Modest looks, supermodel performance


Road Test:First impressions of the Audi A3 Sportback are not inspiring. The new A3 reflects a trend across the premium segment by which every model carries the same facade as its larger and smaller siblings. The idea is simple: create a family look and you increase brand recognition while closing the perception gap between luxury flagship version and entry-level supermini. Audi is not alone: Mercedes and BMW have been doing this for several years now. As one motoring hack recently christened it, we are witnessing the “Russian doll” dilemma in the premium car market.

Coinciding with this is a trend towards restrained redesigns: the new A3 doesn’t look radically different from the outgoing version. Irish buyers have the luxury of a numberplate system that clearly showcases a vehicle’s age, but strip off the plates and most members of the public would be hard-pushed to tell new from old.

Family functionality

Then there’s the Sportback, the five-door version of the car that gets its own tagline, marketing campaign and – strangely – a separate launch. Strip away the hype and what you have is a set of rear doors and a decent boot. It’s the more family-friendly variant of the new A3 but, greater family functionality aside, it’s not exactly “vorsprung durch technic”.

Yet underneath the conservative metal cloak is a motoring revolution. The A3 was the first of the Volkswagen Group fleet to feature the motoring giant’s new platform strategy. Known as “MQB”, it heralds a revolution in car production. As reported in Motors last week, many in the industry reckon that the VW Group has finally come up with a strategy that will save car firms hundreds of millions – probably billions – of euro in the future, while maintaining the drive towards ever-expanding model portfolios.

The underpinnings of this car is shared with the new VW Golf, the Seat Leon and a host of new models and derivatives currently in the pipeline from the VW brands. Virtually all of the group’s small and medium front-wheel-drive family models are being designed around MQB as their base. It’s the sort of revolution you will not spot from the footpath.

Weight savings

For a start, the new platform contributes significantly to weight savings, an obsession within the engineering departments of most firms but particularly at Audi. For the A3 it means savings up to 90kg. Lower weight means less fuel use and that’s the sort of correlation that engineers are paid big bucks to achieve.

The test car was powered by Audi’s new 2-litre 150bhp diesel, the best engine in the A3 range. Putting out 150bhp, it has the wherewithal to cope with anything you throw at it, from nipping around on empty rural roads to the long motorway run. With emissions of 108g/km it’s efficient as well.

The latest figures from Warranty Direct in the UK (see report on page 8) might not make comfortable reading for Audi but that doesn’t detract from the impression of quality evoked by this car.

The new platform offers a competent and comfortable ride. It soaks up the bumps, doesn’t bounce you about, and even when I was caught unawares by a crater-sized hole on a country road, it didn’t jar the fillings out of my back teeth. It might not make you feel like you’re at one with the road – every twitch of your wrist replicated by a turn of the wheel – but it’s very much on theme: competent, comfortable and refined.

Sense of purpose

The biggest selling-point for Audi remains the interior cabin. There’s a sense of purpose and comfort that isn’t matched by its rivals. Even in the rather basic entry models you still feel there’s value in the offering and that corners haven’t been cut just because you couldn’t scrape enough together to get the bigger saloon.

There’s nothing flimsy or cheap in the cabin, while the switchgear has the same touch, feel and attention to detail you get in top-end Audis at three times the price.

In terms of specification, the Sports version adds a firmer sports suspension and Audi’s Drive Select programme, but arguably the best value to be had is with the SE format, €1,000 more than the entry-level but with features such as cruise control and rear-park assist that will prove worthwhile when it comes to sell or trade-in. The A3 Sportback, with its hatchback-cum-estate format, offers the sort of practicality that family hatchback owners need. It adds to this a sense of solid build quality that should be a prerequisite on premium cars but sadly isn’t always there.

No trick

The trick with the new A3, is that there is no trick. For all the hyperbole about “innovation” and the slick advertising campaigns that Audi have invested in to date, the story of this premium family hatchback is simple: from the moment you close the door there’s a sense of reassurance about the whole package.

Audi’s greatest asset isn’t the sharp suited sales staff, the shiny overly expensive showrooms or even the often baffling finance packages. It’s down to the engineers and the production line. Its cars are well-built and it shows inside and out.

Pitch the new A3 Sportback against the likes of the BMW 1 Series or the new Mercedes A-Class or Volvo V40, and it doesn’t win out in terms of styling. All boast premium badges from the bonnet, and the BMW and Mercedes offer more engaging drives. Yet it’s arguably the one where you won’t feel shortchanged.

ENGINE:1968cc four-cylinder diesel putting out 150bhp @ 3,500rpm and 320Nm of torque @ 1,750rpm

TOP SPEED:216km/h

0-100km/h:8.7 seconds

FUEL ECONOMY:4.2 L/100km (67.3mpg)

EMISSIONS (motor tax):108g/km (€190)

FEATURES:ABS; electronic stability control; remote central locking; fron, side airbags; knee airbag for driver; 5.8-inch colour display; MMI radio: Mp3/Apple connection; Bluetooth with audio streaming; 16-inch alloys; electronic parking brake; space saving spare wheel; leather multifunction steering wheel ; electric front windows.

SE (€1,000) adds:front foglights; cruise control; rear park assist; heated door mirrors; colour driver information system.

Sport (€2,500 on entry-level) adds:17-inch alloys; Audi Drive select system; sports suspension; front sports seats

PRICE:€31,600 as tested

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