Overall rating: 4.5/5
The premium hatchback market has moved on since the original Audi A3 Sportback was launched in 1999 with competition coming from BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Volvo and, to some extents, Volkswagen. The Sportback has moved on too and now offers more space, smarter styling and a better interior finish than ever before. Combined with a range of efficient engines, including the 99g/km 1.6 TDI unit, you begin to understand why Audi Ireland expects the Sportback to account for the vast majority of A3 sales.
In the Metal:
While other manufacturers aim to hide their five-door models with swooping rooflines and hidden door handles, Audi is proud of its Sportback; even going as far as giving it an upright roofline more like those of the Avant models. Yes, the overall styling is predictable with little to choose between it and the second generation A3 at a glance, but make no mistake; this is a completely new car with a new chassis and redeveloped engines.
For the first time the Sportback model is larger than the three-door A3 on which it is based. The wheelbase has been extended by 58mm resulting in even more interior space and a 380-litre boot (expandable to 1,220 litres with the rear seats folded) that trumps all of its rivals. Interior fit and finish is, as you would expect from an Audi, impeccable, with even entry level cars sporting a retractable 5.8-inch colour screen as part of the MMI system.
When we drove the regular A3 we were impressed with the performance from the 150hp 2.0 TDI engine - it somewhat made a mockery of the 1.8 TFSI petrol unit being flagged as the performance flagship until the Audi S3 arrives. A lot of this is attributable to the new 'MQB' chassis and extensive use of aluminium in the body, which means the new car weighs the same as the A3 launched in 1996.
This weight saving is even more noticeable when driving a car not blessed with a powerful engine. The 1.6-litre TDI engine is expected to be the volume seller thanks to its low emissions of 99g/km and fuel consumption of 3.8 litres/100km, but with 105hp it does not exactly tick the excitement box - on paper anyway. While not quick in a modern sense (it has a 10.9-second 0-100km/h time) it has the mid-range grunt for easy overtaking and even when pushed is remarkably smooth and refined. Shame then that it is somewhat let down by an oddly shaped knurled gear knob that does not sit properly in the hand and makes gear changes feel odd.
Whether it is softer springs than in the three-door model or the longer wheelbase is unclear, but the Sportback certainly rides much better. There is an element of body roll when pushed into tight bends, but the trade-off is a supple ride that soaks up the worst of bumps. You really have to want the look of Sport models to opt for the stiffer suspension it brings.
What you get for your Money:
The Sportback range begins at €26,900, though that is for the 1.2 TFSI model, which will not arrive until mid-2013. For the car you want - the 1.6 TDI - you will have to stump up €29,400, though with standard specification on entry level models including 16-inch alloys, air conditioning, the neat MMI system featuring Bluetooth and preparation for SD card navigation (an extra €250) the pill is not so hard to swallow. SE specification commands a €1,000 premium and adds part leather seats, cruise control, front fog lights and a centre armrest. Range topping Sport models add 17-inch wheels, stiffer suspension, unique looks and a leather multifunction steering wheel for an extra €1,500.
Order books for the Audi A3 Sportback are now open with first deliveries scheduled for February. At launch four engines - 1.4 TFSI 125hp, 1.8 TFSI 180hp, 1.6 TDI 105hp and 2.0 TDI 150hp - are offered, though these will be joined by the 105hp 1.2 TFSI later in the year. There is also a 184hp 2.0 TDI with quattro four-wheel drive on the cards, though it remains to be seen whether it will be offered in Ireland. One thing we do know however is that if you want an automatic transmission you are limited to the 1.8 TFSI, though thanks to the low weight of the car and refinements to the engine it manages to sneak into tax band B.
Audi's new A3 Sportback does not do any one thing exceptionally well - the BMW 1 Series is better to drive, Mercedes-Benz A Class better to look at and the new Golf better value - but what it does everything well. We could nit-pick about the less than exciting drive, predictable looks or strange knurled gear knob but in reality that is all it would be: nit-picking. For those few downfalls the Sportback has much more plus points and it again climbs to the top of the class when it comes to premium hatchbacks.