The Posh Volkswagen
Why I’d never buy an Audi S3 despite it being a perfectly adequate car
Volkswagen Audi Group (VAG) has a typical Large Automobile Corporation business model: have one or more brands producing very serviceable vehicles that are affordable for modest middle-class and aspirational blue collar customers, and have a “halo effect” luxury brand that includes one or two entry-level vehicles for those of modest middle-class means who nevertheless want to indulge their own slightly grander aspirations.
The Audi S3 sportback is in this entry-level bracket, being a bit more psychologically desirable than a VW or Seat or Skoda of the same size and capability, and is thus pitched at the same kind of people who’d rather shell out significantly more for a Lexus than for a nearly-identical Toyota.
Of all the German marques, only VW has the scale to play this game — a game that originated in the USA where long ago the likes of Ford and General Motors specialized in badge engineering. A GM guy would start off in a cheap Chevrolet, then — if he got a better job — would move up to a Buick (which was basically the same Chevy, thinly tarted up with fractionally better interior fittings and some silly decals). If our GM guy was lucky enough to be born into a solidly middle-class family he’d likely aspire to drive an Oldsmobile (which was basically a Chevy, thinly tarted up with a slightly better interior and some silly decals) by the time his hair was thinning and his paunch was forcing him to buy much larger pants. And by the time he was really old and really fat, if he’d been fortunate enough to put enough aside for his retirement, our GM guy would end his days wallowing down the highway in a gaudy Cadillac (which was basically a Chevy tarted up with plenty of chrome and gilt), this being the pinnacle of US luxury and exactly the sort of car Rolls-Royce would have built if they’d been told they could only use the cheapest possible parts and didn’t care a jot about build quality.
Following the example of the US auto industry, Audi basically sells fancy VWs to the aspirational middle-classes. And there’s nothing wrong with putting marketing theory into practice in order to make a few billion extra Euros.
When you slide behind the wheel of an S3 it’s immediately apparent that the good old German virtues of solid build quality and decent materials have been applied to this modestly-sized offering. There’s nothing opulent about the Audi but there’s nothing embarrassingly cheap either, unlike the Jaguars and Aston-Martins and Lotus cars of a few short years ago. Sitting in an Audi a chap can feel that he’s received what he paid for and can be reasonably confident that unlike any of those always-disappointing British marques, things won’t break or drop off while he’s driving to the local supermarket.
But that’s where the good news comes to an unfortunate halt.
Let’s imagine our new buyer wants to use the infotainment system. Being very German, Audi has made certain that this will require taking the hefty user’s manual and committing all 436 pages to memory because absolutely nothing whatsoever is intuitive. Unlike Japanese, US, and Korean infotainment systems, the Germans believe very strongly that drivers must have the mental fortitude of commercial airline pilots and undertake a similarly long qualification process. After all, they will be driving the Pride of Ingolstadt! It would not be acceptable to build infotainment systems that anyone at all could use easily and quickly. What sort of rabble could then be seen behind the wheel of this prestigious vehicle?
With enough diligent study, our new Audi driver will discover that it is indeed possible to change the radio presets by using capabilities buried a mere three sub-sub-sub menus deep. With even more diligent study, the new Audi driver will also learn how to call up the navigation system and then, after a mere additional two months of memorizing the user manual and trying desperately to manipulate the lag-prone twist-wheel to laboriously spell out each word in turn, discover how to program in a destination.
At this point Audi really ought to reward the driver with the sound of heavenly trumpets. But actually nothing at all happens to acknowledge this triumph of desperate human persistence over stolid German obscurantism.
Programming the navigation system is, however, by no means the end of the fun that Audi has built into its infotainment system.
Let’s assume our long-suffering chap has spent the requisite time learning how to use Audi’s marvelously irritating infotainment system and has now set out on the road toward his destination. He can even listen to the radio station he wants! Joy unbounded and bliss unconfined! As long as he never, ever, thinks about the validity of the route the navigation system has decided will be in his best interest, he may continue to drive in a pleasing fog of customer satisfaction.
Should our poor chap, however, attempt to reconcile the Audi’s chosen route with anything remotely approaching reality he will be very much disabused of his joy. For the Audi will send him down dirt tracks and backroads while ignoring highways — despite the fact the driver will have chosen the Use Highways Whenever Possible setting. Better still, as the Audi reaches the three-quarters mark in the journey the navigation system will insist that car and driver turn around and re-trace the route in order to add hundreds of additional kilometers, just for the sheer unbounded pleasure of it.
