First drive review: Audi A3 Sportback

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Audi’s new A3 Sportback owes plenty to the new Volkswagen Golf that goes on sale here early in 2013.

That may sound harsh for a car that will go up against big name rivals like the BMW 1-Series and incoming Mercedes-Benz A-Class. But it’s true.

Audi’s parent company, Volkswagen, has introduced its new modular platform system (known internally as MQB), which sees the new Audi A3 Sportback being built off the same underpinnings as the due-in-2013 Golf, among other cars such as the upcoming Skoda Rapid.

In fact, there will be dozens of different models built from the same basic architecture, something car makers around the world are increasingly looking at.

That said, you wouldn’t be able tell the more humble underpinnings from looking at the new Audi A3 Sportback.

At first glance it looks a lot like almost every other Audi in the range, particularly inside.

Upon closer inspection, there are some notable changes such as clearer instrumentation on the dash dials, LED lights for the fuel and temperature gauges, and new-look air vents that give the A3 a genuinely sporty flavour.

While there may be common components underneath, Audi has done an impressive job of differentiating the A3 with a high quality interior that has a character of its own.

The ventilation controls are also better, with a separate fan switch meaning you won’t have to siphon through menus to adjust the blower.

Audi’s revised MMI (multimedia interface) system now includes the Audi Connect system. It’s a revelation in staying connected in your car, as you can use a dedicated SIM card to update your Facebook, check customised online news feeds, update your Twitter account and even compose text messages via voice command. While it’s not perfect, our first impression is that it appears to work better than Apple’s Siri voice recognition system.

Another big bonus of this system is that it acts as a Wi-Fi hotspot for your car, with capability for up to eight devices to be connected.

You can also use the A3’s satellite-navigation system to search nearby points of interest via Google, and the satnav also displays its graphics using Google Earth.

The downside is that the system will chew through your data allowance. Considering the comparatively high prices for data in Australia, it could be something you’d end up using sparingly – allowing the kids to update their Facebook and watch YouTube could add up to a nasty bill.

The rest of the MMI system is controlled via Audi’s touch-sensitive dial. It allows you to “write” in commands, and the dial system can help you navigate through the various menus quite easily.

Audi has also added new mini toggle switches near the MMI dial, which make it easier to switch between the satnav, radio and media screens. It’s a minor change but makes for a big improvement.

In terms of space, the A3 Sportback benefits from a longer wheelbase (the space between the front and rear wheels), which liberates some extra knee room and makes it feel bigger inside than its exterior dimensions perhaps suggest it should.

Storage is good through the cabin, and the boot is decent at 380 litres (1220L with the rear seats folded flat). And, in good news for back-seat passengers subject to summer road trips, every A3 Sportback has standard rear air vents.

We tested three different engine variants of the new A3 Sportback.

The first was the 2.0-litre turbo diesel (2.0TDI), which has seen a power bump over the current model to 110kW/320Nm (previously 103kW). It’s a punchy engine with good low-rev urge, and its claimed European cycle fuel consumption is just 4.2L/100km.

The model we tested was a six-speed manual, which offered buttery smooth shifts and a well-weighted clutch.

The 2.0 TDI drove well, with good road holding, competent steering and a comfortable – if firm – ride. We’ll reserve our overall judgment until we drive it in Australia.

The next version we tested was the 1.8 TFSI automatic, which is currently the highest-selling variant in Australia.

Power comes from a 1.8-litre turbocharged four-cylinder pushing out an oomphy 132kW and 250Nm, which sends its power to all four wheels via Audi’s S-Tronic six-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission (Australian versions are expected to be front-drive only).

This variant was somewhat of a disappointment. The engine didn’t feel as spritely as we remembered, possibly because of the extra weight of the all-wheel-drive system.

And then there was the transmission. Rather than the lightning-quick shifts most dual-clutch units offer, our car had significant lag moments between shifts, and it also hesitated at low speeds, lurching and lunging as we crawled in afternoon traffic. Even manual mode didn’t help.

The last car of the day, though, was the highlight.

The 1.4 TFSI CoD with cylinder deactivation technology allows the car’s turbocharged engine to run on either two or four cylinders, depending on the situation. Power outputs for this engine are rated at 103kW/250Nm, and fuel consumption is a miserly 4.8L/100km.

We tried it both with a manual and the dual-clutch auto, and it was the latter that stood out as the pick.

The engine swaps between two and four cylinders at will, with the change barely perceptible unless you listen for the mild chortle-like engine sound when it’s running on fewer cylinders (and watch for the indicator on the dashboard instrumentation).

Even when it is operating as such, the engine has a free-willed nature, revving without hassle and swapping back and forth effortlessly.

Audi Australia says it hopes to bring the 1.4 TFSI CoD to Australia as part of the launch line-up in April 2013, possibly as the base model in the range.

However, the company says nothing has been confirmed, and the high-tech engine may instead be dismissed in favour of the less technologically advanced 1.4 TFSI with 90kW/200Nm.

Interestingly, Volkswagen is believed to be considering the cylinder deactivation engine for the Golf.

See, it and the A3 really are closer than ever before. Like Drive苏州美甲美睫培训.au on Facebook Follow Drive苏州美甲美睫培训.au on Twitter @Drivecomau

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