I must be stark raving mad – what was I thinking? Buying a 12-year-old European car with 215,000km. Almost everyone I’ve spoken to has scoffed at my choice while giving me that look that says “Are you made of money?”. Well, I’m here to bust some Euro myths. This is my $5000 Audi A3 2.0 FSI – a safe, stylish, surprisingly sporty Sportback that doesn’t cost a fortune to own.
Firstly, I’d like to point out I’m not a fool. I wasn’t just seduced by a bright colour. If you're keen on something premium that's over a decade old, do your research. The internet can be a terrifying place for advice: start typing any car name into Google and be prepared for the auto completes that read 'blew up after 100km', 'drinks more oil than fuel' and 'caused my wife to leave me'.
However, after weeding through the drivel, find out if the car you're looking at has any major faults or problems, especially once it has clicked over 160,000km. Then when you're making a short list, go for cars with a full service history. My car has only had one fastidious owner and every bit of paperwork has been kept and the service schedule stamped. If the car needed fixing, it was done and recorded. This is the sort of used car you want to hunt out.
Come on Australia, when are you going to learn that European cars do not cost a fortune to run and own? I have found that spare parts are easy to come by online from within Aus' or wait a week and get bits shipped from Europe. At the most, parts will run into hundreds of dollars not thousands. Just shop smart and find a decent independent European mechanic.
Yes, a Korean or Japanese car will cost a bit less, and I’m not for a minute saying an A3 will be a bargain-basement mode of transport, but the difference is negligible and can you really complain when the price gets you quality? In roughly 2000km of driving, so far all I’ve changed is a temp sensor and a few globes, total bill $50. Go on, treat yourself to something you’d not consider usually buying second hand.
Okay, enough stroking my used-car buying ego, how does my second-generation A3 drive? Let’s start by getting platform-specific for a moment. The A3 8P rides on PQ35 underpinnings, or in other words VW Golf Mk5 oily bits. This platform change ushered in many niceties for the second-gen A3, like an independent rear end, a new range of engines and improved build quality.
Under the bonnet of my car is a 2.0-litre FSI naturally aspirated petrol with 110kW. And you know what, it is so refreshing to not wait on a turbo, especially as it is mated to a superb six-speed manual with a wonderfully tactile ball gearknob. It is very nice to the touch and allows you to take full control of winding the car out to 6000rpm, which is where you’ll find that full 110kW. 0–100km/h is dealt with in 8.8 seconds in case you care, but it’s the handling that does it for me.
Front-end grip on 225mm Bridgestone Potenzas is excellent, turn-in is accurate and body roll minimal. Feedback through the wheel is great. Honestly, nailing a blipped downshift on the floor-hinged accelerator while stirring the gears on a twisty bit of blacktop is nothing short of magical. A relatively poverty-spec naturally aspirated hatchback with a manual gearbox, especially when it has the hallowed chassis of the game-changing Mk5 Golf GTi, the A3 is a wonderful car to drive.
Despite its lack of turbocharging, the FSI does reasonably well on fuel. Alas, my commute is a mix of hilly country back road and rural two-lane highway so the car hardly ever sits in stop-start traffic. It is currently averaging 8L/100km. Not great by today’s standards, but not awful – let's call it a happy medium. Bear in mind, it does like drinking at least premium E95, though.
Moving inside, you’ll find an interior that has aged well, with a superb driving position thanks to a seat that drops properly low. You sit behind a perfectly sized wheel and look out at a mainly button-free minimalist design with just a few nice touches to lift the quality. Namely that lovely manual shifter with an aluminum shaft (don’t laugh) and round air vents, as opposed to the usual rectangular ones. Aluminium highlights on the doors and dash also help, contrasting the soft-touch black plastic you’ll find elsewhere. Noise, harshness and vibrations are well suppressed too, except on really coarse surfaces.
The Sportback design, think of it like a mini wagon, also offers amazing practicality in a relatively small package. There's plenty of room in the back for adults and the boot swallows a couple of suitcases and a pram easily. Or fold the seats and throw in a couple of bikes (front wheels removed).
While for me, Audi really nailed the exterior design with this A3. Crisp smooth surfaces, perfect shutlines, a mildly aggressive front end and a low roofline helped by a bright colour really make the car stand out. Actually, if you squint enough, my car still looks like today's brand-new model, in my Audi-obsessed mind at least.
Moving on to issues, no car is immune to them. Firstly, it doesn't sound too sporty. It almost has a bit of a diesel rattle to it, however I’ve thrown an air filter on making it a bit rortier, but it’s no sweet N/A Alfa twin-cam that's for sure. You won’t find a driver's centre armrest, which is a bit annoying, there are no rear seat air vents, and it will come as no surprise that there is zero connectivity as this 2006 car predates the original iPhone by a whole 12 months. How did we ever survive?! A cheap Bluetooth FM receiver fixes this relatively easily, though.
Other gripes I have are more age-related than actual problems with the car's design. Things like a sagging headliner, very slight paint fade and the driver’s seat padding having collapsed a little, are all due to a couple of hundred thousand kilometres and years spent in the Aussie sun.
So how did my myth-busting go? From my experience, second-generation A3s are now well within an accessible price point and they do not cost a fortune to run or own if you shop smart and put in a bit of effort. Crucially, though, they are a solid quality product that just happens to drive superbly. Personally, I like the underdog N/A 2.0-litre FSI – its basic spec actually translates to thrills behind the wheel. But find a 2.0-litre turbo TFSI with quattro and you’ve got yourself an all-weather Golf GTI in an expensive suit.
Embrace a second-hand Audi – you won’t be disappointed.