2014 Audi A3 Sportback
The (final) final decision on whether or not we will get the second-generation Audi A3 Sportback in the US has yet to be handed down by the juries in Ingolstadt and Herndon (Virginia, corporate seat for Audi USA). But that doesn't mean we can't head to the roads of the Monte Carlo Rally in this car's most powerful and accoutered trim three months before European customers take deliveries in late February. Our ride for the day? The A3 Sportback 2.0 TDI Quattro S-line with the beefy six-speed S-tronic, a car good for 181 horsepower and 280 pound-feet of torque between 1,750 and 3,000 rpm. If it came available in the US, we anticipate pricing would begin around $34,500 for this topmost trim.
When we get a shot to drive on these utterly spectacular roads, the assumption would be that our Audi of choice would be an RS trim with a chassis set up for our usual abuses. Such was not the case this time, however, as our tester did not even benefit from the optional Audi Magnetic Ride dampers that are now available on the A3. Audi Drive Select is standard at this engine and trim level (we had the European "Ambition" trim, which equates roughly to Premium Plus in the States), and this does provide for the recalibration of several dynamic bits between Efficiency, Comfort, Auto, Dynamic and Individual modes. With the six-speed S-tronic gearbox, ADS takes care of shift responses, as well.
Although this A3 Sportback was not like an RS3 by a longshot on our route, we simply toned down our rate to match what might be the driving attitude of a typical owner. Taken as such, this top tune of the 2.0 TDI engine, plus all of our model's premium touches inside, made for a thoroughly satisfying experience on roads any enthusiast would never want to leave. Conditions were ideal, as there was literally zero traffic to disturb our exploration of this latest Sportback.
The everyday sensation while simply cruising along the highway is, as we experienced recently on the latest Volkswagen Golf that shares its chassis with the A3, is more like the drive of a well-dressed A4. Riding here on optional top-level S-line 18-inch wheels and tires on this trim's standard dynamic suspension with newly engineered rear multi-link axle, this Sportback body comes off even more capable and sophisticated than other models we've tested using Volkswagen Group's new MQB modular architecture.
A chief reason for the even greater maturity of the ride on this A3 Sportback is that one of the benefits of the new architecture is the ease with which it can be elongated or shortened to fit a particular model. While the overall length of the Sportback body adds just .7 of an inch over the three-door A3 we tested earlier this year, the rear wheels on their axle are simply shifted back 1.4 inches, thereby creating a larger footprint while giving both rear passengers and cargo more space to occupy. The new Sportback wheelbase is a full 2.3 inches longer than that of the outgoing model, which is darn near a lightyear in compact car terms.
It's a pity that Audi seems to be leaning toward not submitting this new A3 Sportback for its immigration papers. According to A3 marketing guru Patrick Rismont, the A3 Sportback in its first generation has barely managed to exceed the company's humble sales expectations in America, and that lack of a boffo hit has thrown the A3 Sportback's North American future into question. The feeling in the air is that Audi wants to pummel us rather with the forthcoming A3 sedan and ragtop convertible, the former in its production trim scheduled for public unveiling at the Shanghai Motor Show next April. We know that this is probably the easiest and most practical move, but we are great lovers of Audi's sportbacks, so hope springs eternal they'll keep us supplied with five-doors – especially since this latest edition is so much better than the first one.
Perhaps due to the sheer physics of size and weight, the electro-mechanical steering of the A3 Sportback feels spot-on, and putting it into Dynamic mode tightens things up quite nicely when the road gets twisty. It is eerily smooth, of course, and feedback from the asphalt is not immediate, but we'll hold off whining on that note until the new S3 and RS3 models bless us with their presence. In this trim the steering feel is exactly as it should be.
We tried our best to shove the A3 Sportback around for cornering photographs and whatnot (stability control all the way off), but whatever natural lateral give there was felt less like oversteer and more like purposeful sideways squish. This redone A3 model weighs between 100 and 165 pounds less than last generation, which is still on sale in the US, and because of that, this aforementioned dynamic squishing can be let to run its natural course through the curve, even allowing us to stay judiciously on throttle. We're not talking body roll here, just a forceful and not altogether unpleasant sideways scooching while holding the good steering rack steady and eyeing the road ahead. Such is the world of your typical Quattro chassis, only now lighter.
To our eyes, this new A3 Sportback, along with the TT, A4 and A5, is solidly in sweet zone for the Audi's most recent styling language. The five-door A3 now looks far more interesting than its three-door counterpart. As on all MQB-based models, too, practically all things you can opt for on larger Audis are now available on the A3 family. There is Audi Pre Sense for avoiding lower speed accidents, Audi Side Assist, lane assist, traffic sign recognition, adaptive cruise control, and several other usual suspects.
The latest MMI Navigation Plus with touch pad also makes its Sportback debut, and when you add the Connect feature, your connectivity to the world takes you and your car to places never before known to this vehicle segment. An added compact-class first – shared with all MQB hatches launched so far, but with the most sophisticated treatment saved for Audi – is the full LED lighting front and rear, the front being of the adaptive sort. On the topic of lights, the cargo area – good for a minimum of 13.4 and up to 43.1 cubic feet and eminently flexible despite the lack of a perfectly flat floor – gets two ambient night lights for when you need to open up the panel covering the underfloor stowage space.
Diesel engine family EA288 has been completely redesigned to suit the MQB architecture and be more efficient. Way down low in the rev range, there is certainly some turbo lag before the diesel freight train effect takes hold. But hit the sweet spot starting at 1,750 rpm in second or third gear coming out of curves and the urgency is felt quite clearly. Plus, the noise it makes through the pair of exhaust pipes is pretty nice for a little diesel. Acceleration to 62 mph is estimated at 7.1 seconds, but based on the spirit with which we were dicing up the hills, we figure it's got to have a 6.8-second run in it. As far as economy goes, highway mileage in the US would peak somewhere around 45 miles per gallon.
As ever, we'd love to have a six-speed manual in this application, but Audi isn't planning to offer such a gearbox in the Quattro-equipped A3 at this top diesel power rating. The existing S-tronic dual-clutch gearbox is heavy and it behaves heavily at times. Here's hoping that the latest S-tronic design, as seen on the new R8 supercoupe, can somehow trickle down the lineup, because that quicker and more compact tranny really does work as promised... finally.
Equally important while shoving around any car is a good set of brakes since, aside from the famous curvy roads we drove, there are several spots in the vicinity where huge trucks have inexplicably been allowed inland from the seaside, and there is hardly enough room for their side-view mirrors to pass the local bar without nicking it. Luckily, the A3 Sportback's discs hauled us down from speed pretty well all day long, and with a bare minimum of nose dive and consequent passenger discomfort in the process.
We do hope Audi sees fit to keep one of its hatchback bodies in the US. If not, our lineup of cars from Audi will soon be nearly free of conventional wagons and hatchbacks. And that's not good – because this new Sportback certainly is.
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