Audi A3 Sportback First Drive (2013)
Audi claims it created the premium compact segment. But does the Audi A3 badge have sufficient clout to defeat the new Mercedes-Benz A-Class and BMW 1 Series, asks Paul Murrell.
Strange things are happening in the Australian automotive market. The new Commodore has had its price slashed by $10,000 and you can get into one for under $35,000 for the first time since 1999. Now along comes a little Audi that starts at almost the same price point.
The first thing to understand about the Audi A3 Sportback (a small station wagon) is that it is built on the same platform as the Volkswagen Golf. However, there is one thing that VW Board member Ulrich Hackenberg and new Australian Audi boss Andrew Doyle agree upon: Audi A3 buyers don’t include the Golf on their shopping lists.
The Audi A3 was launched in 1996 and first offered on the Australian market the following year. The concept is quite simple: offer buyers the quality and features they expect in larger cars such as the A6 and A8, but in a more compact package. It is obviously an idea with potential: there have been 2.7 million A3s sold globally in the 17 years it has been on offer.
The car is described by Doyle as “young, athletic, racy”. That may be stretching it a little since the lines are distinctly conservative, perhaps surprising since it is aimed at over-achievers aged between 25 and 39. Audi doesn’t like the term “entry level” since it carries slightly patronising overtones. Marketing director Kevin Goult is adamant that every Audi buyer is entitled to the same respect and attention, whether they are buying an A1 for under $30,000 or an R8 for north of $400,000. It may be a hard message to sell to car sales staff, but it is, after all, why people aspire to luxury brands.
The A3 comes in two levels of trim: the Attraction and the Ambition. Quattro and S models are arriving very soon. Pay $35,600 (plus on road costs) and you can get into the Attraction 1.4-litre petrol version. The 1.6-litre diesel is $36,500. Both the 1.8-litre petrol and 2.0-litre diesel Ambition models are $42,500 (these engines are not available in Attraction versions). Ambition spec includes Auto Drive Select that allows the driver to choose different modes (dynamic, comfort, individual) that change the level of steering assistance, gearshift change points and throttle actuation, but not the suspension damping characteristics. The fact is, 90% of drivers will not be able to identify which mode they are in without checking the readout.
But before you reach for your cheque book, it pays to pause and consider the rather expensive options list. Standard kit includes 16-inch alloy wheels, rear parking sensors, cruise control, dual-zone air conditioning, leather/vinyl trim on the seats and a 5.8-inch pop-up centre display screen, enough, you would think, to satisfy most buyers. It won’t. You can guarantee that buyers will be furiously ticking boxes to up-spec their choice. Options tend to come in bundles, which is annoying because you may be paying for features you don’t really want in order to get the features you do. The Assistance package is $1800 and has adaptive cruise control, lane departure warning and high beam assist. In our experience, adaptive cruise control has a tendency to react to vehicles in other lanes and apply the brakes when unnecessary, and high beam assist is more annoying than useful, failing to dip the headlights early enough for oncoming vehicles (especially when they are approaching around a bend) and often unexpectedly dipping them when light is bounced back off street signs and other reflective surfaces.
The $2000 Style package adds xenon headlights and daytime running lights and 17-inch alloy wheels to the Attraction and xenon headlights, 18-inch alloys and sports suspension to the Ambition. The next package is the Technik for $2990 that offers sat nav with touchpad, seven-inch monitor and park assist with rear view camera. The Comfort package adds another $2200 and includes electrically adjustable and heated front seats, keyless ignition, auto dimming rear vision mirror and folding external mirrors with kerb view function. If the fairly bland and low-key looks need enhancement, an S-line pack can be optioned with Ambition models for 18-inch alloys and some fashion accessories. Just factor in another $4200.
We asked an Audi representative if a fully optioned A3 would crack $55,000 and after quite some time while he worked it out, he suggested not. Our best guess is that it will, once on road and delivery costs are included. And that puts a fully optioned A3 perilously close to the price of a Holden Caprice.
On the road, the A3 impresses with its composure and smoothness. Road noise is low, but our awful coarse chip surfaces result in excessive tyre rumble. Feedback through the steering has never been an Audi strong point and they still haven’t got it quite right. The 2.0-litre diesel variant manages to feel even more muscular with its high torque and lower revs. At idle, it’s much quieter than some other diesels but you’d never mistake it for anything other than an oil-burner. The 1.4-litre petrol car makes the most of its fairly modest output and is more capable than you might imagine.
PRACTICAL MOTORING SAYS
The A3 Sportback is sure to win many converts to the Audi brand. But in a category where image is at least as important as more practical considerations, it may lose out to the Mercedes-Benz A-Class that has far more dramatic looks plus that aspirational three-pointed star.