is smaller than you’ll find in some other vehicles in this category, but it should be useable for most applications. The split rear backrests can be folded forward if an extra large cargo capacity is required – but there’s a large step between the cargo floor and the folded backrests. A space-saver spare wheel and a basic tool kit live beneath the cargo area’s false floor, there’s a neat fold-up rear sun blind and the rear hatch lifts comfortably above your head.

The FSI’s interior features list is comprehensive - but only when you include a number of extra-cost options.

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Standard fitment includes a driver information system for ambient temperature, trip computer, audio settings and more, auto-dimming centre mirror, sports front seats, aluminium-look inlays, leather steering wheel and dual-zone climate control (which takes some familiarisation). Our test car was also optioned with leather trim, cruise control and a brilliant premium audio package. This comprises a 6 disc in-dash CD/cassette/tuner and Bose speakers. Unfortunately, there are no steering wheel audio controls.

The new A3 body offers improved crash safety thanks to its highly developed safety cell and the standard fitment of six airbags. Seatbelt pre-tensioners and active front seat head restraints are also installed. However, visibility is not a strong point – the A3 body has a high waistline, thick pillars and large rear head restraints.

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The appearance of the A3 is guaranteed selling point. The new body is styled with fewer detail lines for a simple, attractive appearance. The body is also lower and wider and the FSI’s chunky 17 x 7.5 inch alloys look fantastic. FSIs also score a twin-tip exhaust. Note that our test vehicle was optioned with Xenon headlights in addition to the standard fog lights.

The build quality of the new A3 is its biggest standout attraction. The paint quality of our test car was magnificent, panel margins are tight and the quality of the interior is right up there with the bigger Audi models. There were also no speaks or rattles – a common problem for hatchbacks.

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With a base price of AUD$40,400, the A3 FSI Ambition is competitively poised in the up-market performance hatch segment. It’s certainly worth a look if you’re in the market for, say, an Alfa 147. Unfortunately, the extra cost options soon blow out the Audi’s price – our test vehicle equipped with leather trim, cruise control, premium sound, a power sunroof and Xenon headlights checks in at more than 50 grand.

At just over 40 grand the A3 FSI Ambition is a good buy - but we wouldn’t stretch it to 50 grand.

The Audi A3 FSI Ambition was provided for this test by Audi Australia. www.audi.com.au

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