The Audi A3 Saloon might look like a shrunken A4, but it offers some of the very best efficiency measures in its class and brings a cool elegance within the reach of those who might find an A4 a bit of a stretch. The 1.4 TFSI model with cylinder cut technology and the twin-clutch gearbox looks the pick of the bunch so far.
It's been a fact of vehicle development for many years now. Each successive generation of car gets bigger than its predecessor. Today's Ford Mondeos are bigger than the old executive class Scorpios. The baby Land Rover, the Freelander, takes up as much space on the road as the original Range Rover. Audi's original A4, the car that really propelled the marque into the stratosphere of compact executive class profits, is a car very similar in size to the car we look at here, the A3 Saloon. It doesn't take a work of genius to figure out that the A4 Saloon has pushed ever further upmarket with each bigger generation and Audi saw fit to fill the void. It's a trend that repeats across the class, with the BMW 1 Series and the Mercedes CLA-Class increasingly accounting for sales that would once have gone to old 3 Series and C-Class variants. Both BMW and Mercedes have strong offerings in this sector. Audi needed to do likewise.
Engine-wise, UK customers choose between a 140PS 1.4 TFSI petrol unit with clever Cylinder on Demand technology and a more conventional 180PS 1.8-litre TFSI petrol powerplant, both offered only with S tronic auto transmission. Alternatively, there's a 1.6-litre TDI diesel with 110PS or 2.0-litre TDI diesel units available with either 150PS or 184PS. All TDI variants get the option of quattro 4WD. At the top of the range is the 300PS S3 variant with its 2.0 TFSI unit and quattro 4WD. All A3 Saloons get an electromechanically assisted steering system and a next-gen stability control package which includes an electronic limited slip differential for composed deployment of power. The optional Audi drive select system lets the driver vary the throttle response, steering weighting and, where the S tronic transmission is present, the gearbox shift points. What's more, it can also be upgraded to manage the optional Audi magnetic ride system with its clever magneto-rheological fluid-filled dampers.
Yes, the A3 Saloon does look astonishingly like an A4 that's been scaled down slightly. Some might not be fans of Audi's Russian Doll styling approach and sure enough, there aren't too many surprises about the look and feel of this one. Still, given the upward trajectory of Audi's sales figures, perhaps that's no bad thing. So while it doesn't score well for originality, the A3 Saloon gets solid marks for execution. Its overhangs are short and the side surfaces have more pronounced curves, while the wheel arches are also slightly more flared. Vital statistics include a length of 4,460mm, a 140mm increase on the A3 Sportback, and a width of 1,796mm, which is 11mm wider. The wheelbase equals the A3 Sportback at 2,636mm, providing plenty of passenger room between the axles. The boot's carrying capacity amounts to 425-litres with the seats up - 45-litres more than the A3 Sportback. This capacity can be increased by folding down the split rear seat backs. The boot lid automatically swings upward when unlocked.
The A3 Saloon is only offered in high-spec Sport and S line trims and most buyers of the petrol variants choose the S tronic twin-clutch auto transmission. Prices start from around £25,000. Basically, you're looking at paying a £1,000 premium over a five-door A3 Sportback with the same engine and trim. Numerous options are available in the passenger compartment, including the LED interior lighting package, a panoramic glass sunroof, sports seats, heated seats, advanced key keyless access, deluxe electronic climate control with economy mode and adaptive lighting for the xenon plus headlights, which can be supplemented with variable headlight range control. Where Audi has made the biggest strides in recent years is in connectivity of electronic systems and the A3 fully embraces these advances. The Audi connect system bundles all infotainment technologies that let the driver network with the Internet, infrastructure and other vehicles. The central component is the Mobile phone preparation. It produces the connection to the Internet and passengers can conveniently surf and email with up to eight mobile devices via an integrated WLAN hotspot. Watch your roaming charges though. For the driver, the Mobile phone preparation brings features such as navigation with images from Google Earth, a web radio function, Google Points of Interest search by voice control and Google Street View. There's also Audi online traffic information that takes the movement data from the thousands of smartphones and navigation units that are travelling on the road and can inform you of average speeds, predicted journey times and recommended reroutes.
The A3 Saloon replicates the already excellent economy and emissions figures of the rest of the A3 range. The 1.4 TFSI engine with the cylinder on demand system is particularly interesting. This offers 140PS of power so it's fairly brisk, but when you're cruising along a main road, it imperceptibly cuts power to two of the cylinders, so you'll be running along on two. This car can average 60.1mpg and emits just 109g/km of carbon dioxide. It almost makes you wonder whether it's worth springing the extra for the diesel engine. The frugal 1.6-litre TDI unit may be worth looking at but the 2.0 TDI variant is notable less economic, delivering 68.9mpg and 107g/km which is only a modest improvement on the petrol 1.4. Even the punchy 1.8TFSI petrol unit will do 50.4mpg on the combined cycle and emits 129g/km. The S3 manages 40.9mpg and 159g/km with S tronic auto transmission.
It's easy to get a little blase about cars like the Audi A3 Saloon, to take its achievements for granted somewhat but let's pause for a minute and consider not the numbers but the philosophy behind this car. It's properly smart, offering a compact, light and efficient car without being overblown. Its key problem is probably the A3 Sportback, a car that's all of these things and which offers the added practicality of a hatchback. Still, there's little doubt that the A3 Saloon looks a good deal more upmarket than a Sportback. In fact most would have difficulty distinguishing it from an A4 without a sneaky look at the badge on the back. While it won't turn your head like a Mercedes CLA, there are many who prefer Audi's more discreet take on this more compact compact executive saloon. As the A4 has become bigger and more sophisticated, it has created a space below it for Audi to demonstrate how well it does clean and elegant.