Audi's compact five-door hatch has been earning accolades around the world. David Thomson finds out what it has to offer on local roads.
The evolution of the Audi A3 from the original three-door model of 1996 to the third-generation model that has landed here in five-door guise this year says much about the changing expectations of buyers at the compact end of the premium car market.
Back when the prestige marques started their most recent foray into the compact segment, many buyers were happy to pay a premium price so long as the car in question had the right exterior look and badge. The expectation now is that such a car will also have a premium feel to its interior, and a dynamic demeanour to match.
This makes designing a compact premium car one of the most challenging exercises in modern automotive engineering. This is especially so for a brand like Audi, since its offerings rely on common underlying platforms, engines and gearboxes that are also used by fellow Volkswagen Audi Group (VAG) family members Volkswagen, Skoda and Seat.
Fortunately for the new Audi A3, its underlying platform is nothing short of brilliant: known in VAG circles as the MQB platform, it is the foundation of the latest Volkswagen Golf, which has picked up European and World Car of the Year awards since making its debut at last year's Paris Motor Show.
Tested here in five-door 1.8T Sportback guise, the new A3 hit the streets at much the same time as the Golf, and was the car the Golf beat - by a whisker - to that World Car gong.
There is no similarity in look between the pair, with the VW carrying styling cues that can be traced back to the 1974 machine that started the Golf line. The A3 Sportback is a good-looker in an entirely different way, carrying many styling cues within its svelte exterior lines that connect it seamlessly to the rest of the Audi range.
The tastiest design treat awaits inside, with a cabin that is both superbly finished and a model of clean, elegant execution.
Sampled from behind the wheel the cabin is ergonomically brilliant too: the driver's seat is both comfortable and supportive (with adjustable under-thigh support included). Key controls fall perfectly to hand, as they should. But the area where Audi has truly excelled with the interior of this car is in its attention to detail around secondary switchgear and instrumentation.
By way of example, just one knob and two switches handle all the major functions for the Multi Media Interface (MMI) system that covers audio, vehicle information and satellite navigation systems. The colour display screen for the MMI is neatly designed too, sitting atop the dash when in use, but retracting out of sight when the car is switched off.
The controls for the dual-zone climate control are equally well thought out, as is the layout of dials in the main instrument binnacle.
Connectivity optioned to the audio system includes Bluetooth as well as conventional wired link-up. There's also a 32GB SDHC memory card reader, and that now-ancient device, a CD player.
The test car came with the $3500 S-Line styling pack (body kit and xenon headlights), and the identically priced technology pack (satellite navigation, a reversing camera and front parking sensors).
It also featured a $1500 upgrade to 18-inch rather than the usual 17-inch alloy wheels. Together, these features lifted the list price from the 1.8T's usual $55,400 to $63,900.
In larger markets there's a three-door version of the A3, with a slightly shorter wheelbase. Compared to that machine, which has not made it here, the Sportback is doubtless roomier in the back.
That said, taller folk occupying the rear seats may still judge headroom to be adequate rather than generous.
Boot space, at 380 litres, is fine for a car in this class, and can be extended to 1220 litres by making full use of the 60:40 split folding facility for the rear seat backs.
The overtly sporty S3 aside, the 1.8T as tested is the performance leader of the A3 line. Its turbocharged direct-injection petrol engine musters 132kW of power and 250Nm of torque and - delivering power to the wheels via a seven-speed automated double-clutch gearbox - propels the car from rest to 100kmh in 7.3sec.
There's an initial hesitation in throttle response from rest, but once that is overcome the engine pulls every bit as eagerly as you would hope given its decent outputs and the fact that maximum torque is on tap from just 1500rpm.
In-gear flexibility is the motor's most impressive feature, but it will also rev out smoothly to 6000rpm and beyond, with a sporting if slightly flat growl.
Strong performance is offered in tandem with excellent economy for those prepared to go easy on the accelerator.
The environmentally-friendly approach is best encouraged by selecting the economy option on the car's drive-select system. As well as modifying the car's throttle, steering and gearshift protocols, this action puts the air conditioning into a maximum efficiency mode.
Even when drive-select modes other than economy are engaged (the choices being auto, comfort, dynamic and the customisable individual mode) an automatic stop-start function and regenerative braking system are on hand to contribute to the car's excellent standard cycle economy return of 5.6l/100km.
Striking the right balance between ride comfort and handling prowess has always been one of the greatest challenges for the premium marques in this segment, not least because different customers have quite different preferences in this area.
My fears that the move to those 18-inch alloys, with their correspondingly lower-profile tyres, would result in an unduly harsh ride proved unfounded. Instead, the test car as optioned was well-suited to both the demands and opportunities associated with lower South Island roads.
Sure, there was an undeniable firmness to the car's ride over poorly surfaced city streets. Out on the open road, though, it was comfortable over both highways and byways, even when tested by unexpected potholes and other major surface imperfections.
The steering, while accurate, lacks some feel, especially in the initial movement off the straight-ahead. Even so, the test car displayed crisp turn-in when entering bends. It gripped strongly through those bends, balanced nicely on the throttle, and took heavy braking demands in its stride.
Really aggressive cornering and other forms of severe provocation will break its resistance to understeer, but that is exactly what you would expect from a car of this type, and when it does arrive, understeer builds progressively with plenty of warning.
Those who seek even more in the realms of engaging driver response should look to the forthcoming S3 variant (due here in time for Christmas with luck), or perhaps hold out for the as-yet unconfirmed A3 RS3.
In the meantime, the 1.8T is a credible flagship for the new A3 range. It looks good and drives nicely, but it is that superbly realised interior that really sets the car apart.
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