Lest you, gentle reader, feel I am maligning Audi unfairly and impugning its ability to design usable infotainment systems, let me merely say that in 2019 I drove an Audi S3 from Lake Como to Lausanne using the Audi’s navigation system. It led me to a road that was barely even gravel and stone, in preference to the highway my inexpensive Garmin system showed was a mere 8 kilometers away. As we got to within 130 kilometers of Lausanne, the Audi system insisted I should turn around and drive to Milan in order to take an entirely different route back into Switzerland, adding a mere 403 kilometers to the total journey. I documented all of this extensively with photographs and then sent the evidence to Audi. After three weeks I received an email reply asking me for details (email address, name) that they evidently had because they’d just sent me an email to that very address, using my actual name.
In other words, they were trying to Audi me.
The takeaway is that German automobile manufacturers do not “do” infotainment systems very well. A good friend of mine took her brand-new Mercedes out for its first drive a few years ago, to go and see her mother who’d just moved to a new town. My friend programmed in the destination address, the Mercedes system guided her toward the town, and then…. displayed a message saying “You are within 2 miles of your destination” and abruptly shut down and refused to provide any additional information. Shutting off the ignition and re-starting the vehicle didn’t help.
So Audi is merely upholding a proud German tradition, and I must say they are doing a splendid job. If you do buy an Audi, the good news is that a very adequate Garmin GPS system can be had for under $300 these days, so you need never even bother to use the Audi navigation system unless you want to amuse yourself by seeing if you can raise your blood pressure sufficiently through endless frustration to induce a wholesome aneurism.
Audi, being a premium marque, has one more lovely surprise in store. We can think of it as an Easter Egg, like one of those delightful extras software engineers love to hide within the entrails of excessively violent videogames. Audi uses fly-by-wire, which means that there are no mechanical linkages between driver input and vehicle response. The gear shifts, via Tiptronic shifter or flappy paddles, merely tell the car’s computer what you’d prefer to do; the actual transmission shifting is all electronic. Likewise with the brakes and the steering.
And it’s the steering that Audi has chosen to ensure that drivers can be prevented from complacently nodding off when behind the wheel.
Imagine the scene: you’re behind the wheel of your Audi S3, it’s a glorious early summer day, and you’re on a French autoroute. Although the nominal speed limit is 130 kph (around 81 mph) no self-respecting French driver would dream of doing anything under 160 kph, so you are likewise eating up the distance. The Audi’s suspension is supple and responsive, unlike the terrifying wallowing American automobiles of yore. You feel perfectly secure as you ease the car into a long gentle curve. Nothing could be finer. You feel at one with the Audi, in control, relaxed.
And then, for no reason whatsoever and without any warning, the steering computer decides it is time to make the Audi turn sharply toward the crash barrier even though your hands have not moved the steering wheel.
This is the wonderful Audi “are you still paying attention?” feature.
The sudden burst of terror as the car tries to kill you ensures that the subsequent adrenalin dump into your bloodstream will banish any possible drowsiness you may have considered tolerating some hours in the future. And because this delightful quirk is totally unpredictable and depends in no way on your own inputs, you will remain in a state of heightened alertness for the rest of the journey, and indeed for the rest of the time you own the Audi, for this amusing trait will manifest over and over again.
Who could imagine a better safety feature? Hats off to those clever and thoughtful German engineers, I say!
Now in all fairness to Audi, I drove an identical model nine months later and it only tried to kill me like this once over the course of two weeks and 4,400 kilometers. But the second S3 did lead me to follow a backroad that led to a dirt road that led to a gravel path that led to a goat path that dead-ended at a locked gate in front of a field, in preference to the highway my Garmin later showed was a mere 9 kilometers past the exit the Audi navigation system selected for us.
The harsh fact is that German cars, be they Porsche, BMW, Mercedes, or VAG products, all tend to have unusable infotainment systems. And they’ve all gone fly-by-wire, which means the other marques likely have their own amusing little quirks too. Thus Audi is not uniquely awful in this regard but is merely showing admirable solidarity with its compatriots.
And that’s why I couldn’t buy an Audi. Nor a BMW, nor a Mercedes either. I don’t want to feel like a total idiot every time I get into a car. I don’t want to be reminded that I’ve paid a premium for something that doesn’t work properly, just because I’m so insecure that I need a brand to boost my self-confidence. If Toyota and Honda and Ford and GM and Hyundai and Mazda and Nissan can all make perfectly easy-to-use and functional infotainment systems then there’s no reason aside from sheer obstinacy that the Germans can’t do it too. But they don’t: they refuse. Their Germanic sense of order and correctness forces them to foist upon the market infotainment systems of such magnificent uselessness that 98% of customers abandon all attempts to utilize the functionality that lies buried deep within.
And that simply isn’t good enough for me.