Now there are three. The premium small-car segment began as a one-horse race in 1996 when Audi took the bold step of introducing a small model called the A3. BMW was extra wary of the possibility of diluting its brand with a small car, but watched Audi sales closely and finally decided it was safe to enter the prestige small-car race in 2004, with its 1 Series.
Mercedes-Benz was a very late starter, not joining the fray until it introduced the all-new A-Class in 2012 (the original A-Class was a stubby city car operating in a totally different market area). Having led the way, Audi is very keen to build on its 17 years of expertise in small cars and has added additional models to both ends of the A3 Sportback lineup.
The most exciting is the quattro version. With over four decades of harnessing all-wheel-drive to powerful engines this model was a given. At the other end of the scale is a super-economy model tagged the Audi A3 COD. Which doesn’t mean you have to pay cash for it on delivery, but that it has a 'cylinder on demand' powerplant.
ENGINES | TRANSMISSIONS
The A3 Sportback quattro has a hot(ish) four-cylinder 1.8-litre turbo-petrol engine that produces up to 132kW of power and a high 280Nm of torque. The use of quattro all-wheel-drive is the big feature of this model, as it provides huge amounts of road grip, even on slippery roads. Automatic transmission in the quattro is a six-speed dual-clutch unit.
The cylinder on demand Audi A3 Sportback engine runs on four cylinders in normal driving conditions, but drops to just two cylinders when minimum power and torque are required, such as in gentle country or motorway running on level loads. It’s aimed at economy and has an officially measured figure of just 4.7 litres per hundred kilometres.
Again, it’s a turbo-petrol unit, this time with a capacity of 1.4 litres and 103kW and 250Nm. Transmission is to the front wheels only and the automatic is a conventional six-speed unit. Both of these Audi engines coast downhill when you throttle right off, using zero litres of fuel when doing so.
Though it’s termed the Sportback, with the suggestion it has a hatchback body, this A3 is more station wagon in its shape. Thus it has a good sized load area that’s reasonably squared off and simple to load. A handy 380 litres of boot volume, including a large underfloor stowage area is a feature of the latest A3. Cargo capacity of 1120 litres is offered if the rear seats are folded down. There are various other ways of arranging the rear seats / boot to juggle luggage and people carrying.
The sporty A3 quattro has a rear roof spoiler, 17-inch alloy wheels, front foglights, sports seats in leather trim, leather finished steering wheel, and an aluminium-look cabin design.
These models have a full-colour 5.8-inch display for Audi’s MMI eight-speaker audio system. It has Bluetooth integration and satellite navigation. The screen can be retracted into the dash for those who choose to minimise driver inattention.
Lighter weight and a stronger body meant the Audi gained five stars with ease in crash testing. The added traction of quattro all-wheel-drive gives it an edge in crash avoidance on low-traction surfaces.
Remembering that torque is more important than power, it didn’t surprise us there’s plenty of grunt from the 280Nm quattro Audi A3. It has fast throttle response and combined with the quattro system provides plenty of driving excitement at a modest price of $37,990 plus on-road costs.
Oddly, the cylinder on demand engine doesn’t have a light on the dash to let the driver know the car is running on just two cylinders. Volkswagen does on its virtually identical engine and we feel that the challenge of getting fuel consumption and emissions down as low as possible would be enhanced by just such an indicator light.
Ride comfort and handling are nicely balanced in both models with even the sporting A3 Sportback quattro providing a supple ride and low noise levels. Coarse-chip sealed roads, often an achilles heel on European cars when driven in Australia, didn’t create undue noise in this pair of Audis.
If the high-performance Audi A3 Sportback doesn’t stir your blood sufficiently, you will only have to wait another 10 weeks or so for the hot Audi S3 models. A challenger for the redhot Mercedes A 45 AMG is surely in the wings and will presumably be tagged the Audi RS3. Can’t wait for that one…
The complete Audi A3 Sportback range is:
A3 Attraction 1.4 TFSI S tronic: $35,600
A3 Attraction 1.6 TDI S tronic: $36,500
A3 Attraction 1.4 TFSI COD S tronic: $37,900
A3 Ambition 1.8 TFSI S tronic: $42,500
A3 Ambition 2.0 TDI S tronic: $42,500
A3 Ambition 1.8 TFSI quattro S tronic: $45,500
Audi A3 Sportback quattro
Price: from $45,500
Warranty: 3 years/unlimited km
Capped servicing: No
Resale: 52 per cent (previous model)
Service interval: 12 months/15,000km
Safety: 5 stars
Engine: 1.8-litre 4-cyl turbo, 132kW/280Nm
Transmission: 6-speed dual-clutch auto; AWD
Thirst: 6.6L/100km, 95 RON PULP
Dimensions: 4.3m (L), 1.8m (W), 1.4m (H)