The luxury hatchback is the new flavour of the month. Mercedes-Benz, Volvo and BMW are all tripping over each other to grab a share of this new segment. The A-class was launched with much fanfare, the V40 Cross Country (essentially a hatchback with SUV pretensions) is Volvo’s big bet and BMW too is hoping for good sales with the 1-series, which is due this September.
Conspicuous by its absence in this segment is Audi. It’s not that the VW Group’s luxury brand doesn’t have a model to offer. In fact, the Audi A3
hatchback got a complete makeover just a year ago, so it’s fresh enough to take on the competition. But Audi has no plans to launch the A3 five-door hatch, or ‘Sportback’ as it is called, just yet (a reason why we haven’t bothered to do a review) because the company doesn’t think there’s a big enough market for it. According to Audi, a hatchback isn’t viewed as premium enough in the eyes of Indian car buyers and to get them to open their wallets for one is a lot harder than for a similarly priced SUV or saloon.
However, Audi isn’t going to let the competition get away without a fight and has come forward with a rather compelling response in the form of the A3 saloon. This junior luxury saloon, which we expect to be aggressively priced, takes the fight to not just the 1-series and A-class, but beyond. In fact, it will go head-on against Mercedes’ CLA compact luxury saloon, which is expected in 2014, around the same time as the Audi. The BMW 1-series is still not offered in saloon form.
The A3 saloon looks every bit an Audi and is another example of the company shrinking a generic design to create a new segment in its ever- widening model range. That can be good and bad. An A6 or A4 owner may not like to rub mirrors with Johnny-got-rich-latelies in their small (and far more affordable) Audi A3 saloons at traffic lights. But on the flip side, for potential A3 saloon owners, it offers the opportunity to get a pukka Audi for Skoda money.
The Audi A3 saloon looks the part too. It’s more of a scaled-down A4 than an A3 hatchback with a boot. That’s because it doesn’t share any body panels with its hatchback siblings, except for the grille, door handles and mirrors. In fact, it’s dimensionally pretty close to the original Audi A4 of the mid-1990s and even looks bigger than it actually is.
The styling of the A3 saloon is typically understated (like any other Audi), but it’s a clean, uncluttered design that is superbly proportioned, making it difficult to tell that it’s derived from a hatch. The strong shoulderline and nicely flared arches, which house 18-inch tyres on spicy alloys, give the A3 a solid and reassuring stance, but there’s no doubt it lacks the visual drama of the more aggressive and coupé-like styling of the Mercedes CLA. The good thing is that Audi retains its signature LED daytime running lights on all variants of the A3 saloon, which makes a huge difference visually. The rear has sharply styled tail-lights and a boot, both subtly designed to not make it look like an add-on. Audi however hasn’t increased the wheelbase of the A3 saloon over its hatchback. At 2636mm, the wheelbase remains the same as the Sportsback.
This impacts interior space and it’s only when you climb into the rear seat that you realise the
A3 saloon is not as spacious as it looks. Audi claims that the A3 saloon has the best-in-class space with more room than the Mercedes CLA, but you still can’t get away from the significantly cramped interiors, which ironically is highlighted by how big the car looks from the outside. Tall people in the rear will find a shortage of headroom and the humped rear centre position rules this car out from being a practical five-seater. For average-sized adults, clever adjustment of the front seats can provide decent comfort and if you’re chauffeur-driven, you would be best advised to have the front passenger seat taken all the way forward.
The front seats are the best place to be. The driver is surrounded by high-quality materials and the quartet of ‘jet’-styled round aircon vents reek of quality in the way they operate. The buttons, though on the smaller side, have a wonderful tactile feel and we loved the way the high-definition seven-inch monitor glides out of the dashboard. In fact, the A3 saloon comes with the latest version of Audi’s MMI (multimedia interface) infotainment system. It has a bigger central dial, but a subtle improvement is the new raised toggle switches for the shortcut buttons, which are easier to operate now. A bit of a disappointment though was the feel of the plastic on the top-half of the dash. It looked and felt a little hard and not as plush as the rest of the materials in this well-appointed cabin. And again, the A3 saloon’s interiors don’t have the panache of the CLA’s, which has a more exciting cabin.
The Audi A3 saloon has been planned with a wide variety of engines, which will eventually range from the base 1.4 TFSI 140bhp petrol motor to a 2.0 TDI diesel developing 184bhp and a massive 38.7kgm of torque. There’s also a 180bhp 1.8 TFSI engine which, interestingly, will first come to India under the hood of the new Skoda Octavia. In the compact A3 saloon, the silky-smooth 1.8 TFSI offers sufficient grunt with its broad spread of torque. It’s a delightful engine and we hope Audi offers this particular option in India. The fact is that the A3 saloon’s launch in India is too far away to get a fix on the engine options, but we feel the 103.5bhp 1.6 TDI, a new frugal diesel, could be the bread-and-butter model in the India range and hence I spent the most time driving this version.
On paper, it’s got the same specs as the VW Vento, but it’s a new motor that is supposed to be particularly frugal. Mated to a six-speed manual gearbox, it has a punchy mid-range that’s strong enough to generate a fair bit of torque steer in this front-wheel-drive saloon. The 1.6 TDI A3 doesn’t feel underpowered and is a happy cruiser too. The best bit is the refinement – it’s truly impressive. In fact, the best part about this new Audi is how refined and polished it is. Road, wind and engine noise are kept to a minimum and when coupled to mature and fail-safe handling behaviour, you really feel like you are piloting something much bigger.
This leads us to the dynamics of the A3, which are a bit sanitised in the way they filter out any feeling of engagement the driver has with the road. The benign steering, like in most Audis, does what you ask of it but not with the greatest of enthusiasm, and is lacking in feel. However, a torrential downpour during our test drive in Hungary emphasised the fantastic sense of control on flooded roads. Straight-line stability is simply brilliant. Ride comfort is less so. There’s a firm edge to the A3 saloon’s suspension which is highlighted on Hungary’s patchy roads. The damping is quite good and there’s no harshness felt even over sharp edges and ruts; but a little more compliance in the ride would be welcome.
Audi has formally announced that it will launch the A3 saloon in 2014. The time frame is not clear, but we expect it to be the second half of the year. For the Indian market, this compact saloon makes a strong case for itself with its Rs 40 lakh look at a Rs 22 lakh estimated price. It’s all about status in the Indian market, which is what this Audi A3 saloon assures.