What are you driving?
I'm driving a blue car. Which is a bit of a shame. A shame because parked right next to it in the Audi HQ car park was an A3 Sportback in precisely the same spec, but painted red. The fashions and whims of press car demonstrator spec ebb and flow like Rhianna's hemlines, but red is most definitely 'in' this year and the A3 looks great in red. Have car makers finally taken heed of all our complaints about endless sees of varying grey and silver? Car parks fully of identikit ingots of aluminium, or variations thereon? Perhaps. Or, just possibly, with the apparent death of the traditional motor show, car makers have realised that every street, every corner, each carriageway is a potential show stand, so let's get the bright colours out there and get the cars noticed.
You could argue that the new Audi A3 doesn't really need a dash of crimson to help it be noticed and that the blue paint of our test car is just fine. Certainly the underlying look of the metalwork is striking enough that it doesn't need the red paint.
After years - decades, even - of the A3 being a quiet, shy and retiring car in a stylistic sense, the latest, fourth-generation, model has suddenly discovered body building and creatine powder. It's like in the film, True Lies, when Arnold Schwarzenegger is poured into a tuxedo - he looks smart, but you can sense the muscles rippling beneath.
Is the new A3 a little over-aggressive, a touch over-styled? Arguably yes, but I think it just about gets away with it. Details like the 'Quattro nostrils' in the leading edge of the bonnet (lifted from the fire-breathing 1980s rally cars) might be, realistically, a bit daft (they're not even open to allow air to flow through), but along with the bulging wheelarches and the headlights with the sharply undercut 'notch' (why did Audi take away that distinctive detail from the A4?) it's hard to argue that the A3 is anything but arresting. Pretty may be a couple of counties out of reach, but arresting, yes.
Mechanically, this A3 uses the 1.5 TSI turbocharged four-cylinder petrol engine and, because it's fitted with the 'S tronic' automatic gearbox (Audi's name for the Volkswagen Group's ubiquitous seven-speed dual-clutch transmission, also known as DSG) it also gets a little mild-hybrid assistance, a 48-volt 'MHEV' or mild-hybrid system that runs the stop-start for longer in traffic, and allows the A3 to coast at higher speeds when you're off the throttle. It offers useful, if only incremental, fuel and emissions savings.
Name its best bits
Let's start inside, where Audi has kept simple and explicable physical controls for the heating and air conditioning and thankfully has not been tempted into using the awkward 'slider' controls as essayed by the VW Golf and the SEAT Leon. Whichever Audi engineer threw them in the bin deserves some sort of medal.
Engine-wise, the A3 has arrived, initially, with a choice of 1.5-litre TFSI petrol, or 2.0-litre TDI diesel models, and it's the 1.5 petrol, in automatic and mild-hybrid flavour, that we're testing here. Quite frankly, I can't tell why you'd buy a diesel anymore. The petrol is so much smoother, so much sweeter and comes within 0.5 litres per 100km of what I'd expect the diesel to return in the same real-world conditions. The mild-hybrid 1.5 is also very satisfying to drive around town, with the engine shutting down earlier than you'd expect as you come to a halt, and restarting with alacrity when you want to get going again.
Oddly, it also seemed to mix much better with the seven-speed automatic transmission than did the same engine with supposedly the same gearbox in the SEAT Leon we recently tested. In the SEAT, that combo felt occasionally hesitant and irritating. Here in the Audi, all gelled rather well (although can anyone tell me what the point of the new toggle-style gear selector is? It sure doesn't liberate any more stowage space on the centre console).
Equally oddly, while the Leon with FR suspension and 18-inch wheels felt really far too rough and ready over bumps, here in the Audi - with S line springs and 18-inch wheels - all was far rosier. Still firm, of course, but acceptably so. Indeed, with reasonably well-weighted steering and good body control, the A3 is enjoyable - if rather short of absolutely engaging - to drive.
Anything that bugs you?
Going back to the interior, I think the over-styling Rubicon has been well and truly crossed. Or maybe that should be the Matterhorn climbed, as there are so many changes of surface, from the steeply sloped to the vertical and back again, that you can half imagine an original Action Man toy dangling, precipitously, from almost any point on the dash. I get that Audi was trying to inject a little character, a little drama into proceedings, but given how simple, clean and effective the cabin of the old A3 was, this seems like a pudding that's been over-egged. I especially miss the old car's trick of having its central infotainment screen glide silently into the dash at the flick of a button.
The new 10,1-inch screen is certainly aesthetically impressive, but I do wish I could get it to go away for night driving. It also seemed to be a little glitchy on our test car - the screen would flash, momentarily and distractingly, to black at random times, before apparently recovering itself and carrying on as if nowt were wrong. It's not the first time in recent months that we've experienced software issues with a Volkswagen Group touchscreen. Still, when it's working, the graphics look smart, the new menu system is simple enough and, thanks to a faster processor it can respond to natural speech commands such as 'I'm hungry' or 'I'm too cold' (God, drivers are whingers, aren't we?).
And why have you given it this rating?
Is the A3 worth the extra cost over and above its Volkswagen Group stablemates? After all, inclusive of not all that many options, our test A3 rang the till bell at €43,000. That's a heck of a lot more than you'll pay for a Golf, Leon, or Octavia with the same chassis, the same engine, the same gearbox and the same equipment. All that extra for the four-ringed badge on the bonnet?
Well, clearly there are those who crave the look and feel of a premium product, whether it be a five-door hatchback or a smartphone. I get that, and I kind of get what those people are looking for. It's not just the sense of driveway one-upmanship on the neighbours (although god knows that plays into it), but it's the sheer satisfaction of owning something that's clearly been made and built to a very high standard, and garnished with a little sprinkle of Audi's brand-image glitter. All those Le Mans wins and 1980s rally domination have to count for something, right? Me, though? No way. I'd go for the SEAT, or Skoda Octavia, every time. The A3 is many things - handsome, high quality, comfortable, desirable, even - but given how good are the Skoda, the SEAT and, of course, the VW Golf, I think the A3 is going to struggle a little to defend its place in the world.
What do the rest of the team think?
Design-wise, I reckon the A3 works. And that's despite the presence of fake air vents and exhaust outlets. It's striking and interesting and undoubtedly an Audi. Same can be said for the high-quality cabin. I didn't mind the angular design theme, though I thoroughly dislike the flat-bottomed steering wheel that is standard on the S line car. Saying that, I'd put up with it in return for the excellent sports seats also fitted. And my test car (a different one to Neil's) didn't exhibit any touchscreen issues. I was just happy to see that the A3 retains physical climate control switchgear in place of the pointless large extra touchscreen of the biggest Audis. Neil and I are in agreement with how the A3 drives - it's polished and capable and enjoyable without being something you'd drive for the fun of it. And yeah, don't buy the diesel unless you cover huge motorway mileage day-in, day-out.
Shane O' Donoghue - Editor