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Here it is then, the new Audi A3 Sedan – an Audi for the masses. Well, not exactly for everyone, but it’s a proper Audi built to compete in the junior levels of the executive sedan ranks. That’s a first for Ingolstadt. This car is massively important in Malaysia, especially, where we don’t get the three- or five-door A3 hatchbacks, and the A1 is just too small to be of any relevance.

We’d be hardly spoiling the rest of this review by pointing out the blindingly obvious, that the A3 Sedan pair (1.4 TFSI and 1.8 TFSI quattro) is very impressive (we’ve made that clear in our last episode of Driven Web Series, anyway). But so is the BMW 3 Series range. Niggling quality and warranty issues aside, the F30 is a cracking car, no matter what variant you choose. But perversely, the Bimmer’s ability is also its biggest weakness. After all, every half-successful bugger around seems to be driving one.

Surely, given a choice, there are plenty of people looking for something a bit different. With the larger and fast ageing A4 missing the mark, this A3 Sedan looks set to shine. Happily, the new model is not just relying on the cachet of that Audi badge alone. Volkswagen Golf-base or not, these two can each hold its own in the premium class. Time to find out if they hold all the best cards, then.

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As modern as tomorrow. That is how one would best sum up the A3 Sedan’s looks. A bit derivative of the rest of the Audi range, yes, but still very much contemporary. And most important of all, it manages to generate a greater impression of solidity than its rivals, whether direct (Mercedes-Benz CLA 200 – based on a smaller hatchback) or not (BMW 3 Series – technically a class up, but similarly priced).

There’s very little to break up those high slab-sided looks. Even the well-aligned door handles look like they’ve been honed from the same sheet of metal as the whole car. The muscular wheelarches add to the feeling of strength, and the only downside is that the standard alloy wheels – 17-inchers on both the 1.4 TFSI and 1.8 TFSI quattro – aren’t quite big enough to fill them. The 18-inch S line items look far better in comparison.

Without a doubt, the A3 Sedan is a looker, but defining its styling is a little more complex than that. Some of the detailing is not great, for instance. Small-looking wheels aside, all the horizontal lines on the front are there to visually stretch the width of the face, as this is quite a tall and narrow car. Round the back, the tail is a touch too high as the shoulder line is sloped the way it is.

It ends up looking rather fussy to some. And yet, the more time you spend with the Audi, the less you notice these (crucially small) flaws and the more its overall lines grow on you. It’s not just different, it’s elegant in its own right. You could say that about all Audis these days, but again, mounted on a relatively compact body, the execution is commendable.

Whether you’d see it as classically handsome or ultimately boring, that’s your call to make. In the flesh, though, it looks good. Aggressive. Precise. Solid. With the big gaping grille, slim headlamps and those frowning LED daytime running lights, the A3 Sedan commands a lot of presence. Yet it does so with subtlety and grace, without looking all mad like the Mercedes CLA.

While there’s a significant number out there who go absolutely gaga over the Merc’s looks, it has very little to back it up with, not least specced the way it is over here (maximum showroom appeal and little substance). On the other end of the scale, a lot of car enthusiasts see the 3 Series as a TV soap tough guy who went a little bit soft when the F30 was launched, so Audi’s polished yet distinctive styling set seems like the best compromise.

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Under the bonnet, there’s a choice of two downsized, forced-induction engines here. The base 1.4 TFSI musters just 122 hp from 5,000 to 6,000 rpm, and 200 Nm of torque between 1,400 and 4,000 rpm. Sent exclusively to the front wheels (gasp!) it takes a leisurely 9.3-second stroll to 100 km/h, the slowest compared to the CLA 200 (8.5 seconds) and BMW 316i (9.2 seconds).

Despite this, it’s a pleasant engine to live with, made more so by its claimed 20.4 km per litre fuel economy. It may not be the quickest revving, but it stays smooth and ultra refined up to 6,000 rpm. And the transmission of choice here, the Volkswagen-sourced seven-speed dry dual-clutch S tronic gearbox, is a far better partner than the Merc’s slow and dim-witted 7G-DCT.

Through the seat of your pants, you’d think the A3 1.4 TFSI is at least a full second quicker to 100 km/h than the CLA, not 0.8 seconds slower as the stopwatch would suggest. Next to the 316i, you’d be splitting hairs if you’re comparing outright speed and performance, but between the two, the BMW is the clear victor in terms of feel. Why? The Three’s magical ZF eight-speed auto, that’s why.

Spend an extra RM60,000 to get the A3 Sedan 1.8 TFSI quattro, and you end up with a cracker of an engine. It revs faster and more crisply than the 1.4, and reaches 100 km/h 2.6 seconds sooner. The 6.7-second century sprint puts it in between the BMW 320i (7.3 seconds) and 328i (5.9 seconds), and almost level with the Volkswagen Golf GTI (6.5 seconds). However way you look at it, that’s mighty fast.

