Back in 2006 Audi launched what it called a product firework - the idea was that like a branching firework all its ranges would spin off as many niche models as was commercially feasible so there would be an Audi for everyone. Hence the Q3, Q5 and Q7, the various cabriolet models and now the ever expanding A3 range. The latest model is something is a step into the unknown though because small, premium saloons don't traditionally sell in the UK. China and the USA yes, Blighty and Germany no. Audi UK is being quite open about not really knowing how many A3 saloons it will sell so I took the entry level 1.4 model for a spin to see if it's likely to strike a chord with British motorists looking to trade up from the likes of a Golf or Focus.
To start with the A3 saloon isn't just an A3 hatch with a boot. Every body panel is new and it is wider, longer and lower than the hatchback model. It looks like a small A4 which I think most people would agree is a good thing. The nose is still dominated by the huge Audi grille but that's something you have live with if you want an Audi of any sport. I have to admit I'm not a fan of small saloons but aesthetically the A3 Saloon works for me. It's certainly a prettier car than the equivalent small offerings from BMW and Mercedes Benz.
Inside the A3 Saloon is surprisingly comfortable and spacious. Read legroom and boot space are both very impressive and will easily accommodate long legs and lots of luggage respectively. Sitting behind the wheel there is a lot of Volkswagen/Audi/Skoda/Seat family switch-gear on display but that will only trouble inveterate snobs. That's because even the switch-gear in a £7,500 VW UP! is pretty good these days and everything inside the A3 looks good and feels well made.
Under the bonnet is Audi's new turbo-charged 1.4L engine which apart from being remarkably light (it's an impressive 21Kg lighter than the same displacement motor it replaces) is both powerful and efficient. Put your foot down and the A3 will get to 60mpg in 8.4 seconds and on to 135mph. Drive more considerately and it will return an average of 60mpg and spit out only 109g/km of CO2.
At all time the engine is refined and wiling making the 1.4L A3 saloon a far more entertaining and engaging drive than you might think it to be from looking at the specification sheet.
The Clever Bit of the new motor is what Audi calls CoD or Cylinder on Demand. When driving at low speeds or placing only moderate demands on the engine cylinders 2 and 3 shut down which has the hand side effect of making the other two cylinders perform more efficiently. Put your foot down and all four pots rejoin the party. As a driver it's impossible to tell any of this is happening, but it helps explain how Audi can get 60mpg and 140bhp from the same engine.
As standard the A3 1.4 TFSI comes with Audi's latest 7-speed S tronic gearbox. After much refinement this transmission is now finally fulfilling it's promise. Gear changes are as close to imperceptible as they are in any good, conventional automatic and you have a pair of flappy paddles behind the steering wheel if you think you know better than the compute does when to change gear. There is still a rather aggressive amount of creep when you take your foot of the brake, but that's something you quickly learn to live with.
Road holding and ride are pretty top notch too. It is a pretty stiffly sprung car but that goes with the "sports saloon" territory but even over rough surfaces it's quiet and composed and makes a comfortable motorway cruiser.
As you probably expect there is a wealth of extra kit you can specify for the A3 Saloon including all the latest driver aids, full LED headlamps and a 705 watt Bang and Olufsen stereo system that sounds like it will blow the sunroof off when turned up to 11.
Thankfully though unlike in days gone by a reasonable amount of equipment is standard so even the base Sport model comes with 18-inch alloy wheels, cloth and leather seats and brushed aluminium inlays scattered here and there which helps make it feel like a decently premium offering. For free Audi will also take away the firmer, sporty suspension and give you something softer, a useful acknowledgment of the dire state of many of the roads in the UK.
Verdict: If you are driving an Astra or a Focus and want to move up to a rather more prestigious badge the A3 Saloon may be just what you are after. Smart, stylish, well made and combining impressive performance and efficiency it's a hard car not to like. It may just convince us Brits that small, premium saloons are cars worth buying after all. If it doesn't you can always wait until next March and go for the 300bhp S3 Saloon quattro.
Price: £24, 305