Is the UK ready for bigger rear ends? Audi is challenging a deep-rooted prejudice against big bottoms for small cars. In the UK we love our hatchbacks, and typically associate them with young couples loading in bikes or IKEA furniture for their chic new flat. Small cars with boots are for empty nesters.
But we’re odd like that. In many other countries, including the vital Chinese market, a saloon with four doors and a boot is seen as a prestige car. So in the USA, students covert a cool VW Jetta, while Mum drives a boring old Golf.
As a world player, Audi offers its new compact A3 as both a hatchback (Sportback) and a saloon, but it’s taken the usual step of offering both models to UK buyers. I took a petrol and diesel version of the A3 Saloon out for a spin to see if I could be converted.
The downsides of a saloon are obvious. The boot is huge, but the narrower ‘mouth’ means the flatpack sofabed I bought last month wouldn’t have gone in. My husband’s Brompton might fit, but it would be a lift and mind-the-paint, won’t-you process. The dog wouldn’t be too keen either.
I wondered if the boot would offer extra security over the Sportback, but if a thief smashed the side window, the release handles for the fold-down seats are inside the cabin, so the answer is no. I suppose people in the back would be protected from the elements if I had to get something out of the boot, but that’s the only practical advantage I could come up with.
So, essentially it’s about fashion. Hey, when did that ever affect what we buy?
The A3 saloon is certainly good looking. It isn’t just a hatchback with a different rear end; there are subtle styling differences to every panel, from the more flared wheelarches to the more exaggerated slash up the side, which give it an assertive, premium personality. The more pronounced rump has a pert little kick up, forming an integrated spoiler.
Even though it’s one of the junior members of the family, the A3 has the same upscale interior as its big brothers. The cabin feel upmarket, featuring high-quality materials and interesting textures, such as the trim strips on the dash, which appear to be made up from slivers of shiny metal. The air vents look like tiny 747 engines, and its good to know there’s a team working to make sure they adjust with a satisfying ‘dook’ rather than a mere click. The same team have fined-tune the sigh of the armrest lid.
These days cars have so many controls, you can be faced with an intimidating array of buttons and switches, as if you were in a fighter jet. In the Audi, most of these, including an app streaming live music to the car via your smartphone, are operated via the large touch screen. Rather than being sited in the centre console, this slides up from the top of the dash when you start the engine, allowing the cabin to retain an elegant simplicity.
I tried the diesel 2.0 TDI Sport 150 PS and the petrol 1.4 TFSI S tronic COD 140PS. Both benefit from light weight and the kind of technology Tony Stark would approve of. (Audi provides his cars for the Iron Man films.) COD stands for Cylinder on Demand – the engine simply switches off two cylinders when they are not required in order to save fuel. This is something American engines do a lot, but it seems to me a V8 can afford to shut down a few of its eight cylinders from time to time, the Audi only has four to start with, so it’s effectively using half an engine. The result is a combined economy of 60.1 mpg – up there with a diesel, but it’s still pulling strongly.
Both engines feel sporty and responsive, but the diesel feels more like a muscular boxer, the petrol more like a nimble track athlete. The S Tronic dual-clutch gearbox is so smooth you can barely feel the change, but I prefer the slick manual change; it makes you feels more connected to the car.
The saloon comes with Sport suspension as standard, but the payback for the exhilarating handling is that the ride cars is rather hard, and the bumps make their presence felt through your rump. You can get a more comfortable set-up at no extra cost, and it still handles with quite enough aplomb for most people. The tyres roar on less-than-perfect roads, though. You may have to turn up the excellent stereo to mask it.
The safety equipment is up-to-the-minute, but you can add premium options, for example a another system worthy of Stark industries, capable of spotting that you’re in trouble, that acts to prevent an accident while priming all the safety kit such as belts and airbags in case the collision can’t be avoided.
There are two parking options, one to bleep as you reverse, or one to do all the work for you. As a control freak, though, I tend to interfere and mess it all up.
To reinforce the premium status of the A3 saloon, it is priced a little higher than the equivalent Sportback, but it’s still takes less of a bite from your bank account than its BMW and Merc rivals. It’s likely to hang on to a good chunk of its value, too.
Audi A3 Saloon
1.4 TFSI COD Sport (140PS) S Tronic £23,660, as tested £28,330
Options on test car included: rear parking system £345, Audi Sound System £255, Satellite-navigation £495
Max speed 134mph
0-60mph 4.0 seconds
Combined fuel economy 60.1mpg
2.0 TDI Sport (150 PS) manual £23,630, as tested £35,600
Option on test car included: LED light package £2,000, panoramic sunroof £950 Bang & Olufsen sound system £750, Audi parking system plus, front and rear with selective display £595
Max speed 136mph
0-62mph 8.7 seconds
Combined fuel economy 68.9mpg
by Liz Turner.