“I’ve got you under my skin”, Frank Sinatra crooned the Cole Porter classic. And indeed, the new Audi A3 is the kind of car that gets under our skin. The images may show a hatchback that looks more facelifted than the brand-new design it actually it is – but it’s what is under the skin that matters most. By DEON SCHOEMAN.
The Franschhoek Pass, just outside the self-consciously Francophile town that gave the pass its name, is a great driving road in a country of great driving roads. It coils and twists its way up and then down the contours of the mountain, offering a combination of curves and corners that vary from fast sweep to tight hairpin.
Add a smooth surface, neutral cambers and (if you have the time to enjoy them) vistas that stretch into infinity, and you have about 23 km of sheer driving bliss – 46 km if you turn around at the T-junction with the R45, and hammer it back again.
Of course, it also presupposes that your steed is feisty enough to make the most of the driving opportunities on offer – and frankly, at a quick glance, one might not consider the steed I’m piloting as sporty or dynamic enough. But prepare to be surprised.
The new A3 is significant for a lot of reasons. The mid-sized premium hatchback has always been a sales stalwart for the Four Rings, offering as it does a Golf-sized package with a healthy dose of premium appeal.
In three-door form, it’s also sportier than a Golf – at least in visual terms – while there’s a certain amount of aspirational appeal that its Volkswagen sibling cannot muster.
Sibling is not the way Audi (or VW, for that matter) would like to describe the relationship between A3 and Golf. But in basic engineering terms, at least, the two are very much related. Specifically, this new A3 and next year’s Golf 7 share the same platform.
Dubbed MBQ, the platform is hugely significant for the VW Group, as it allows a multitude of cars, across a spectrum of sizes, to be built with the same basic underpinnings. It also means that a big part of the entire group’s cars will rely on one platform.
The new A3 is the first MBQ-based car to reach South Africa – and provides a first experience of its influence on a series of key parameters, including all-important ride quality, refinement, steering, and handling.
In the metal, the new A3 looks a lot sharper than the images suggest. The car’s shape is drawn more keenly across its frame than before, expressing a contemporary edge and a pared-down elegance that’s particularly appealing.
The large grille and slim, sculpted headlights still define the A3’s appearance, as well as its Audi identity – and while the execution is cleaner and more contemporary, there’s nothing particularly ground-breaking. The A3 is an Audi, plain and simple.
However, the proportions of the car, and its silhouette, all speak of greater dynamic intent. There’s a stronger emphasis on flair and aerodynamics, and even the baseline model’s sheet metal seems to ripple with underlying muscle. The extended wheelbase, the well-contained overhangs and the wider stance all contribute to a hatch that looks eager and willing.
Audi cabins have become the premium segment benchmark, and the A3 lives up that reputation. Intuitive ergonomics, tactilely appealing finishes and an overriding sense of well-being permeate a well-sorted, instantly likeable interior.
For a three-door, there’s a refreshing sense of air and space, despite a roofline that’s on the low side, and glass apertures styled for sporty aesthetics. Entry and exit from the rear bench seat remains inconvenient for all parties, but that’s a malady intrinsic to three-door designs.
The now slimmed-down, centre-mounted LCD display remains a key element of the A3’s MMI control interface, and the combination of menus, rotary controller and pushbuttons works well. Superb seats and a fully adjustable steering wheel allow just the right driving position – it all looks and feels great.
A3 buyers have a wide choice of drivetrains to choose from. For now, the all-turbo engine line-up includes two TFSI petrols with capacities of 1.4 and 1.8 litres, and a 1.6 TDI turbodiesel. An entry-level 1.2 TFSI, and a muscular 2.0 TDI, will follow in 2013.
Gearboxes are either manual or seven-speed S-tronic dual-clutch, and theirs is a quattro all-wheel drive option on flagship 1.8 TFSI models. Substantial weight reduction and improved efficiency benefits both performance and fuel economy across the range.
It’s the combination of reduced weight, that new chassis, and the zest of the turbo engines that creates the A3 magic – and magic it is. Nor am I talking about the top-end 1.8 model – the derivative I’m lining up for the Franschhoek Pass acid test is a vanilla-plain 1.4 Manual.
The 90 kW four-cylinder revs cleanly, with the kind of linear, insistent power delivery now typical of the best small turbo engines. There’s no lag to speak of, and the urge flows so effortlessly that it hardly feels like a force-induced design.
It also doesn’t feel like a 1400. The 90 kW is accompanied by 200 Nm, and there’s ample low-down responds. The gearbox has the kind of shift that’s slick without losing positivity, and chasing the revs into the red is a pleasure.
On the first few curves, the steering loads up nicely, proving that electrically-assisted helms can provide the kind of heft and feedback more akin to the now old-school hydraulic designs. There’s nothing anodyne or artificial about it – the feedback feels authentic, allowing a real sense of engagement.
But the real revelation here is the ride quality – and the handling. Earlier, while crawling through the tourist-infested town, and over endless speed bumps, the A3 felt almost squishily comfortable, absorbing those bumps and dips with composed ease.
However, on the pass, the chassis shows a different set of talents. The suspension still smoothes out irregularities, but without compromising response. The ride is always smooth, but there’s hardly any lean to speak off. Overall compliance is downright impressive, but that vital bum-in-seat feedback remains unequivocally direct.
So the A3 manages the kind of magic curtain trick very few cars (and certainly not mainstream hatchbacks) achieve: a delicate balance of poise, comfort and control that makes for memorable, truly grin-inducing driving.
Turn-in is crisp without being too sharp, and once settled on the chosen line, the A3 tracks with confidence. There’s enough accuracy in the steering to allow for small, intuitive adjustments, and overall rapport between car and driver is hugely rewarding.
No wonder that you find yourself pushing harder and harder, leaving the braking later and later, and carrying ever more speed into the tight. The A3 1.4 isn’t meant to be driven like this, but it responds with enthusiasm.
Gentle understeer will eventually start nudging the nose wide, and if anything, the stability control intervenes a little too early, accompanied by the start of some undignified tyre squealing. But really, by that time you’re driving well beyond the expected usage pattern… and enjoying it!
It’s this ability to please and entertain, without compromising comfort or composure, that is at the core of the new A3. It augurs well for the rest of the range – and for other models to be based on the MBQ underpinnings, for that matter.
That the combination of small-capacity turbo engines and reduced mass also translates into reduced fuel consumption (even in real-world conditions) adds a further string to the impressive A3 bow.
For now, the three-door configuration means that the new A3’s charms will only seduce those prepared to live with the impracticalities associated with that layout. At least the boot is a decent 365 litres in size.
However, next year will see the debut of the five-door A3 Sportback, which will greatly boost its appeal among family buyers seeking something classier than the Golf 7. And by 2014, the S3 will add a true performance car experience to the A3 line-up.
For now, the seven-model A3 line-up can also count attractive pricing among its virtues. The upcoming 1.2 entry-level model is priced at under R270,000, while a full-house 1.8 TFSI quattro S-tronic retails for R351,500.
As I said, this is a car that gets under your skin … for all the right reasons! DM
Audi A3 1.4 TFSI Manual