One of my favourite places to drive in Ireland is Cork, right after the Wicklow Mountains. Getting there is relatively painless on the motorway (though a little boring), Cork city – compared to Dublin – is actually quite pleasant to drive around, even during rush hour, and the countryside boasts some nice and twisty roads combined with a truly beautiful landscape.
My most recent trip to the Rebel County was spent behind the wheel of an Audi A3 saloon. Audi, like fellow executive brands BMW and Mercedes, has spent a great deal of time and effort in building a range of vehicles to suit every need and desire, from the entry level A1 for urban dwellers who want something small and light on its feet, to the R8 supercar for (at €235,000) the very wealthy petrolheads. The A3 is somewhere in the middle – not too big and not too small, not the cheapest Audi on the market, but not the most expensive either.
The journey began in Sandyford, where I picked up what would turn out to be a fantastic 1.6TDI 110bhp S Line (top spec) with a proper boot. It’s a truly gorgeous looking car, the added S Line side skirts and bumpers really make it an eye-catching vehicle, not to mention the gleaming red paint job my particular model came with, and the shining 18-inch alloys. It’s not simply a hatchback with a proper boot bolted on – it looks like a proper saloon in its own right. In my humble opinion it’s one of the best looking cars in Audi’s current line up – given the choice between this and an A4, I’d have the A3 in a heartbeat (the A5 is a different story).
Given the fact that it’s an Audi, you expect a little premiumness inside. And it ticks all the boxes – classy, sporty and top quality. The dash is made from that pleasant spongy material, the driving position is comfortable, particularly so for long journeys, head space is in plentiful supply, the Death Star air vents are a little unusual but interesting, and there’s ample room in the rear seats. As befits an Audi, there’s a few gadgets to keep the tech heads happy, including parking sensors, a retractable media screen (very impressive, and located above the dash so you needn’t take your eyes off the road), and automatic headlights and wipers. There’s also a quite nifty virtual cockpit which I’ll admit kept me entertained for longer than I care to recount.
Despite being one level down from the A4, it doesn’t feel like a smaller car. The boot space is a not unimpressive 425L, rising to 880L with the rear seats folded, though lugging heavy items over the somewhat high boot lip can be a little awkward. The pocket between the two front seats (which doubles as an adjustable armrest) is a little on the small side, as is the glovebox.
The A3 is quite nice inside, but where it really comes to life is on the tarmac. Comfortable on most road surfaces (like many cars these days, in fairness), the A3 is firmly planted on the tarmac and fun to drive on twisty roads, courtesy of the sports suspension that comes with the S Line versions. Although 110bhp doesn’t sound like a lot, it never feels like you’re lacking in overtaking power. It’s also quite efficient, managing 5.6L/100km (50mpg) over a driving distance of almost 1,000km. That’s partly because it’s paired to a 7-speed DSG gearbox that is smooth and seamless, keeping the 1.6TDI block from guzzling too much fuel, particularly when you stretch its legs. The engine is a little loud when you’re driving, but for the most part it’s a refined drive. If you’d prefer something different, you could always opt for the 1.0L or 1.4L petrol engines, while a more powerful 2.0TDI completes the line-up.
So, given the fact that it’s a very good drive, with a high quality cabin and quite good looks, you might be expecting a price tag to match. And you’d be right. The saloon versions begin at €28,960, but if you opt for the highest level S Line trim or start adding extras then the price will quickly rise. My particular test model costs a fairly hefty €42,351, which includes €3,551 worth of extras including MMI Navigation for a not inconsiderable €1,062. But you do get what you pay for – Audi Drive Select, a 5.8-inch colour display screen, cruise control, rear park assist, tyre pressure loss indicator and S Line bumpers and logos throughout comes as standard as part of the top package.
Given my positive experiences with the A3 saloon, I was looking forward to taking on the sportback version (which is essentially the same car in hatchback format), not least of all because my own set of wheels is a much older sportback. It’s fair to say that, in the approximate decade between my model and the current edition, Audi has made drastic changes in almost every department, and I felt a sudden urge to make a purchase I certainly can’t afford.
Like its brother, the sportback S Line is very easy on the eye with its muscular design, double exhausts and the shark fin aerial – much more imposing when compared to the ordinary three-door hatchback. The boot is a tad smaller to start off with (380L), but once you drop the rear seats it rises to an impressive 1,220L with an adjustable floor to make loading easier – well capable of tackling a trip to IKEA. The same level of quality is found inside the cabin. Audi has very much taken the minimalist approach with the A3 – you’re not overwhelmed with buttons and dials, allowing you to concentrate on enjoying the drive.
My particular model was equipped with the 1.4L petrol engine – the faster of the two with an extra 40bhp, and not a bad choice for a little extra oomph. While 0-100km/h will take you 10.7 seconds in the saloon (top speed is 203km/h), the 1.4L will get there in 8.2 seconds and tops out at 220km/h. It is a tad less economical with combined fuel economy of around 6.4L/100km (44mpg), although it does come with cylinder on demand technology, which can shut down two of the four cylinders to save fuel when they’re not required.
The starting price is cheaper too at €27,960, though my test model began at €37,390, adding €6,402 worth of accessories (like adaptive cruise control for €634 and the tech package including Audi Connect, Audi Virtual Cockpit and MMI Nav Plus for €2,450) for a grand total of €43,792. That’s big money for an A3 – after all, you’re well into A4 and BMW 3 Series territory there.
Having driven both, it’s hard to choose between the two, though I’d certainly opt for the zippier 1.4L petrol engine. To help me decide, I turned to a straw poll of friends and family, which proved quite unhelpful, with most decisions revolving around colour choice. To be honest, the decision comes down to looks. If hatchbacks are your thing, and you like a little extra boot space, the sportback is an easy choice. If you prefer the look of the saloon, you won’t be disappointed with Audi’s take on the concept. Both are set up the same way, both are finished with Audi’s trademark quality interior, both are fun to drive and nice to look at. And, while the S Line trim level provides an extra layer of design and technological goodies, you can fork out for a mid-level A3 and come away with a perfectly good car. His and hers, perhaps?
Audi A3 saloon 1.6TDI S Line Audi A3 Sportback 1.4TSI
Bhp: 110 Bhp: 150
0-100km/h: 10.7 seconds 0-100km/h: 8.2 seconds
Top speed: 203km/hh Top speed: 220km/h
Fuel efficiency: 5.6L/100km (50mpg) Fuel efficiency: 6.4L/100km (44mpg)
Annual tax: €180 Annual tax: €200
Price (as tested): €42,351 Price (as tested): €43,792