Sportback to the future

A NEW Audi A3 Sportback is here and, as is the fashion in car circles these days, it’s roomier than the model it replaces, but lighter and more economical.

The changes are evolutionary rather than revolutionary, by which I mean it’s a dead-ringer for the car it has just supplanted.

That’s fine, because the A3 Sportback has always been a handsome thing.

Look a little closer, however, and you’ll start to notice a few subtle differences, such as the LED running lights that surround the headlamp clusters.

Whip out your measuring tape and you’ll find that it’s almost six centimetres longer than the old A3 Sportback and there’s an extra ten litres of space in the boot.

Sportback, in case you’re wondering, is Audi-speak for “five-door”, but there’s more than just an extra pair of apertures and a £620 price premium to distinguish it from the three-door A3 hatch.

The wheelbase is 35 millimetres longer, which means more space in the back seats, and windows behind the C-pillar give the A3 Sportback a sort of shrunken-estate appearance.

Most of the weight saving (up to 90kg) comes from changes to the bodywork. The bonnet’s made from aluminium, as are the front wings and the bits behind the front bumper that absorb energy in the event of a prang.

The roof is joined to the rest of the car by a plasmatron brazed seam.

I have only the vaguest idea what that means, but it’s not often I get the chance to say plasmatron in a review, so it’s going in, twice.

We took a trio of A3s for a whirl. In the sensible corner, a two-litre turbodiesel with the promise of low fuel consumption and low emissions. In the snorty corner, a 1.8-litre turbocharged petrol.

Somewhere between the two extremes, and my favourite of the lot, a 1.4-litre, turbocharged petrol which felt fizzy and eager to please on wiggly roads near the Paul Ricard Circuit in the south of France.

These three engines will be available at launch, and will be joined by a 1.6 diesel, a 1.2 petrol and a more potent 1.4 petrol in the summer.

A plug-in hybrid version, the E-tron, is due to arrive in 2014, as are quattro four-wheel-drive cars.

First impressions from the driver’s seat are very favourable indeed.

It takes skill to design a cabin that’s clutter-free but won’t leave potential buyers feeling short-changed in the gadgets department, and Audi is a master of the art.

The dash looks like it might have been hewn from a single chunk of whatever Audi dashboards are made of, punctuated only by four circular air vents, a pop-up satnav and stereo screen, and the controls for the heater. Tugging the centre of the air vent adjusts the air-flow from diffused breeze to jet blast.

Multimedia functions are controlled by a rotary dial and buttons behind the gearstick.

That extra distance between the front and rear wheels makes itself felt in the back, where legroom and headroom are generous.

Your passengers will enjoy spending time in the Audi.

The 148bhp diesel was smooth and very quiet, with bags of low-down torque, so the slick six-speed manual gearbox stayed in sixth for the bulk of the test drive.

Audi promises 67mpg in mixed motoring.

The 1.8-litre petrol uses (deep breath now) turbocharging, direct injection, indirect injection and variable valve lift to churn out a healthy 178bhp, which is just what you need when you find yourself bearing down on the back of slow-moving lorries that lie in wait on twisty French mountain roads.

It’s mated to a seven-speed automatic transmission with flappy paddles for manual control.

If you like your fast cars to sound fast, the muted exhaust note might disappoint, but there’s no arguing with its turn of speed.

Expect 50mpg if you can resist its charms, mid-30s if you can’t.

The 1.4 turbo makes a modest 120bhp, but that’s only half the story.

Where the 1.8 lacks a little urge at low revs, the 1.4 is eager to deliver all of its power, all of the time. Keep the revs low and drive it as you would a diesel, or cane it to within an inch of its life, and it will reward you.

That’s the engines covered. Now try to stay awake while I go through the suspension options.

A Sportback in SE trim will come with standard suspension.

But if you buy a Sport or an S-Line A3, you can opt for standard suspension or a firmer set-up that brings the car 15mm closer to the ground or, if you opt for an S-Line, even stiffer springs and a 25mm drop in ride height.

Regardless of which option you choose, the A3 Sportback drives in a manner that matches its effortless, understated looks.

Ride comfort, certainly in the cars fitted with standard suspension, is first rate. Not even the fast Sportbacks are properly sporty, though, and the steering, although direct enough to encourage you to press on when the need arises, won’t satisfy drivers to whom feedback is everything.

The A3 Sportback range opens with the 1.4 SE at £19,855 and peaks with the 1.8 S Line at £27,180. Be careful with the options list, though, or those prices will skyrocket.

All cars get alloy wheels, air conditioning and the retracting multimedia screen.

Sport models get bigger wheels and a bank of buttons that influence steering sensitivity and throttle response.

The S Line adds 18-inch alloys, xenon headlights and part-leather seats. The multimedia system can be upgraded to link to Facebook, Twitter, Google Maps and your e-mail account.

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