Expect the unexpected as Audi unrolls its budget A3 that gets more technological sophistication than its $250,000-plus siblings. But it’s not only the breadth of in-cabin equipment that puts the A3 Sportback - here in April in a single, five-door body style - a step ahead of its A6 and A8 siblings, but a healthy stride away from its German rivals.
The A3 will be the first of the Volkswagen Group’s models to have the single-design platform dubbed MQB or, in normal speak, transverse-engine platform. The Volkswagen Golf will be the second MQB model before others - the Audi Q3 and Volkswagen Tiguan among them - join it.
The single-design platform potentially saves billions of dollars in design and production over the expected life of numerous models. That equates to cheaper cars. But though it costs less to make, the unexpected by-product is a car that drives with the confidence, safety and roadholding grip far beyond its price tag.
Even without a three-door variant - blinkered buyers will be ushered to the A1 range - the next A3 will become an extremely important sales cog in Audi Australia’s sales growth. Spokesman Shaun Cleary says there will be “substantial’‘ improvements on the current 100-odd monthly A3 sales. “We’re not talking numbers.
The A4 is still our most important model in terms of sales, but the A3 will become a very popular car and we expect it to quickly narrow the gap,’’ he says. Australia’s final specification isn’t confirmed though the A3 will be a three-engine lineup. Mr Cleary says Audi Australia is looking at either the 90kW/200Nm or 103kW/250Nm versions of the 1.4-litre turbo-petrol engine.
There will also be a sportier 132kW/250Nm 1.8-litre turbo-petrol and a 110kW/320Nm 2-litre turbo-diesel. “But the 103kW version of the 1.4 is more sophisticated and so will likely be a bit more expensive,’’ he says. “We’re still making a decision on which one of these engines we will get.’’ But the 103kW engine is the one that Audi Australia wants - and for good reason.
This is the latest development in petrol-fuelled four-cylinders with a cylinder deactivation system that stops the movement of two pistons and turns off their fuel supply when coasting. It will also be available in the Volkswagen range. Like the other engines, the 1.4-litre, in either power output, is a new design for Audi. It weighs 21kg less than the outgoing engine of the same capacity - the aluminium crankcase alone shaves 15kg - and gets 5.3 litres/100km in its 90kW guise.
But the more powerful version with the ability to switch off fuel to the two middle cylinders, gets consumption down to 4.7 L/100km. Transmissions will be a six and seven-speed dual-clutch automatic and a six-speed manual. Mr Cleary says the manual gearbox will be offered though admitted take-up on this box in the previous A3 was “low’’.
“The manual may become a special order for those buyers who really want it,’’ he says. “But we’ll make a judgement on that after the car has been in the market.’’ Audi buyers will also be in for a treat with the car’s infotainment and telephone links.
But not as pampered as European A3 owners who get an enviable list of internet-based systems that introduce Facebook and Twitter as a verbal accompaniment to SMS dictation; a three-map overlay of Google Earth, Google streetview and traffic maps; voice command access to petrol stations and fuel prices, concerts, plane and train timetables, travel information and online news from your favourite feeder services.
Mr Cleary says it will eventually come and that it’s not Audi’s fault. “We don’t yet have a provider in Australia that can give us what Europe gets,’ he says.
Price is yet to be confirmed though history says it will remain about the same. Even trim levels - Europe offers three - hasn’t been confirmed. If the model is successful, Australia could get the three trim levels and could even expand the drivetrain lineup. Value for money is a moot point.
Audi’s spokesmen say the company is aggressively winning a war on European soil with Mercedes and believes the A3 is superior to BMW’s 1-Series. Audi’s intuitive MMI driver information system becomes standard on all A3s and the level of features is good even on the entry-level Attraction. But Ambition and the top-line Ambiente win in the looks and equipment stakes.
The fact that Audi Australia won’t take the three-door A3 - preferring to send such buyers to the A1 line - indicates it could also neglect the base Attraction. The cars are front drive with the exception being the 1.8TFSI that is a quattro all-wheel drive.
