The new A3 retains its traditional features while at the same time introducing a whole new vehicle, says Jim McCauley
Audi takes the credit for establishing the compact premium sector, having launched the A3 back in 1996, and since then the UK has become the second-biggest market for the car after its native Germany.
Over the years the A3 has majored on its understated looks, and the new model stays with this tried-and-tested approach.
The car retains its evolutionary identity but the chamfered grille edges, narrow headlights, sharpened side detail and more assertive rear pillars proclaim the latest edition. And this is merely the surface detailing, for underneath there is an all-new vehicle.
The new A3 initially goes on sale offering a choice of two petrol engines and one diesel and it was this appealing performer that was the test choice — the two-litre TDI. This 150PS unit fires the car from rest to 60mph in a shade over eight seconds with the potential to top 134mph.
On-road and the key word is refinement, with the engine laying down its power with the utmost smoothness, and it is only when stretching the revs beyond 4,000rpm territory that there is a discernable suggestion of a diesel power unit. The six-speed manual gearbox is so tactile to use that the automatic option would lessen the driving experience.
With the engine tilted slightly rearwards and aluminium panels used for the bonnet and front wings, the weight on the front axle has been lightened and in combination with appropriately tuned power assistance, steering is light and precise, contributing substantially to driver confidence.
The test car was in Sport specification which adds a firmer set-up on larger 17-inch wheels as well as Audi Drive Select, which provides a choice of settings for steering weighting and throttle response.
The slightly firmer suspension complements the car’s balance, notably on undulating surfaces where it hugs the tarmac yet smoothly floats away maintaining its agility. Bump noise is extremely well insulated, but coarse road surfaces triggered a noticeable rise in tyre noise, particularly from the front end.
At higher motorway speeds the car is very relaxed while snug-fitting front seats increase the sporting appeal of this model, characterised by its mid-range acceleration and superb gearbox.
Inside, the cabin is a pleasant simplification of the traditional Audi interior with a marked increase in the level of quality in both the design and material choice. Featured highlight in all models is the electrically driven pop-up infotainment display screen. Just 11 millimetres deep, it is controlled by a centre console pad which offers single-button control for music, iPod connection, driver information system and Bluetooth phone interface.
In addition to the sports suspension system, the mid-range Sport specification also includes two-zone climate control, sports seats, multi-function sports steering wheel and aluminium trim detailing.
Rear seat access is through folding and sliding front seats, with rear leg room neat in this particular car. However for those in need of increased rear room, the five-door Sportback will feature a longer wheelbase with gains in cabin dimensions, and will join the line-up in 2013.
Overall, while Audi may not have deviated from the now traditional form of the A3, they have focused on its engineering and advanced technologies in a car that, despite carrying more equipment, is 80kg lighter than the previous model with gains in performance and economy. Its 50-litre fuel tank is capable of giving it a range well in excess of 700 miles and at the same time, its CO2 emissions of 106 gms/km is 7% less than that of the earlier engine with just 140PS output.
But like any Audi, the true attraction is in its dynamics, honing engineering standards to perfection in order to provide immense driving satisfaction. The current model leads the premium compact sector but the competition from Mercedes, BMW and Volvo has also sharpened, and while the A3’s dominance may be lessened, the essential ingredients have been seasoned sufficiently to keep it on the top shelf. Audi expects around 40% of customers to opt for the 2.0 litre TDI car, which like the other range models is offered with a fixed-price, three-year service plan for £399 and warranty extensions for up to five years from just £245.
Audi A3 2.0 TDI
Engine: 2.0litre turbo-diesel, 150PS @ 3,500-4,000rpm. 320Nm torque @ 1,750-3,000rpm
Drive: Via six-speed manual gearbox to front wheels
Performance: 0-62mph (100km/h) in 8.6 seconds; max, 134mph (214km/h)
Fuel on combined cycle: 68.9mpg (3.67 l/100km)
CO2: 106gms/km; VED Band B for zero annual car tax
Price: £ 22,730
Insurance: ABI (50 category) Group 21E
Warranty: Three-year/60,000 miles, with extendable four- and five-year cover
Euro NCAP: Five star
Available extras: Three-year/30,000 mile service plan £399, Metallic paint £525, comfort package (rear parking sensors, cruise control, automatic headlights and wipers, auto-dimming rear-view mirror) £605, SD card-based satellite navigation £495, Xenon light package (Xenon headlights with LED daytime running lights and LED tail lights) £1,150, Tyre pressure monitor £75.