Good: really good to look at and drive, classy cabin, decently spacious and practical
Not so good: gets really expensive as soon as you start adding on options
The first time I saw the Audi A3 was at a big media bun fight in the Four-Ring's home town of Ingolstadt. After having signed numerous forms in triplicate, handed over my phone and camera and sworn to give up my first-born if ever I should breathe a word about the car before the embargo was lifted, I was ushered into a small studio where the first-ever four-door A3 sat. At first it was a little bit disappointing - sticking too close to the current 'cookie cutter' Audi styling rules that essentially make each car look like a slightly larger or smaller version of its brothers. It looked, in fact, a lot like an Audi A4 and seemed, upon closer inspection, to have pretty similar rear seat space and boot room.
And then it dawned on me. It looks as good as an A4 (slightly sharper actually, especially from the rear three quarters, which is usually the least flattering angle for any hatchback-derived saloon), is almost as spacious as an A4 and will cost significantly less than an A4. Which leaves the A4 in a somewhat awkward position. Because, it occurred to me, if the A3 is anywhere near as good to drive as the A4, then who will actually go out and spend the extra on an A4?
Worryingly for the A4, the A3 Saloon isn't anywhere near as good to drive; it's better. Here, we're testing the 2.0-litre TDI 150hp version in SE trim, which doesn't look quite as sharp as one equipped with S-Line bits and bobs but neither does it suffer from firmer S-Line suspension. Compared to its A4 brother, the A3 feels much lighter on its tyres, much more up-and-at-'em. The steering still has a whiff of engineered-in Audi heftiness, but it's much more responsive than the somewhat turgid 4-badged model, and the overall effect is of a car that's much more enthusiastic to drive. The ride quality is pretty decent - it doesn't quite glide like an old Jag but it's comfy enough and that cabin is still a paragon of near-perfection. Yes, you can complain that it's a bit dark and you need to dig deep into the expensive options list to make it look and feel appropriate to the badge, but it's a terrific space in which to spend time. No-one has come up with a neater-looking infotainment screen than the A3's wafer-thin device and Apple's engineers must be collectively kicking themselves that when it came to the iPad Air, the A3 got there first.
We've driven this 150hp diesel engine in several other Volkswagen Group models, but its merits bear repeating here. Sufficiently refined to possibly fool you into thinking it's a petrol unit? Check. Muscular in-gear performance thanks to a generous 320Nm of torque? Check. Mildly disappointing fuel economy? Er, check; Audi quotes 4.1 litres per 100km, but we averaged closer to 6.0 litres/100km. Perhaps we need some surgery to have the lead taken out of our right foot...
Space in the back is more than adequate for the test-standard two kids in their bulky booster seats and the boot is very decent, well-shaped and easily loaded and unloaded.
In fact, not only would you buy an A3 Saloon long before an A4, you'd buy it before you'd buy the three-door A3 or five-door Sportback. Ah, except for the price. In the classic Quinnsworth (look it up on Google, teenagers) tradition, Audi has given the A3 Saloon a temptingly low visual price point, at a fiver under €30k. But as soon as you start adding larger engines or any electronic toys, the price rockets up like Buzz Aldrin on Buzz Cola. Our test car clocked in at a cheeky €42k and there were still an awful lot of blank switches in the cabin.
Still, it is cheaper than an equivalent A4, gorgeous to look at, genuinely rewarding to drive (not always a given with Audi) and as practical as Ms Poppins. Net of the howls of derision I'll get from my CompleteCar.ie colleagues (RS 6! S3! R8 V10! A6 Bi-Turbo TDI! they will wail...) I reckon this might be the absolute sweet spot of the Audi range right now.
Citroen DS4: very left-field choice, but luxurious interior and quirky image make a refreshing change from the horde of me-too German saloons. Not bad to drive, either.
Mercedes-Benz CLA: technically a four-door coupé, but almost as practical as the A3. Harsh ride and occasionally awkward styling count against it.
Volvo S60: bigger than an A3 but, pound-for-pound, more affordable and damn near as sweet to drive. Gorgeous cabin and, of course, very safe.