Audi A3 review
by David Finlay (5 September 2012)
There can be few cars which have ever represented such a major technical step forward while appearing to do the exact opposite as the new Audi A3. Officially on sale later this month, the third-generation car looks almost exactly as you would expect it to if Audi had simply given the current, nine-year old model a quick facelift.
This was a deliberate move. An Audi chap told me first of all that it was to preserve the residual values of the existing car, and since he is a man of considerable wit I suspect he may have been indulging in some light teasing. He went on to suggest that since the previous A3 had been so popular it made more sense to keep buyers coming back for more than to risk alienating them by creating a shape that they might not like. Not a very adventurous attitude, I thought, but I can see the point.
If A3 owners are resistant to change it might be a wise move to hush up the fact that this is the first Volkswagen Group car (but, oh my ears and whiskers, by no means the last, oh dear no, you won't be able to move for the things soon) based on the new MQB platform. It's therefore radically different from the current car, even though it looks like it's trying not to be.
It's almost exactly the same size overall, not differing by more than half an inch in any direction, but depending on model it's up to 80kg lighter (the engines themselves have been lightened to differing extents), which is good news for acceleration, braking, cornering, fuel economy and CO2 emissions. The front and rear axles are further apart, which seems to have improved back-seat space - there really isn't very much of this and, at six foot three, I wasn't expecting to be able to fit in there, but I did manage it, in full view of Audi personnel who pointed and shouted, "See! Told you!"
Luggage space has improved slightly to 365 litres with the rear seats in place and 1100 litres when they're folded down. Previously the figures were 350 and 1080.
From launch there will be three engines - a 120bhp 1.4 TFSI turbo petrol, a 178bhp 1.8-litre unit of the same kind and a 148bhp 2.0 TDI turbo diesel. Towards the end of the year Audi will bring out an 104bhp 1.6 TDI A3, and the main significance of that will be its 99g/km CO2 rating which makes it exempt from Vehicle Excise Duty and the London congestion charge, and gives it a BIK company car tax rate of 10% for the rest of the 2012-2013 financial year.
A more powerful 138bhp version of the 1.4 TFSI, with cylinder deactivation during low-load running, will be along next spring. Seven-speed twin-clutch semi-automatic S tronic transmission is available as standard on the 1.8 TFSI and is optional on the 1.4 TFSI and 2.0 TDI, which have six-speed manual gearboxes in their more basic forms. Four-wheel drive is not available for now.
Audi has so far made both the 1.8 TFSI and 2.0 TDI available for the media to drive on UK roads, and the most immediately noteworthy thing about both is how quiet they are. Even the diesel, under the hardest acceleration, has an incredibly low decibel level. The only resulting problem is that it's easy to persuade yourself that the A3 suffers from a road noise problem, but it doesn't really - it's simply that there isn't enough engine noise to drown it out.
(Update: no, I've changed my mind about this. See road test.)
The operation of the major controls (particularly the steering, which doesn't have as much feel as a sporty driver might like but is wonderfully smooth) is a huge advance over the last A3, but not to the same extent as the ride quality. Even on optional 18" wheels and low-profile 40-section tyres, which would have given previous A3s the feel of a draycart, the new model glides very smoothly over rough surfaces. I can't imagine why it's taken Audi so many years to sort this out, but I don't care. I'm just delighted that it's finally happened.
As usual, there are three trim levels, starting with SE and going up through Sport (for an extra £1225) to S line (which costs £2150). S lines are expected to be the most popular by a small margin, in the same way that Audi believes customers will tend to go for the 2.0 TDI engine. You can have almost any engine with any trim level, the exception being the 1.8 TFSI and SE specification, a combination Audi doesn't believe will sell and therefore isn't offering.
SE models come with "standard suspension", while Sports and S lines get something a bit firmer (though still comfortable) with a 15mm lower ride height. As a no-cost option, you can have even more serious suspension on your S line - but the same principle also works the other way, so you can specify the more comfort-oriented settings on a high-level car if that's what you want. Audi describes this as its "suspension menu", and it's a particularly good idea.
In SE form, the 1.4 TFSI, 1.6 TDI and 2.0 TDI cost £19,205, £20,155 and £21,505 respectively. Upgrading to Sport adds £1225, and there's a further increase of £2150 to take you to S line. Entry price for the 1.8 TFSI (in Sport form, remember, and with the S tronic transmission) is £24,410. Pricing has not yet been confirmed for the 138bhp 1.4 TFSI with cylinder deactivation.
All A3s use the same three-door bodystyle. If you want more practicality you have to wait until next spring, when Audi will introduce the five-door Sportback which - thanks to the MQB platform, which makes this kind of thing much easier to arrange than it otherwise would be - will have a longer wheelbase and, it seems reasonable to assume, more interior space.