There’s something awesome about driving a segment-first car. Arguably, the new Audi A3 is exactly that – a compact luxury sedan. So, just how compact, and how much luxury exactly? We find out…
Design & Engineering
There’s something alluring about the new A3. Sat on the forecourt of the Udaivilas hotel, the proportions and tight skinning are superb, the finer details of its lines perfectly juxtaposed against the attempted old-world charm of the hotel’s facade. Audi’s have often been criticized of being too similar, with little to deviate from an accepted template of what the company’s designers think an Audi should look like, big or small. And such an approach has its pitfalls, obviously. But, to give credit where due, the proportions of the A3 make it one of the true stand-out designs from Ingolstadt.
After the better part of an evening and a day spent poring over the car, I honestly cannot think it possible to make this car look nicer than it already does. Stance and proportion are spot on, viewed front or rear. The simple 17-inch 5-spoke alloy wheels are lovely (they’re part of the optional S Line exterior package; 16-inch wheels are standard), and the trademark Audi grille and headlights are impeccable. The LED daytime running lights avoid looking like a tacky after-market accessory, and add real character and flair to the new A3.
Sixteen-inch wheels are standard (L). The optional S Line package adds these delicious 17-inchers.
It’s built on the VW Group’s new MQB platform, which we’ve already experienced with the new Skoda Octavia, which was launched last year. The new A3 will be produced at the Group’s shared factory in Aurangabad, where the Octavia is also made. In fact, it shares the same two engines – a 143 PS TDI diesel and a 180 PS TFSI petrol – with the Octavia. However, the new Audi A3 is a good 8 inches shorter than its Group stable-mate, and its wheelbase is 2 inches shorter too. The upside is that it is about 100 kgs lighter.
In the new Audi A3, the engine is mounted transversely, and the Indian versions will all be front-wheel drive only. Front suspension duties are managed by McPherson struts, but Audi has splashed out on a four-link rear suspension with separate locating points for the spring and damper, to isolate the different loads. This set-up has some real advantages in ride and handling, as we happily found out.
Interiors & Comfort
Audi customers will get to choose between black interiors (above) or black and beige (below).
Special and different would be two adjectives to describe the interiors of the new A3. Audi has always received top marks for interior quality, and the company remains true to form with the new A3. It has modernized the design though, and the youthful and sporty interiors will appeal to the target customer demographic (which Audi categorizes as mid-30s with an annual income of around Rs 40 lakh). The A3 we drove had all-black interiors, although Audi did display a car with beige upholstery too, so we assume that customers will have a choice. Since this car will be made in India, it might be worth Audi’s while to offer a degree of customization to buyers. Just a thought…
While I can’t fault the materials or the finish of the Audi A3’s interior, there are a couple of glaring oversights. Chief among them is the absence of a SIM module, for telephony and internet. The A3 in other markets is equipped with this simple tech, which can actually allow you to turn your car into a mobile hotspot, make calls etc. Given that 4G services are just around the corner, especially in metro cities in India, Audi should reconsider this decision.
Audi A3 rear seat space is at a premium. Short seat squabs compromise under-thigh support and comfort.
The compact dimensions (it measures just 4,456 mm, slightly longer than a Skoda Rapid) mean interior space is at a premium. Audi has tried to compensate with some clever packaging, including shorter seat squabs, but then we’ve lost under-thigh support, both front and rear. The new A3’s seats will get a bit tiring on longer drives, because you will miss the additional support and comfort. Legroom is quite limited too, and with a 6-footer in the driver’s seat, you’ll just about squeeze a child into the rear seat.
7-inch HD screen pops up from dashboard; MMI interface boasts of toggle switches and touchpad with handwriting recognition; panoramic sunroof is standard equipment.
SIM module aside, Audi has scrimped on some other equipment too, such as the Active Lane Assist (the steering wheel vibrates to warn the driver when s/he is drifting between lanes), Drive Select (for Sport, Comfort and economy modes; it varies throttle response, steering response, and suspension), Start-Stop and a passenger airbag warning lamp. Park Assist will be offered however, although we didn’t get to sample it on our test car.
Performance & Handling
Now we come to the best part of the Audi A3 – the way it drives. But let me issue this disclaimer right here; we drove the 35TDI diesel only, which, while quick and responsive, will not hold a candle to its petrol-powered twin.
