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Audi A3 Sportback - Diesel Road Test

Audi A3 Sportback

Whatever you want to call it, the Audi A3 Sportback TDI is a smart piece of kit...

It's easier than ever to climb into the back of the latest A3 hatchback %u2013 but don't go calling it a five-door! The Sportback is going to create a new 'lifestyle' niche, if you believe the Audi blurb.

From its debut eight years ago the original A3 carved out a strong niche for itself as a cornerstone of the Audi brand. In three-door form it outsold its most significant rivals, the BMW 3-Series Compact and the Mercedes C-Class Sport Coupe.

Audi launched the new A3 as a three-door model just under a year ago, and it has been an instant hit, with sales running at record levels. Already you see plenty of them in the traffic. The five-door, always the bigger seller in the previous generation model, is expected to do better still.

But it has arrived just as the competition is hotting up! It has to compete for buyers with BMW's new kid on the block, the similarly sized and similarly priced, but rear-wheel-drive, 1 Series. And it looks pricey compared with Volkswagen's mechanically similar and undoubtedly classy new Golf. Plus it will soon have another newly hatched rival in the form of Mercedes' new A-Class.

So it makes sense for Audi to emphasise the five-door A3's sporting character and try to give it a distinctive identity by calling it the Sportback. The name also underlines how it differs from the three-door, which is shorter and has a higher rear roofline.

The Sportback is 68 mm longer, thanks to an increased rear overhang that benefits back seat legroom and boot space, which is augmented by 20 litres compared with the three-door's luggage capacity. The roofline dips slightly, coupe-style, towards the rear. The visual difference between the two cars is further enhanced when the Sportback is fitted with optional roofrails that can be specified either in silver or black.

It is an eye-catching car, with its big 'Nuvolari' grille, the new signature face of Audis, giving an imposing look to the front end. Like it or not - and some find that huge mouth-like grille stretching from nose to chin a bit much - the new Audi face gives the car a strong presence on the road.

Most of the engines offered with the Sportback are also available in the fifth generation Golf, including the two diesels: a 1.9 litre, 103 bhp (105 PS) TDI, and a 2.0 litre, 138 bhp (140 PS) TDI. The standard gearbox with these engines is an excellent six-speed manual, or there is an optional DSG Direct Shift clutchless gearbox. The car comes in three trim levels: standard, SE and Sport.

It comes across as a distinguished drive. Handling is high calibre, evidence of a well-designed chassis. Refinement is generally very good. There is minimal wind noise, and the engine is relatively unobtrusive at speed. You are aware of an initial mild clatter on start-up from cold, but the engine note settles quickly to a pleasantly sporty thrum. The most insistent sound as you drive is an ever-present rumble from the tyres over the road surface. Road noise is more apparent than either wind or engine sound.

The 2.0 TDI engine is the first TDI with four valves per cylinder, and it is the most powerful and dynamic four-cylinder diesel yet seen in an Audi. It has a new crossflow, 16-valve cylinder head with two tangential intake ducts on either side to optimise both fuel/air mixture tumble and cylinder charge. Prices start from ¯¿½18,030.

It looks good on paper, with strong performance figures and very good economy. On the road it feels torquey and tireless, though maybe not quite as vibrant as a key rival, the two-litre diesel version of BMW's new 1 Series. Comparison is the BMW 120d is interesting. The Audi is licked by the BMW on performance but has the edge on economy and emissions.

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