Audi A3 Sportback 1.4T

words - Stephen Ottley
Audi's new A3 Sportback impresses but will have to battle a rival close to home

Audi A3 Sportback 1.4T - Road Test

RRP: $39,950
Price as tested: $46,000
(includes 17-inch alloy wheels $2050, comfort package $2250, parallel park assist $1750)
Crash rating: four-star (Euro NCAP)
Fuel: 95 RON PULP
Claimed fuel economy (L/100km): 5.8
CO2 emissions (g/km): 137
Also consider: Volkswagen Golf GT TSI (more here), Mini Cooper Clubman S (more here)

Overall rating: 2.5/5.0
Engine/Drivetrain/Chassis: 3.0/5.0
Price, Packaging and Practicality: 2.5/5.0
Safety: 2.5/5.0
Behind the wheel: 2.5/5.0
X-factor: 2.0/5.0

About our ratings

Premium compact cars are a strange breed – in most cases you pay a lot of money for not very much car. Most of the time it therefore becomes a case of balancing head and heart -- as well as trading value-for-money, for style and sophistication...

The new Audi A3 Sportback range is the perfect case-in-point. The A3 1.4T the Carsales Network just spent a week driving cost $46,000 with only three option boxes ticked. Or to put it another way, for a few hundred dollars less you can buy a Ford Falcon XR6 Turbo or Holden Commodore SS.

Now, while comparing a premium European hatchback with an Australian made sedan is not strictly fair, comparing the A3 to the Volkswagen Golf is... The two share plenty of DNA, including the VW/Audi Group's impressive 1.4-litre engine. Indeed, that is the hardest thing to escape when evaluating the new A3, making comparisons to the Golf. There are plenty of similarities between the two cars but also some significant differences; most notably the price.

Putting that aside for the moment the initial impression of the new A3 is positive. It's easy to understand why the German firm is making up ground quickly to archrivals BMW and Mercedes-Benz. Good looks and good quality are immediately apparent when you first take in the A3 Sportsback.

The trademark single-frame grille is the most notable change but the bonnet and bumpers have also been redesigned. It helps to give the car a sharper, more angular look that fits with the company Audi is trying to keep in the premium compact segment.

Sliding into the cabin you are greeted in typical Audi style. Our test car was fitted with optional leather trim but the rest of the interior was just what we have come to expect from Audi: The four-spoke steering wheel, easy to read red-lit instrument cluster and straightforward air-conditioning and audio controls.

Once underway the steering is also what we have come to expect from cars with the four-ring badge. It's direct and provides good feedback but does lean towards the point of being a touch too light. Although not as bad as some rivals, Audi could stand to give it a bit more weight to give it a feeling of substance.

During the limited hard driving we tackled in our week, the handling of the new A3 impressed. Keeping in mind the 1.4 T is a midrange model and not the sporty S3, it showed good poise and grip in the tight stuff and good balance in the faster corners.

There was a trade-off for the sporty suspension tune, however, with the ride comfort slightly compromised. The suspension felt just a fraction too stiff for the bumps and dips of the urban grind.

Our test car was also fitted with optional 17-inch five-spoke alloy wheels instead of the standard 16-inch rims. Finished in a glossy gunmetal grey the wheels gave the car a tougher look but at a cost of $2050. They also contributed to the compromised ride comfort.

But the real star of the A3 1.4 T is undoubtedly the engine. The turbo-charged 1.4-litre four-cylinder is a gem. It's important to remember that it is not designed as a sports motor, but instead has efficiency as its main priority.

For a 1.4-litre unit it produces the kind of power and performance you expect from engines 2.0-litres and bigger. In statistical terms the engine produces 92kW and 200Nm from as low as 1500rpm.

The figures don't do the engine justice, however. This engine performs with an effortless gait that you find in naturally-aspirated engines three times its capacity. Although you can hear the turbo and supercharger working away under the bonnet it was only under seriously hard acceleration that you felt the motor was really pushing itself.

Audi claims the engine is capable of returning fuel economy figures of 5.8L/100km and although we didn't achieve those numbers, they are believable if driven judiciously. Even driven hard the numbers stayed well under 10L/100km for the entire week.

One of the major factors in keeping the fuel economy in check is the seven-speed S tronic transmission; a new addition to the A3 Sportback range. By giving such a small car so many cogs the Audi engineers have succeeded in getting the best of both worlds.

Getting away from the lights quickly the lower ratios are well spaced to provide an immediate thrust. Then when you reach cruising speed the higher gears are spaced further apart to drop the revs as low as possible. Thanks to the gearbox Audi hasn't had to sacrifice performance for economy.

That's the good news. Here comes the 'but'...

While the front half of the A3 is impressive from the front seats back the car disappoints. 

Hatchbacks (or Sportbacks to put it in Audi language), by their very nature, are about practicality. Although the car industry has produced a string of hot hatches that have stolen plenty of hearts they represent a small part of the overall pie. The Sportback is a five-door model that should seat at least four people in comfort like most of its rivals.

As a new parent I require a certain amount of space to fit my daughter and all her accessories in comfort. My wife and I are also required to travel in the back seat from time-to-time and it was during this time that some surprising deficiencies came to light.

While hatchbacks don't offer vast expanses of head and legroom most models provide enough to be comfortable; not the A3. Legroom was cramped and I found myself watching my head on the roof.

But that wasn't my biggest gripe. Remarkably there are no rear air vents in the back of the A3 which leaves the back seats feeling hot and stuffy regardless of the weather. It's hard to know what the engineers where thinking when they failed to install this most basic of features. It's as if the designers only considered the front seat passengers.

Needless to say there aren't any cupholders or pockets in the back of the car either making it a very basic affair. In fairness it's worth noting that BMW is also guilty of neglecting its rear seat passengers in its 1 Series hatch range; but two wrongs don't make a right! On the plus side the mini-wagon's boot is spacious and compares well with its class rivals.

When compared to its intended rivals (BMW 120i, Mini Clubman Cooper S and Mercedes-Benz B200), the A3 Sportback stacks up well on price, performance and practicality, you can't escape the fact it lacks on all when compared with the VW Golf.

The Golf offers a similar 1.4 twincharged engine in a GT Sport that starts at $34,990. For that price you get standard 17-inch alloy wheels, cruise control and sports seats. In addition to that the engine is tuned to produce 125kW and 240Nm. Then there is the Golf GTi that starts at $39,990 and offers even better bang-for-your-buck.

Experience with the Golf proves that it is the more practical of the two cars and easier to live with. So while Audi is busy making ground in its battle against BMW et al it is also fighting an even more challenging foe within its own ranks.

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Published : Thursday, 22 January 2009
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