[photos: Alex Shreer]
Low, stanced, dropped, bagged, aired out, and slammed are all terms used to describe the trend of air suspensions gaining popularity in the European car segment. Getting a car to sit really low has never been as popular as it is now in the tuning scene. Once a thing more for low-riders or mini trucks, the art of getting a car to sit as close to the ground is now quite commonplace at any given car show, fitted to cars like VWs, BMWs, Mercedes and, yes, Audi models.
Even before I took delivery of the A3 I knew I wanted to put the car on air suspension. This wasn’t my first experience with air, and I’d experienced plenty of benefits with few drawbacks. Such a setup bestows the car with the ability to traverse speed bumps and also rest on its tires has proven to be ideal for my needs, seeing duty as both auto show car and daily driver.
In the earlier days of air suspension, one of the drawbacks of air suspensions was their complicated installation process and need for copious amounts of space inside the trunk to house hardware. There weren’t many applications and nothing seemed to be a direct bolt-in solution. Coilover suspensions or sport springs were the only easy options, but these limited just how low a car could go.
In fact, the first choice of suspension for Project A3 Sedan was a coilover suspension from Solowerks. While appreciative of the more sporting ride and lower ride height, initial displays at shows for this red S line had me wanting to go even lower. Though happy with the coilover setup, I decided to explore a different and lower alternative.
This brings us to the Air Lift Performance. Air Lift opened in 1949 and currently makes air springs and suspension setups for OEM, industrial, performance, and luxury applications. They even had a run of 20 years in the early days of American stock car racing (NASCAR) and could be found in some of the most competitive race cars of the day.
Today Air Lift is a world wide provider of air suspensions, and the last few years have seen them add a newer performance lineup. For years it was always said that a good coilover system was far superior on a race track than any air setup on the market. However, Air Lift is proving that their Air Lift Performance line can match typical shock/spring combos on the track, if not beat them. Their Performance line kit consists of specifically engineered struts, air springs, and other components that are tailored to the specific car and chassis. The struts allow the owner to adjust dampening for softer or harder ride quality while the springs, and their near infinite adjustments, allow for on-the-fly height adjustment. It really is the best of both worlds. Air Lift’s tag line states it best, “Drive It, Show It, Track It.” Meaning wherever the car is, it’s right at home.
These qualities made it the perfect fit for where I wanted to take this Project A3 Sedan series. It turns out, Air Lift knew they were going to develop a complete kit for this new MQB chassis, from shocks, springs, compressors, tanks, and even newly designed rear control arms, but hadn’t started any prototyping at the time this A3 was first delivered. Over the next few months, Tom Mahar at Air Lift kindly kept me in the loop about the development of the kit and let me know they were putting miles on a new Volkswagen GTI (also on MQB). With the A3 sharing many chassis components with the GTI, the only practical difference in the case of suspension really being the quattro drivetrain, I hoped there wouldn’t be any issues to fit the new product to the Audi.
By February, the A3’s new AirLift suspension components were on the way. Installation arrangements were quickly made with PartsScore, the car’s home shop and installer of choice. Importantly, PartsScore took under consideration that the A3 is a lease car and as such put an emphasis on clean and simple installation that would be easy to put back to stock at a later date should that be necessary.
Clean and simple didn’t necessarily mean a lack of details. The trunk setup consists of one 5-gallon skinny Air Lift air tank, two Viair 380 air compressors, Air Lift’s V2 management system, and also all supplied electrical connections. PartsScore was thorough in their design work here, including making a false floor in the trunk in order to retain the spare tire, OEM tools, styrofoam pieces, and even re-wired the AirLift V2 manifold so the wires would come out the side instead of the top in order to optimize for our particular packaging. The decision to do that latter would not only look cleaner, but also allow the factory trunk floor to sit flush and not put stress on the wires.
Installation of the remaining hardware was also clean and simple. Parts like the struts, bags and new rear control arms went in without a hitch and with a very OEM quality fit. Finally, Jason from PartsScore also took great care in how they routed the air lines that go under the car. The A3 has two “frame rails” that run from the front to the back of the car and they happen to have a small hole at each end that turned out to be a perfect fit in order to route these lines. This provided a clean route for the lines, keeping them out of harm’s way, away from road debris and possible damage. No drilling or cutting was done to any physical part of the car during the entire process, something PartsScore took a lot of pride in.
Other than the custom trunk setup, our installation was very straightforward. Air Lift provides detailed instructions for wiring and how to make everything work. Everything is labeled clearly, making things easier during installation. The struts are Air Lift’s own design, allowing the user 30 levels of damping adjustment in order to allow you to go from race car stiff to a comfortable ride with the twist of a knob. Top all of that off with a T6061 aluminum adjustable camber plate and this equates to performance handling, killer ride quality and the ability to slam the front end 4.8” from stock.
The rear suspension was treated to a double-bellows air spring in place of the factory coil spring, giving you a 5.8” drop from original stock height. We also replaced the factory OEM control arm with Air Lift’s CNC laser-cut, robotically welded lower control arm in order to deliver maximum drop and cornering ability. To help keep things under control, the kit uses monotube shocks with 30 levels of damping adjustability to match the front. Even better, all of this is as pretty to look at as it is functional on the car. Air Lift manufacturers all of their components in-house and oversees the process from design to production.
The moment of truth with an air setup is when it is turned on for the first time and you finally get to see how the car looks. The dreams in my head of how low it would be, if the wheels would tuck or not, would the offset of the wheels be correct to allow it to go low, etc.. all swirled around for weeks and months. The moment finally came when those thoughts would become reality. Everything was PERFECT from a visual stand point. The pictures I had seen of A3 hatchbacks in Europe would stay true to the sedan with a huge of amount of rear wheel tuck and perfect fitment for the front wheel. The car sits level front to rear, with only the tires themselves preventing it going any lower.
The Air Lift V2 is a pressure-based system that uses PSI at each corner to determine ride height. The V2 controller has 8 different presets that the user determines. They can be set at 0-132psi for any of the four corners of the car. The first setting is what the car will achieve when it’s started up while the other 7 are your choice. You can set different saved positions for speed bumps, full car of people, low cruising speed, full lift, or anything in between. For my car, normal ride height is set at 50 PSI at the front and 60 PSI at the rear, while the “slammed” setting is 11 PSI at the front and 13 PSI at the rear (being limited by the tires hitting the inner fender wells). Two taps of each preset button recall that PSI setting and the car raises or lowers according to the preset PSI values. It is a very simple system and the V2 controller is easy to use and read.
With the simplicity of the trunk setup completed and now the look of the car fully achieved, the last remaining component to the equation was how it drove. I hit the road with the front shocks set at 6 clicks from soft (30 being full stiff), and the rears set at 7 based on PartsScore’s previous experience with the Air Lift Performance line. At this setting, the A3 feels like an Audi A8 to me because of the ride comfort with the adjustable shocks. It takes bumps and dips very easily on the highway and allows the car to get up my driveway without scraping the front bumper or worrying about doing any damage to the car.
The ultimate goal and test will be when I take the car to a local road course and see how it performs at high speeds and around corners. From the videos I have seen on YouTube of how the Air Lift systems performs against coilovers, I am excited to really put this system to the test and hopefully have the best available ride in every situation. Look for a future segment about the track tests.
Special thanks to Alex Shreer of PartsScore. Alex was hired on to be an engineer, but his passion for photography and film is proving very valuable. Alex is currently an industrial design and engineering student at Arizona State University and spends his free time taking pictures of cool things and drawing/designing more cool stuff. His photos and video are used in this installment.
Check out his page here http://www.schreeralexanderdesign.com/