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First drive review: Audi A3 saloon (2013)

Or is it an A4 saloon…?

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JUST WHEN it looks like it has filled every conceivable gap in the A3 range, Audi goes and finds another. Given that it already has three-door, five-door and cabriolet versions of the model, you’re probably wondering what’s left.

A saloon, that’s what. Or a “three-box” as the industry unromantically calls them. At any rate, Audi reckons its new compact saloon will make a big splash in its two most important markets, the US and China. The latter hoovered up more than 405,000 Audis in 2012, and they are rather fond of their boots.

It’s less clear what a UK audience will make of the A3 saloon, with Audi taking a “wait and see” approach.  The company acknowledges that there might be some cannibalism with, potentially, buyers considering the larger A4 saloon opting for the cheaper A3 version. The entry-level A3 2.0 TDI saloon, for example, costs some £4,000 less than the A4 2.0 TDI saloon.

To put it into context with its siblings, the saloon is just under six inches longer than the A3 five-door Sportback but sits on virtually the same wheelbase (it’s just one millimetre longer, which won’t do an awful lot for interior space). The saloon is also slightly wider and lower than the Sportback.

Meanwhile, compared with its bigger brother the A4 saloon, the A3 saloon is around 250mm shorter and sports a smaller boot. Audi hopes that’ll be enough of a difference to keep a distance between the two.

It’s a handsome thing, this A3 saloon. Deeply sculpted body sides with a swage line above the sills that rises sharply to the rear give it that forward-thrusting stance so beloved of designers. The wheel arches are also a little more swollen than those of other A3s, and there’s an up-flicked boot spoiler that neatly finishes the tail.

But distinctive it ’aint. Driving the car in and around Budapest, where Audis of all flavours are very popular, gave rise to an amusing new spotters’ game. As in “is that an A4, an A6 or one of the new A3 saloons?”. From the front or rear, it’s a challenging game. It is easier to tell the A3 saloon from the A6, but the A4 and A3 saloons will no doubt be confused.

Inside the car, the A3 saloon’s dashboard is virtually identical to the one in the Sportback five-door A3, which is a good thing. In typical Audi style, everything has a quality feel and there’s lots of “knurling” going on with the alloy finished knobs and dials; very Bentley-esque.

It’s a comfortable and well laid out driving environment, too. The familiar MMI Touch with its console-mounted rotary control is intuitive to use and the display screen is perfectly located. There’s loads of reach and rake adjustment for the driver’s seat and finding your sweet spot behind the wheel is easy, even for those well over six-feet tall.

Back seat space for those six-footers is less good, though. Legroom is just about acceptable for somebody sitting behind a six-foot-plus driver, but I found getting my feet through the door aperture a bit of a squeeze (size 11, since you ask). Headroom is pretty good, even though there’s slightly less of it than in the Sportback. There’s better news when you get to the boot, which is more spacious than the Sportback’s by 45 litres with the seats up. They can be folded for even greater load space.

 

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The first cars to roll into showrooms will be the 2-litre TDI diesel, the 1.8-litre TFSi petrol and the 1.4 TFSi CoD petrol. “CoD” stands for cylinder on demand, which means that two cylinders are shut down when the load on the engine is low. This cuts fuel consumption and CO2 emissions.

Later in the year the range will be joined by a 105bhp 1.6-litre TDI diesel. And early in 2014, expect a road-rocket S3 version with 296bhp.

Audi believes that the 2-litre 148bhp turbodiesel will be the most popular choice in the UK. I’d go along with that. Its combination of performance, economy and tax-friendliness is pretty compelling. That torquey diesel is reasonably refined at a fast cruise, too, and really only vocal when pushed hard. The engine works well with the manual gearbox ratios and performance feels more than adequate. A seven-speed, S-tronic dual-clutch gearbox will be available later this year.

The two petrol engines, 138bhp and 177bhp respectively, aren’t as punchy at lower revs as their torquey diesel sibling. Once their turbos are spooled up, though, progress gets much more frantic (in a good way).

The A3 saloon comes with standard fit “Sport” suspension, which is good on patched roads and over ridges but can get a bit crashy over potholed and badly broken surfaces. Also, the standard suspension can be lowered by 15mm at no cost. It does the ride no favours and in my opinion is not worth the resulting, slightly cooler look.

Otherwise, the A3 saloon takes the twisting bits of road with flat-handling confidence and a fair dash of agility, thanks partly to its lightweight construction. Steering feel is pretty good, too, but if it’s an adjustable, involving drive-for-the-hell-of it experience your after, this isn’t the place to find it.

All said, the A3 saloon is a fine piece. It’s very well made, a handsome thing to behold and will probably deliver a good ownership experience, too. If you’re looking at an A4 saloon, it might be worth looking here first.

 

Verdict ★★★★☆

Big Audi style and class in a small, nifty package.

Audi A3 2.0 TDI Sport specification

Price: £24,275

Engine: 1968cc, 4 cylinders

Power: 148bhp @ 3500rpm

Torque: 236 lb ft @ 1750rpm

Transmission: 6-speed manual

Acceleration: 0-62mph in 8.7sec

Top speed: 137mph

Fuel: 68.9mpg

CO2: 107g/km

Road tax band: B (First year free, £20 thereafter)

Dimensions:L 4456mm, W 1796mm, H 1416mm

 

Audi A3 saloon rivals

Volvo S60 D4 Business Edition Start/Stop Geartronic, £23,880

For Comfortable and spacious interior Against Not the most refined diesel out there

Buy a used Volvo S60 on driving.co.uk

Mercedes-Benz CLA 220 CDI Sport, £29,355

For Concept-car looks are a big draw Against Quite tight for space in the back

Buy a used Mercedes CLA on driving.co.uk