Audi’s never-ending quest for global domination has resulted in more hot new models than you’d find at Hugh Hefner’s grotto in the backyard of his mansion. But while the German carmaker is creating niches galore, it has been rather good at getting the flood of cars pretty much right, which can’t always be said for some of the competition.
The A3 saloon is the latest niche vehicle from Audi and there’s a fair bit more to it than fiddling with the body parts although this isn’t a car for posing along JBR.
Audi kicked off the premium compact class and there are major expectations for this current vehicle. The strategy centres on aiming hard at the US and Chinese markets where the big numbers are.
It has also identified the Gulf countries as pivotal to the blueprint for Audi doubling its A3 sales, which currently account for 20 per cent of the manufacturer’s volume worldwide.
Patrick Rismont, product marketing, A3 saloon, told wheels at the launch in Budapest, Hungary, that the car primarily targets a younger buyer and Audi aims to lure customers from rival brands rather than simply sate the German automaker’s faithful. Rismont feels these “younger customers” will mainly be in their thirties. He also reckons that buyers “who haven’t found their car yet” in the extensive Audi line-up will be attracted to the A3.
The A3 may not have the visual presence of the Mercedes-Benz CLA, for instance, but the styling is quality and timeless (Audi claims sporty). It does look much better in the flesh than in pictures.
In Budapest and the surrounding countryside, we drove the A3 saloon powered by the 1.8-litre petrol engine, as well as the 2.0-litre TDI, but not the 2.0-litre petrol engine. Production of that powerplant hadn’t started. With the 1.8-litre TFSI engine, the A3 proves to be an able performer.
It still takes 7.3 seconds to get to 100 klicks per hour from a standing start, which means it’s no Usain Bolt. But it’s a willing engine and in general the A3’s performance is more than adequate.
We’ll see the A3 in the UAE early next year in the following guises: 1.4 122bhp S tronic front (starting Dh92,000), 1.8 180bhp S tronic front (starting Dh109,500) and the 1.8 180bhp S tronic quattro (starting Dh119,500). The 2.0 S3 is not confirmed for the Middle East “at this point”, says Audi’s regional office.
An important and salutary attribute is the A3’s extended use of lightweight materials, such as aluminium, which is used for the bonnet and various components. With the TDI engine, the car weighs only 1,315kg. At 1,295kg when powered by the 1.8-litre TFSI engine, it’s even lighter, which helps the A3’s efficiency.
In terms of ride and handling, the A3 saloon is not a car that will encourage you to throw down the gauntlet to sundry rev-heads on the highway between Abu Dhabi and Dubai. The electrically assisted steering is precise for sure, but does not provide much feedback, which makes handling a bit listless.
The new Audi is drama-free and that’s certainly what potential customers want from the four-rings folk. However, it doesn’t engage as some might like.
The cabin is typical Audi — neat, clean and tidy, with quality assembly. The seats are supportive and there’s plenty of headroom front and back.
The 1.4 is relatively tame and when you put your foot down it takes a while for it to react. The others are extremely pleasant to drive, especially with a manual, which was a delight to get hold of. But the automatic feels pleasurable too.
Roads in Hungary are inconsistent. Highways are fine but back roads — they traverse paddocks with round hay bales, sunflower crops and grazing cattle — have an abundance of potholes and ruts. You won’t be whistling Don’t Fence Me In, but the Audi is to the fore on these surfaces.
Unsurprisingly, the ride is firmer than offerings from Tokyo and Seoul without being harsh.
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The A3 saloon is a step up on the Sportback. Seven airbags are standard, you can get advanced safety systems such as adaptive cruise control, lane departure and blind-spot warnings. A reversing camera is paired with the MMI Navigation Plus package that extends the pop-up infotainment screen from 5.8in to 7.0in and adds sat-nav and auto-parking software. Thanks to the directional goodies, my driving cohort and I didn’t get lost once in the rush-hour traffic in Budapest.
There aren’t many brands that Audi doesn’t have in its sights.
“We’d be looking to draw customers from Opel and the French, Kia and Lexus as well,” Rismont tells wheels. He wants to pluck customers from cheaper vehicles and put them into an upscale bracket. He points out that while some French cars are substantially cheaper, they have customers “buying models with a lot of options” who might prefer to give an A3 a go.
Not that the A3 saloon will have it all its own way in what is being described as the world’s fastest growing market segment. With rivals like the CLA, its cousin the Volkswagen Jetta and Volvo S60 saloon, the A3 saloon is set to face some serious competition. Audi needs something special to take on the likes of the planned BMW 1 Series saloon, so the stakes are high.
The younger crowd Audi talks of will more than likely lean to Celine Dion’s audience rather than Kate Moss’s mates off for a weekend in Ibiza. This is the car for those who want a premium saloon that does what it should but aren’t pretending they’re buying some sort of quasi-sportscar. You’ll see the A3 crowd picking up the kids at Repton and grabbing the groceries at Spinneys. And that’s a big crowd and catchment area.
The new Audi may lack some of the engagement enthusiastic drivers may demand or at least anticipate, but it’s a fuss-free car from an impeccable brand, and such kudos is priceless.
What’s behind a global launch of an Audi in Hungary? Well, Audi has operated a huge factory at Györ, a couple of hours north of Budapest, for 20 years.
It has been known as the world’s largest engine plant. There’s a $1.25billion expansion and the addition of 2,100 jobs to help the plant screw together 125,000 A3s a year.
The workforce is highly skilled yet costs less than a third of what it would in Germany. The facility will supply the entire world market except China, which is getting its own factory.
Back in the Hungarian capital sitting at a sidewalk café with the A3 parked in front, the famous Chain Bridge stretches over the Danube to the gorgeous parliament buildings and Buda Castle, dating back to the times of the knights.
The classic postcard shot unfolds at sunset. Then the waitress explains she is from nearby Transylvania, once part of Hungary. Kids were brought up on tales of vampires and Count Dracula.
And that’s the thing about Audis — from the spectacular vehicles like the R8 to the steady-as-she-goes A3, they get in your blood.
Specs and ratings
Model: A3 saloon
Engine: 1.8-litre four-cyl turbo
Transmission: Seven-speed S tronic, AWD
Max power: 180bhp @ 6,200rpm
Max torque: 250Nm @ 1,250rpm
Top speed: 235kph
Plus: Refined engines, styling, interior
Minus: Not very exciting