Adam Hurrell puts the Audi A3 saloon through its paces on its natural home turf, the Muscat Expressway
They say: “Elegant and confident” We say: “Great little saloon”
Over the past decade, the German big three have become very good at making small, premium cars and the Audi A3, which kicked off the trend when it was first launched back in 1996, is no exception. For me, though, the saloon shape doesn’t work, it’s just not as good looking as its European hatchback cousin. By some miracle of design, it’s still a very handsome car, but I just don’t really understand this junior executive saloon segment. As a saloon, the A3 doesn’t compete with the BMW 3 series or the Mercedes C-Class and so I’m struggling to see what market this car is for; it feels like a rather unnecessary niche.
However, once you get behind the wheel and onto a motorway, the A3 saloon begins to make sense. It rides exceptionally well and the seven-speed automatic gearbox is a joy to use, especially when in manual selector mode. Changes are instantaneous and virtually unnoticeable, even under heavy acceleration; it really is a very impressive transmission set-up indeed. At motorway speeds, drop it down a few cogs from seventh to fourth, nail the throttle into the carpet and the car will shift. The Honda Accord tailgating me was left for dust anyway. My test car had the 1.8L four-cylinder turbo-charged unit that produces 178bhp, 184lb-ft torque and will hit 100kph in under eight seconds, which is plenty quick enough for most situations.
In terms of handling, the A3 did provide plenty of confidence, but the set-up didn’t really communicate what the front wheels were actually doing. Everything felt very safe and organised, just not especially engaging. As with all Audis that are not quattros, there is a predictable amount of understeer when pushed through the corners, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have the occasional bit of fun. The A3 does what all Audis do and that’s let you travel at speed in significant comfort. While cruising down the Muscat Expressway in seventh gear, I got the impression the car could do this all day, every day. And that is one of the great things about this car and indeed the brand in general – at no point did it feel like it was struggling – it did what I asked, when I asked, without breaking sweat.
What really makes the A3 sing, though, is the interior. I could sit in this car all day and never want to get out. People will buy this car because of the interior alone. I loved the half-leather, half-Alcantara seats. The slivers of aluminium on the dash and the door-cards looked very smart and the dials and controls were a delight. This has to be one of the best car interiors I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing. I drove the S-Line version and it came with a lot of optional extras including laser-guided cruise control, a reversing camera and a sunroof – I love a sunroof. The flat-bottomed steering wheel was my only real gripe. It’s unnecessary in a car of this type and felt awkward when turning in tight spots, especially when parking.
I enjoyed driving the A3, not because it was particularly exciting, but because I know I could drive it all day long in comfort, without the fear of it ever letting me down. As a small executive saloon, this has to be one of the best on the market and as a motorway cruiser, you would struggle to find something better in this segment. However, there is one serious thorn in its side, and that’s the BMW 1 series and the Mercedes CLA – which doesn’t seem to be available here. The BMW is certainly more engaging to drive and the Mercedes is better looking.
The A3 is a great car, but it just doesn’t excite me in the same way the rear-wheel drive BMW does and it doesn’t turn my head in the way the Mercedes does. Make no mistake, the A3 saloon is a lovely bit of kit and a great car, but if you want a compact Audi saloon, what’s wrong with the A4?