First Drive: Audi A3 Sportback
SECTOR Lower medium PRICE £19,825 – £27,180 FUEL 50.4 – 74.3mpg CO2 99 – 130g/km
The European C-segment is heavily weighted towards five-door cars, to the extent that some of Audi’s key rivals don’t offer multiple bodystyles at all. So it’s unusual that a high volume car like the new A3 would have been launched with the less popular three-door model.
Not least of all because its predecessor is getting on a bit. The outgoing A3 Sportback was launched in 2004, and it’s had only minor facelifts and engine upgrades through its life while everything else in the sector has been replaced completely. Despite this, the A3 is the biggest selling car in the segment, and three-quarters of buyers opt for the Sportback.
This is a unique proposition in its class. Audi is alone in the way it does five-door versions, fitting a longer wheelbase and less raked roofline to the Sportback. Looking a little like a stubby A3 Avant with its chrome roof rails and upright back end, it has a slightly larger boot and extra room for rear seat passengers, leaving the three door to focus on sportier styling for those who don’t need the additional space.
In reality, it’s a nominal increase. There are just 35 additional millimetres between its axles, but the difference inside is marked. Sat behind a tall driver, there’s ample head, shoulder and leg room for an average-height adult without resorting to dimples in the headlining. The larger windows also make the back feel less claustrophobic.
Otherwise, the range is familiar from the standard A3, available in SE, Sport and S line guises with an S3 to follow next autumn. Demand is expected to be top-heavy with S line versions accounting for 40% of sales and the rest split equally between the other two. The softer SE and Sport-spec suspension setups can be fitted to the S line, and all models cost an extra £620 compared to the three-door.
At launch, engine choices will comprise 1.4 and 1.8-litre TFSI petrols with 144 and 180bhp respectively, and the 148bhp 2.0 TDI, the range’s backbone at around 40% of UK sales. The 99g/km 1.6 TDI and 1.2 TFSI will follow shortly after launch, joined by a 138bhp 1.4 TFSI with cylinder shut-off and 182bhp 2.0 TDI in the summer. Audi has also earmarked the A3 Sportback as the model to debut a plug-in hybrid drivetrain in 2014.
While the engines and styling don’t sound revolutionary, the A3 uses the Volkswagen Group’s lighter new platform, and adds to the weight loss by using aluminium panels at the front end. Aside from the efficiency benefits, this feels much keener than the car it replaces, turning in quickly and with little body roll even on the SE suspension, while a 10bhp boost on the 2.0 TDI equates to brisker acceleration times too.
Even the entry-level units feel great to drive. The 1.6 TDI has become quieter in the new A3 and pulls cleanly from close to idle speeds without labouring, while the 1.2 TFSI’s low weight gives it agility from a class below. Audi is claiming 74.3mpg and 99g/km CO2 emissions even for Sport and S line versions of the 1.6 TDI, but whether its larger wheels hurt real world economy is another matter.
So it’s a conservative update for the A3 Sportback, but one which results in a better drive, more space and increased efficiency. The only problems it faces are the plethora of new entrants in this segment, including a completely new A-Class, the highly rated Volvo V40 and Lexus’s CT 200h. Audi hasn’t put a foot wrong with the new A3, but company car drivers have never had a better selection in this sector.
The A3 was the spearhead for the premium C-segment, and this new model continues to build on the qualities which made its predecessors so popular. It’s fighting from a market-leading position, but with newcomers muscling in this is a car which meets rather than vastly exceeds expectations.