Audi’s diesel engine tech is legendary now, reinforced once again at the 24 Hours of Le Mans this year. Its rallying pedigree is present too in the company’s DNA. As a result, the dynamic mix of how capable this A3 is becomes apparent once you are on a twisty road. I cannot recall in recent memory the last time a car was as pleasant to drive from the off. The new A3 feels planted, perfectly tactile, predictable, and consistent in its response. Audi has tuned the suspension for Indian roads, increased the ride height slightly, and made it just a touch softer; the A3 is better for it.
We were reaching silly speeds without even trying, and the A3 is a deceptively quick car. There is a degree of understeer, but little or no body roll, which means you can modulate the throttle to tighten or widen your line, secure that this car will respond consistently. If anything, it is soon evident that this chassis can handle substantially more power, and the 143 PS the 2.0 TDI diesel engine throws up barely challenges it. I wish we’d had a go in the petrol A3, and I’m certain the lower weight and more power would have taken the dynamic experience to the next level. The reason I say this is because I have driven the Skoda Octavia powered by the same 1.8 TFSI petrol motor, and it is a peach. The more compact dimensions and lower weight (about 100 kgs less) of the new Audi A3 would surely make it even more exciting from behind the wheel.
The six-speed DSG gearbox in the A3, dubbed S-Tronic, shifts perfectly, with almost imperceptible shifts. The jerkiness which characterized earlier versions of this ’box appears to have been resolved.
Impressively, ride quality in the A3 isn’t compromised, even with the lower profile tyres on 17-inch rims, as tested. Sharp-edged ruts do jostle occupants, but at speed it rides remarkably flat, and soaks up surface irregularities quite well, testament to the well sorted suspension.
The brakes are incredibly strong on the A3, with braking performance that hints at the performance potential of the more powerful variants of this car, which are not going to be sold in India.
The diesel engine (pictured) will account for the bulk of A3 sales. With a claimed mileage of 20 km/l, one can see why.
With the kind of performance the A3 offers, it is interesting to note that Audi claims some amazing fuel efficiency figures for this car. The diesel A3 has been ratified by ARAI to give 20 km/l, while the petrol A3 has been rated at 16.6 km/l. These are very good figures, and as our experience holds, a diesel Audi when driven relatively conservatively can actually get close to these figures in the real world.
However, Audi's decision to not offer stop-start tech on the India-spec A3 is baffling.
Safety equipment on the new Audi A3 comes in the form of a full complement of airbags, ABS with EBD and electronic stability control. An electronic limited slip differential is standard equipment as well, which not only adds to safety but augments the A3’s feel-good responses from behind the wheel.
Note however, that the India-spec A3 does not get Active Lane Assist, which provides sensory feedback to the driver via vibration pulses through the steering wheel. This could be because the system is dependent on on-road lane markers which are ‘read’ by cameras in the nose of the car, which are not omnipresent on our roads.
Audi has been holding its cars close to its chest with regards to the new A3. Of course, in doing so it has had the opportunity of studying just what the market wants, and sizing up its competition too. It would be too simplistic to club the new A3 sedan in the same class as the likes of the Mercedes-Benz A-Class and B-Class, or the BMW 1 Series, considering they would all be playing at the same price point, the difference being loose change. But to do so would be gross injustice to Audi India, since it truly has worked at creating a new segment in the Indian passenger car market.
The new Audi A3 is not perfect, but it is relevant, especially considering what the competition has to offer. It has the visual appeal of a proper three-box sedan, perfect proportions and superb detailing, and avoids looking over-done. Audi’s engineering staff have also pulled off a coup of sorts, making it handle as brilliantly as it does, despite it being front wheel drive. For petrolheads, the Audi A3 40TFSI will establish a new benchmark for a sporting sedan without a ludicrous price. The positives can and do outweigh the one criticism I could justly level at this car, which is its lack of interior space. Audi India might also want to add some kit such as the SIM module for internet connectivity, which it could probably roll out at a later date.
The new A3 will form the entry point to the brand with four rings in India, and is expected to be slightly cheaper than Audi’s own Q3. However, it won’t be a cut-price de-contented version, but will instead come with a host of goodies, including the panoramic sunroof. We expect two trim levels of the Audi A3, with the S Line exterior package being extra.
After a flurry of launches from its competition, Audi has been conservative in 2014. But the build up to the launch of the new A3 could well be the calm before the storm. It’s that good.