New, Smaller Audi Still Boasts Style and Grace

Audi's new A3, which shares its chassis with the forthcoming Volkswagen Golf, will be on sale throughout Europe after the Paris and Birmingham motor shows in October. This Golf-sized hatchback is Audi's first car in 20 years to be targeted at drivers who aren't in the executive grade. This manufacturer does not traditionally produce cars this small; the last time it did -- with the Audi 50 -- that model rapidly turned into the diminutive and highly successful VW Polo.

The A3 may draw on VW chassis-inspiration, but otherwise this newcomer is very much an all-Audi product. From its four-ringed nose to the huge rear light, which are reminiscent of the Audi A4 Avant, the attractive A3 is undeniably Audi.

At 4,140 millimeters in length, it is just a touch shorter than BMW's 3-series Compact, but about 150 millimeters longer than mainstream opponents such as the Peugeot 306. The extra length manifests itself as trunk space rather than enhanced passenger accommodation, however. Cabin headroom is fine, but taller backseat occupants will find themselves a little cramped in terms of legroom. No one is likely to complain about the A3's luggage capacity, because with a volume of 351 liters it's more generous than its competitors, and it can be extended courtesy of fold-down seats to give a further 1,100 liters.

The cabin is beautifully laid out and assembled, as we expect these days of any Audi car. Fortunately, lighter interior color schemes have been introduced with the new model range -- no doubt in response to the ongoing criticism of Audi's love of gloomy interiors. The cabin is styled in the same vein as the bigger A4, A6 and A8 models, which means a facia that's clear and functional rather than any exercise in beauty. There is abundant provision for the stowage of odds and ends, with cubbies and pockets liberally distributed everywhere. There are even pullout trays beneath the front seats, and there's a hidden compartment in the glove compartment.

Like the larger members of the Audi family, the A3 offers an excellent, fully adaptable driving position: height adjustment on the driver's seat and a similar option for the steering wheel are standard. If there's one slight criticism, it's that the pedals are very slightly off-set, although you soon become accustomed to them.

The final specification of A3 models isn't yet confirmed, but we can expect to see the usual arrangement of a base model, an SE (Special Equipment) model, and the top-flight Sport -- a tiering system used throughout the Audi range. Don't expect to be short-changed by the entry-level models, as these will be equipped with power steering, electric windows, stereo and anti-theft systems, along with dual airbags and anti-lock brakes. The SE badge will top that with alloy wheels and air conditioning, while the Sport label is good for lowered suspension and many "sporty" looking cosmetic enhancements.

Three engines will be available at the car's launch -- the 1.6, 1.8 and 1.8 turbo of the larger A4 range. The 1.6 is a lively 75kW (101bhp) 16-valver and both 1.8s are five-valve-per-cylinder engines, producing 93kW (125bhp) and 112kW (150bhp) respectively. Audi's superbly efficient 110bhp 1.9-liter turbodiesel will also eventually appear, and should make the diminutive A3 one of the very quickest diesels on the road.

Like the final specification, the A3's pricing is still undecided, but sources suggest the price range will span from $21,000 to $27,000. This will place the entry-level 1.6 head on with BMW's Compact 316i, while the 1.8T will come as a slightly costlier alternative to sports hatches such as the Golf GTi 16v.

I've test-driven the normally aspirated 1.8-liter model. Its performance and refinement are of a very high order, and the car managed a zero to 100 kilometers an hour sprint in a touch under 10 seconds -- very impressive stuff considering this isn't a sports model. Mid-range acceleration is equally impressive, despite this engine's slightly peaky characteristic.

The light-weight, four-link front suspension of the A4 hasn't been taken up for the A3; instead there are simpler, cheaper conventional struts, while at the rear is an equally simple Golf-type torsion beam axle. The outcome is that the A3 doesn't ignore road surfaces with quite the aplomb that the larger A4 does.

Audi hasn't traditionally produced the cleverest suspension systems, nor the most composed rides, but the new, smooth-generation of chassis introduced by the excellent A4 is mostly continued by the new little brother.

The A3 has supple, absorbent, quiet-acting suspension, and it's only on the most troubled surfaces that its light weight shows up as unsettled, slightly bouncy progress. It's not a serious deficiency, but opponents from French camps do better.

Handling is neat and composed, rather than exuberantly fluid and gung-ho like that of Peugeot's 306. Despite this, the A3 is a car that can be driven briskly with safety -- and with a good level of enjoyment.

Body lean when driving around corners is very well controlled, and only a slight "skippiness" of the rear suspension over mid-corner bumps mars the otherwise well-gripped progress. Reassuringly well weighted, quick-acting power steering helps enhance the driving enjoyment.

There's no denying that Audi's A3 is an attractive proposition for buyers who have durability and prestige high on their list of requirements. It's not destined to be a cheap newcomer to the small-hatch ranks, but then Audis traditionally aren't cheap cars --just good ones.

Ivor Carroll is a writer for Auto Express in Britain. He contributed this article to The Moscow Times.