Glance across a shopping centre carpark and it’s an Audi. A closer look and trainspotters will tell you it’s an A3. So though this is a third generation and Audiphiles will talk at length about a lower waist created by a new body crease, it’s externally an evolution of the previous model. But thanks to a 58mm longer wheelbase, it has more room on the inside and therefore a longer boot that ranges in capacity from 380 to 1220 litres.
There’s a new dashboard which is actually quite pretty - and the MMI knurled rotary dial now is less obtrusive. The knob actually does more work than before - the top is a write-on surface - so there’s less ancillary buttons cluttering up the console. The park brake is electric so there’s also additional room created by deleting the manual handbrake lever. The A3 will also be optional with LED headlights.
Despite sharing the style with the old A3, the new A3 is completely new. It sits on the Volkswagen Group MQB platform - same as the next Golf - which is considerably lighter, stronger and ultimately cheaper to make than the outgoing platform. Then there’s the engines.
The capacities are similar but there’s no common component. The 1.4-litre comes with cylinder deactivation - it stops the two centre pistons when the car is coasting on on light accelerator load - and is entirely made of aluminum.
Audi even shaved kilos off the turbocharger. All up, the new and longer A3 1.4 is 90kg lighter than the outgoing version. Then there’s the MMI system with a range of infotainment and internet-related features. Many won’t be available in Australia at launch until a network supplier can be found.
The car will be rated as a five-star and Audi says it’s now close to finalising complying with 2015 safety standards that include roll-over protection. There are seven airbags and the high level of chassis and brake-assist technology, but there is also an exhaustive list of safety-related options including pre-collision with autonomous braking, blind spot monitoring, lane assist, traffic sign recognition, adaptive cruise control and automatic parking.
The concept of the MQB platform is to have one basic chassis design and then modify it only by length and width to suit a myriad of models. Because so many millions of cars and SUVs will be based on this one platform, production costs dwindle. I don’t have a problem with that. Unexpectedly, this budget-driven concept has given rise to a brilliant driver-related chassis.
The A3, even in its 1.6-litre turbo-diesel version, is snug, so poised, very nimble and so precise through the corners - yes, even with the excellent electric steering box - that you’d think you’re in a very expensive sports car. Even that engine - not coming to Australia - is a gem, Better is the 103kW 1.4-litre with its cylinder deactivation.
No, you can’t feel the pistons stop then restart. It’s a very powerful little engine that is fitted to a seven-speed dual-clutch auto. Like the other cars, there’s a ‘’driver select’’ button on the dash that changes steering feel, transmission shift points and some engine management functions. It just sharpens up the car.
I also drove the 132kW 1.8 which has all the ability of a GT car let down only by a dual-clutch auto that never felt happy in the marriage. It wasn’t as smooth as, for example, the 1.4 with the six-speed auto.
The 2-litre turbo-diesel feels more perky than the current equivalent engine, probably because it was driven only attached to a six-speed manual. Ride comfort is very good, Audi balancing the need for a firm, sporty ride - its major point of difference with the Golf - and occupant comfort.
Top-notch small car with a broad appeal. Wonderful quality and low fuel use are to be expected but chassis control and ride comfort are bonuses.
Audi A3 Sportback
Available: April, 2013
Price: est. from $42,000
Warranty: 3 years/unlimited km
Service interval: 12 months/15,000km
Safety: 6 airbags, ABS, EBD, EBA, TC CRASH
Engine: 1.4 and 1.8 4-cyl turbo-petrol or 2-litre turbo-diesel; 103kW/250Nm and 132kW/250Nm or 100kW/320Nm
Transmission: 6 or 7-spd dual-clutch auto or 6-spd manual; front drive or AWD
Thirst: 4.7L/100km/5.6L/100km or 4.2L/100km; 95RON; 110/130 or 108g/km CO2
Dimensions: 4.3m (L), 1.8m (W), 1.4m (H)
Weight: from 1205kg