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Audi's sporty newcomer

Spearheading the big comeback will be the A3 Sportback launched last week and the new A4 which is due to hit the deck in March.

The medium-sized A4 accounts for 50 per cent of sales and is by far and away the German carmaker's most important model here.

However, the company spent some face to face time last week extolling the virtues of its sexier, chopped- look A3 Sportback.

The Sportback follows close on the heels of the more traditional A3 hatch which was released in June last year.

Audi says the A3 Sportback is the first five-door in this segment with the sportiness of a coupe.

Audi managing director Joerg Hoffman says the car combines functionality with sportiness.

"It's exactly the right combination we need for this market," he said.

Audi has called on the services of swimmer Ian Thorpe to promote the new A3 Sportback who will feature heavily in advertising.

Thorpe is the owner of one of 50 super high performance RS4s sold in Australia.

Apart from styling the main difference between the two models is that the hatch is available with only three doors while the Sportback receives a full complement of five doors.

Under the skin, however, the two cars share the same engines and running gear, that is apart from the yet to be released 2.0-litre FSi turbo which may not find its way into the hatch.

This model does not arrive until the end of the month.

The Sportback looks remarkably different from the three-door hatch with its stylish, plunging roofline, high waisted sides, narrow window glass and a larger, dominant A6 style grille.

It has a 65mm longer wheelbase and is 10mm lower than the hatch and is also slightly longer and wider.

This translates to 40mm more leg room for rear passengers, but in reality the elevated rear seat is just adequate.

Scooped out sections in the rear of the front seats provide some breathing space for the cramped knees.

Engines range from an entry level 75kW 1.6-litre four cylinder to a 184kW 3.2-litre V6 screamer, the same engine as in the recently released TT V6.

There's also a 110kW 2.0-litre petrol, 147kW 2.0-litre turbocharged petrol and 103kW/320Nm 2.0-litre turbocharged diesel engine.

The 2.0-litre FSi model is expected to account for the majority of sales.

Transmissions range from a six-speed tiptronic change in the 1.6, to either a six-speed manual or six- speed tiptronic in the 2.0-litre car, to a the new DSG double clutch tranny in the turbo, diesel and V6.

It is claimed to be faster than the manual change, taking just 0.2 seconds between changes with no loss of power.

Standard equipment includes dual climate air, six airbags, front seats with active head restraint, electronic stability program and 17-inch alloy wheels with 225/45 profile tyres, plus a 140-watt sound system.

A double "open sky" glass sunroof system is optional.

We had the opportunity to sample the entire Sportback range and can report the cars are of the usual high quality that we have come to associated with Audi.

The finish is first class and dynamically they are also very good, with the feel and ride of a much larger vehicle.

All models except the 1.6 are fitted with sports suspension which lowers ride height 15mm.

It provides a firm but fun ride that is at times choppy.

The brakes are also excellent.

However, at the end of the day, price could be the deciding factor.

Not only does the A3 Sportback command a premium over the hatch, but is considerably more expensive than the Volkswagen Golf which is essentially the same car.

Of the cars we drove, the manual 2.0-litre FSi delivered the most fun and was cheapest of the bunch at $40,850, without sacrificing performance for the 1.6.

The same engine and transmission combination in the Golf equivalent will set you back $29,990 – $10,860 less.

Sure, the all-wheel drive 184kW V6 is an exciting car to drive but at $73,990, it is almost $11,000 more than the R32 Golf.

The A3 Sportback is priced from $36,800 before on- road costs.

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