AUDI A3 SPORTBACK

OUT TO BE MUCH MORE THAN A GOLF IN A FLASH SUIT

GREGOR MESSER

FIRST OVERSEAS DRIVE

D IAMONDS, AS we know, are formed under pressure. As VWís Golf becomes even more mature and sophisticated in forthcoming Mk8 guise, the pressure has increased on Audi to make its fourth-generation A3 appreciably more than Ďjustí a Golf with a sharper cut of its jib.

The two share a platform, naturally, and there will be a level of commonality with engines. So is the new A3 a carat heavyweight? Our preview drive didnít allow a definitive verdict, but it did reveal a compact premium hatch with plenty of polish.

Audi Australia hasnít yet locked down the engine line-up, spec, or pricing, as the car wonít arrive until the end of this year or beginning of†next, but it would seem a safe bet that the 1.0-litre three-pot which previously opened the outgoing range will exit, given the increase in size and maturity of the A1 with this engine.

So expect the range opener to be the 35 TFSI, powered by the VW Groupís 1.5-litre four. This engine will be available with a 48-volt mild-hybrid system, providing a torque boost under heavy throttle, and to support ICE-free coasting.

Sadly our European drive was limited to a 35 TDI, with a 2.0-litre turbo-diesel not relevant to Australia, where the line-up will be exclusively petrol powered. But what was instructive was how well the new A3 handled the considerable 360Nm being funnelled through the front wheels via the seven-speed dualclutch transmission. Traction out of tight bends is excellent; the torque delivery is elastic and punchy but never overwhelms the front wheels. Steering is more precise than that of its predecessor, with much-improved road feel and sense of connection.

The A3 feels agile and pointy, despite being set up for comfort over sporting pretensions in the regular versions. The chassis tune never feels excessively stiff, even in the warmed-up S-line model we drove, which lowers the standard ride height by 15mm and provides adaptive dampers in a firmer state of tune than the regular, optional adaptive units.

In typical Audi fashion, the driver can switch between five driving modes via the Drive Select button. The differences between the modes are clearly noticeable.

Not much has changed in the size and footprint of the new five-door†hatchback, but interior packaging has been optimised so that the A3 Sportback is still one of the more spacious cars in the compact class. Incidentally, as in the previous generation, there will no longer be a three-door variant; itís Sportback or nothing until the sedan arrives in Australia around the middle of 2021.

The interior design is significantly influenced by the new MMI operating and infotainment system, and itís one of the key areas of improvement in the new A3. Compared to its predecessor, all functions are better integrated, with computing power 10 times greater than what went before.

The logic is easy to get your head around and the system works quickly and efficiently. Any owner of a previous A3 wonít be intimidated by tech packed into the newcomer.

Thereís the capability to be fully connected via SIM card, enabling†access to numerous Audi Connect online functions, like Car-to-X, allowing thus-equipped vehicles to communicate with each other within an 800-metre radius to share crucial information on hazards ahead and traffic conditions.

Of course, the chunky steering wheel, the tactility of the switchgear, and the perceived quality thatís been present ever since the original 1996 A3, are all present and correct.

Think of it as a new digital layer thatís been superimposed onto the usual qualities weíve come to expect of the A3 range. Itís always been stolid, a little bit sensible; now the styling has added a modicum of extra visual interest and the infotainment/ connectivity is bang up to date.

Itís a logical evolution of what went before, and although the new A3 Sportback technically owes a lot to the latest Mk8 VW Golf, it has a clearly defined and unmistakably premium character. And the range will grow quickly, with a high-output, AWD version (badged 40 TFSI quattro) offered, along with the properly sporting S3 making 228kW/400Nm.

Thereíll also be a petrol-electric plug-in hybrid with 180kW and an EV range of 60km via a 13kWh lithium-ion battery. The range-topping RS3, however, isnít due until late 2021.

So job done for now. But the real answer will come when we get to test the A3 against its main rivals, the BMW 1 Series hatchback and the Mercedes-†Benz A-Class. That comparo will follow next year, when the coronavirus mayhem is hopefully receding in the rear-view mirror.

GREGOR MESSER

Model†Audi A3 35 TFSI

Engine 1498cc 4cyl, dohc, 16v, turbo, mild hybrid

Power 110kW @ 5000-6000rpm

Torque 250Nm @ 1500-3500rpm

Transmission 7-speed dual-clutch

Weight 1280kg (estimated)

0-100km/h 8.2sec (estimated)

Economy 5.0L/100km (estimated)

Price $42,000 (estimated)

On sale December 2020

PLUS

Comfort and cabin NVH levels; premium feel; tech and connectivity

MINUS

Outputs from new 1.5 unchanged from those of old 1.4; prices expected to rise