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Audi A3 Sportback review (2004-2008)
Audi invented the premium hatchback segment in 1996 with the A3, and it reckons that it has the momentum to keep well ahead of the new pretender from BMW. It will be no coincidence that the Sportback - the five-door version of the A3 - is launched a week ahead of BMW's 1 Series, with prices that make a decision between the two a tough choice.
The clever bit about the Sportback is that, without altering the wheelbase, Audi has stretched the back of the car by some 80mm, which adds a little to the luggage volume over the three door and significantly to the rear legroom.
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Inside: Business as usual
The interior is a subtle, conservative design that doesn't have the style of the BMW yet is pleasing in its own way. Seat comfort in the SE cars is good, though the covers look a little plain and sideways support isn't pronounced. The ride in all versions is firm but well controlled and rarely uncomfortable. The Sport option, however, with its wide, low profile tyres, gives a lot of road noise.
Like most of the competition, apart from the BMW and the left-field Mercedes C-Class Coupe, the A3 is front-wheel-drive. Yet it is a real contender when it comes to competing with the 1-series for driving prowess.
The electric power steering gives good feel of the road yet is no-where near as weighty as the BMW's. The turn-in is very sharp indeed, and the whole chassis feels extremely taught and instantly responsive to steering inputs and cornering demands. Grip is immense in either front-wheel-drive or quattro form.
An engine choice for everyone
And if you are looking for a lower cost A3, the 1.6 FSI is a real gem. The sheer lustiness of the 115bhp unit at low and high revs makes this a very easy car to live with, and incredibly, it's also pretty sporty, a claim the 116i could never make. Entry to A3 Sportback range starts at around £16,000, although a decent specification A3 FSI SE with metallic paint is going to cost £19k.
The 140bhp 2.0TDI is, in most respects, a great engine, with the expected pulling power, performance and easy cruising. What lets it down is the refinement, particularly at low revs, when it is all-too obviously a diesel. It doesn't compare with BMW's four-cylinder diesel in this respect, although the Audi's CO2 figures are miles better and the mpg a slight improvement too.
Of course BMW does not yet have any real performance models, but Audi has the 3.2 quattro Sport. With 250bhp and the optional DSG transmission, this is a hugely impressive, wonderfully enjoyable driving experience. The breadth of power available is wide and when coupled to the DSG it's a massive technical feast. The refinement of the engine and gearbox makes this a genuine Grand Tourer, yet it's a real hot hatch too. The grip from the quattro chassis seems never ending.
DSG, with its paddle shift and no clutch pedal, is six-speed and works seamlessly. As an auto or in manual, changes are faster than anything else on the market, including a Ferrari Modena F1. It works brilliantly in either mode, and certainly operating as a full auto it's highly impressive. The sports mode is aggressive, upshifting with a blip as you brake for corners, keeping the revs up for the next burst of power. Definitely worth the £1400.
We'll give you a blow-by-blow Audi versus BMW battle shortly, but there's no doubt that that it's not a knock out blow for either. The A3 has some great engines, drives extremely well and is admirably practical. With it's new deep grille its an imposing sight too. You won't be disappointed.
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