The 1.8 litre turbocharged engine makes 180 hp at 4,500 to 6,200 rpm and 280 Nm from 1,350 to 4,500 rpm – curiously more power but less torque compared to the A4 1.8 TFSI’s 170 hp and 320 Nm. Taking charge of delivering all that to the four-wheels (via quattro all-wheel drive) is the GTI’s six-speed wet dual-clutch transmission, which is also badged S tronic in this application. Fuel wise, it’s claimed to return 15.2 km per litre.

But as nothing ever is, it’s not all roses here. The range-topper’s ability to crush all before it is somewhat impaired by the efficiency-biased throttle and shift mappings. Unless you engage Dynamic mode under the Audi Drive Select menu, it takes quite a big prod of the loud pedal to force a quick downshift-and-go from the 1.8 TFSI. The 1.4 TFSI has no such issue.

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But when it goes, it goes, alright. It can catch you by surprise at first, just how quick it is. The mid-range surge, if anything, feels faster even than in the 328i, and there’s less of the strange strangulated feel to the whole experience than there is in the Golf GTI, which is mapped harder and more aggressive at all times.

But again, performance isn’t the be-all-and-end-all deciding factor with this type of vehicle. In fact, it should never be when you’re dealing with cars that are to be driven everyday. More likely than not, you’ll spend more time in these cars navigating stop-and-go traffic situations than you do clear highways. And here, the 1.4 struggles a fair bit more than the 1.8, which in turn feels inferior to most of its rivals bar the plainly disappointing Mercedes CLA.

It’s the age-old dual-clutch transmission misery. The dry setup in the 1.4 TFSI takes its own sweet time to settle in when you’re just easing in the throttle for slow, gentle getaways. You almost feel the clutch struggle to catch on, as if you’re feeding too much right foot but not lifting your left enough in a manual car. You’d think that this issue would have been solved, but here it is. In 2014. In an Audi.

The wet clutch-equipped 1.8 TFSI deals with such driving conditions in a far better way. The engine and transmission feel less busy, and there are less instances (inclines and such) where the gearbox would trip up and send unnerving jerking motions into the cabin. Still, nowhere near as smooth sailing as any recent BMW fitted with the superb eight-speed auto.

On to ride and handling, no doubt there are those spluttering into their gin and tonic at the thought of a front-wheel drive premium car, but the truth is that if they took this A3 Sedan 1.4 TFSI for a drive, they’d probably be hard pushed to tell the difference. Push is the operative word here, as unless you do, as in really, really hard, there’s certainly no hint that the front-wheel drive Audi is carrying any physical disadvantage here.

It has a pleasingly neutral feel, neither giving in to understeer at the first hint of a corner, nor hightailing away if you lift off mid-way through. On the road, the fairly weighty steering (adjustable through Audi drive select) gives a fair amount of information, and there isn’t a great deal of difference between this and the helm of a BMW 3 Series. Yes, really.

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Push hard on tight or fast sweeping bends and the balance swings in the rear-driven (or correct-wheel drive) F30’s favour, as you’d expect. Mid-bend, high-speed bumps unsettle the Audi far more than the ultra composed (and relatively soft) BMW, and there’s also a surprising amount of cabin intrusions being allowed in – bumps, ruts, tyre roar and wind noise.

Comparatively, the BMW is superior in all those aspects, except for the last one (the F30 is notoriously noisy at speed, if you’re uninitiated of its flaws). The Merc CLA, also front-wheel drive, is worse off again, with neither the handling balance nor the cabin refinement to match the Audi.

If you’re a frequent visitor of the limit of tyre adhesion, then you’d want to spend the extra dough for the 1.8 TFSI quattro variant. The colossal price gap between the two models is perhaps bigger than it should be (the 1.8 is a third more expensive than the 1.4), but the inclusion of quattro makes a big difference in the way the Audi A3 Sedan drives. Positively, that is.

It’s hard not to be impressed by the huge capability offered by the all-wheel drive layout, and the way the whole car involves the driver more. It ties the chassis and steering together in a far more cohesive manner, that you’re put in more control at all times. Next to the 1.4 TFSI, this one feels more mature, more sporty and best of all, a lot more substantial.

Corner-takings will be done at a higher comfortable speed, which can reach silly levels depending on the driver’s skills and more likely, bravery. Handling balance takes a leap forward too, making the car feel more pliable and ultimately a lot more playable with near the limit.

That said, while a well-driven A3 Sedan quattro will leave a comparable BMW 3 Series (M Sport or not) for dead through the twisties, the Bimmer driver would still have a bigger smile at the end of the drive. Make no mistake – the Audi is definitely a good steer, but not F30-good.

But if you’re not the sort who would take regular weekend drives to Ulu Yam or Kuala Klawang, then perhaps the base 1.4 TFSI would be more than capable enough. The waste of talent isn’t the issue here, but the difference in ride quality is, for the quattro model is fitted with stiffer sport suspension.

Both models ride on a set of passive dampers. The adaptive Audi magnetic ride option is not available in either model, so both the A3 Sedans are stuck with fixed settings – 1.4 TFSI on what we’d call slightly firm, the 1.8 TFSI quattro on hard. The former borders on being pliant (only just), while the latter takes the ride to a level that’s less satisfactory.

The stiffer-sprung and 15 mm-lower-riding 1.8 doesn’t feel as floaty as the 1.4 at speeds, but you do feel more of the faults in the road surfaces. For a better perspective, neither is as cossetting as the genuinely comfortable BMW 3 Series, but even the quattro model is not quite as uncomfortable as the Mercedes-Benz CLA.

In the case of ride quality, it has to be said that Audi’s quest to pursue driving dynamics at the expense of comfort is largely questionable, especially when the heavily related Volkswagen Golf 1.4 TSI holds a far better balance between the two. How Audi allowed this to happen is beyond us.

But enough of that, as the Audi A3 Sedan is more than just a driving tool. It’s a beautifully made car too, as the interior really does exude a quality feel that’s well above that of the BMW 3 Series and Mercedes CLA-Class. Audis are known for making sublime cabins, and despite its entry-level status, the A3 Sedan is no different.

You sit on very solid seats (heavily bolstered ones in the 1.8), hold a pleasingly thick-rimmed steering (specially in the 1.8) and look out over a nice set of satin-finished metal-rimmed instruments. Everything these is to touch, turn or prod feel substantial, and at no point do you think that this is just a dressed-up Golf. It’s all very relaxing and exciting at the same time.

The downside is, all the major controls bar the dual-zone climate control system, are accessed through the clunky Audi MMI interface. Its sci-fi novelty wears off very quickly the moment you realise that simple everyday functions, such as changing the radio stations, take two or three more steps than you’d ideally like. BMW’s iDrive system is significantly more user friendly, and even Merc’s flawed COMAND control scheme is more easily comprehensible.

Also less than spectacular is the A3 Sedan’s cabin space. You’d just about fit three adults in the back with limited head- and legroom, though the lack of space here isn’t nearly as severe as in the Merc CLA. Even the BMW 3 Series, which is far from the best in its class (full compact exec – Mercedes C-Class, Audi A4 and the like) in terms of space, feels humongous in comparison.

The A3 Sedan’s boot space (or lack thereof) is even direr. Numbers don’t lie, and the 1.4 TFSI has just 425 litres of space in the back, versus the 480 and 470 litres in the 3 Series and CLA-Class respectively. The number drops to a dismal 390 litres for the 1.8, as it has a raised boot floor to accommodate the quattro system’s rear differential. Its only saving grace is its foldable rear seats, which betters the BMW.

Detailed interior trim differences between the two variants, as well as the long list of optional extras are best appreciated by watching our comprehensive walk-around video of the A3 Sedan pair below. Unlike movies based on books, some things are best seen than described, after all.

But to recap, you can add Comfort Key (standard on the 1.8, RM3,500 on the 1.4), MMI Navigation plus (RM13,000), Bang & Olufsen sound system (RM4,000), a reverse camera (RM2,000), panoramic roof (RM4,500), pearl-effect paintjob (RM3,000) and full LED headlights (RM8,000) to your A3 Sedan. Hey, it’s an Audi, why would you expect it to be cheap?

The most significant entry in the options list is the full S line package for another RM19,800. Offered exclusively on the 1.8 TFSI quattro model, it includes an all-around bodykit, 18-inch wheels, a panoramic roof, part-Alcantara sports seats, full black headliner and a flat-bottomed steering wheel. It’s just too bad it doesn’t add adaptive dampers into the mix as well.

Costly options aside, there’s certainly enough substance behind the new Audi A3 Sedan’s massive showroom appeal to make it a serious contender in this competitive market. It has much to recommend dynamics-wise, and both its unique looks and peerless cabin appointments really grow on you in time.

In the 1.4 TFSI’s case, it certainly doesn’t suffer all that much from being front-wheel drive, and at RM179,900 – the cheapest Audi on sale here in Malaysia, alongside the tiny A1 hatchback – it’s good value as well. The RM240,888 1.8 TFSI quattro asks for a lot, but it also gives back generously in return.

The A3 Sedan certainly isn’t perfect, with a fair share of flaws – firm ride (even harder on the 1.8), annoying MMI interface, small interior and boot – but above all that, it feels different and a bit special. It’s hard to put a price on that warm glow you feel inside. It’s rare that a car allows both the heart and head to justify it. This is one of the select few.

Audi A3 Sedan 1.4 TFSI


Audi A3 Sedan 1.8 TFSI quattro
Audi A3 Sedan 1.8 TFSI quattro S line

 

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