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European roads, as you’d expect,are nothing less than brilliantly surfaced. No matter where you go the surface rivals a baby’s bottom making evaluation of everything – ride quality, refinement, even handling – perilous. This however is Eastern Europe and things aren’t as sterile as Europe proper. There are run-down buildings, ratty old cars, unkempt meadows and a road that reminds me of home. Our test route starts from the Budapest airport in Hungary and takes us into the countryside and away from traffic, where the foliage gets denser, Trabant spottings more frequent and roads start crumbling. At one point, over a railway crossing, my passenger yelped a little, and we could have been back home. An excellent route then to gauge what will be the last of the wave of affordable premium cars, a late starter to the Merc A-Class and BMW 1 Series, but one that has a significantly stronger chance of making a real impression.
Not because of the car per se – we will come to that in a bit – but it’s down to the underpinnings. Unless you’ve taken sannyas you’d have heard of the Volkswagen Group’s MQB platform, the modular tool kit that will eventually underpin nearly 40 cars from VW Group’s stable, from the Polo and Golf to Octavia and Passat with even a couple of SUVs thrown in; basically everything with a transverse mounted engine. ‘Modular’ is the key here; with the engine positioning and distance from the front axle to the firewall being the only fixed dimensions, it means the platform can be shrunk or stretched (wheelbase, width, track etc) depending on the car (or SUV) so that eventually VW Group plants (like the Skoda plant at Aurangabad or VW’s huge Chakan facility) could have VW, Skoda and Audi models all rolling off the same assembly line. Do the math – the cost savings are enormous.
The MQB has already come to India, on the new Skoda Octavia, but the A3 was the first to get the MQB and it is coming to India next year. First as a sedan, then the 5-door hatch (Sportback in Audi-speak). Call it conservative; I’d call it smart – and just from the way it looks you know it will immediately find takers.
Much like the Q3 fed off the Q7 and Q5 so too does the A3 feed off the A6 and A4. The styling is generic Audi, updated and with more muscle but there will be some head-scratching telling the A4 from the A3, particularly since the A3 is only 240mm shorter than the now-ageing A4. That said, on its own, the A3 is a thoroughly pleasing machine to look at with a tightly pinched shoulder line, sculpted surfaces, sharp lines and attractive detailing. The headlamps, with the de rigueur LEDs are more angular, keeping in step with the A6 and it is only at the rear that the A3 establishes an identity of its own.
Step inside and there’s a greater sense of individualism though you wouldn’t mistake the cabin for anything other than an Audi. There’s a thin MMI screen, much like the Q3 sprouting from the top of the dash, the circular vents are sporty and I particularly like the row of switches under the vents. Unlike the Q3, and like the rest of the sedans, the MMI controller is positioned aft of the gear lever with a touch pad integrated into the top of the rotary controller. In S-Line trim the cabin is of particularly high quality and has some neat touches; some of the test cars with bigger petrol engines even had flat-bottomed steering wheels.
Space. That crucial question is addressed by an increase in length and wheelbase over the 3-door hatchback and it makes for spacious if not a very commodious rear. To put it into perspective there’s more space than the A-Class (with a more comfortably reclined seat back angle) and 1 Series (that is particularly hamstrung by that massive transmission tunnel) but even then squeezing five adults in is exactly that – a squeeze.
Driving dynamics are exactly what you would expect of an Audi – safe, reassuring and planted if not especially thrilling. There’s not much feedback from the steering or the chassis and if you want to have fun you’d be better off compromising on rear seat space and getting yourself a 1 Series. The uptick though is a really good ride quality and that’s where the roads of Eastern Europe come in.
This cannot be verified but I have heard stories of manufacturers, particularly the Germans, paving the entire test route to enable test cars to run the lowest profile tyres on the biggest possible wheels to get the best possible reviews on handling. Audi has definitely not spent on roads in Hungary. These are nearly, but not quite, like the roads in India and the A3 I’m driving, with big 17-inch wheels, is very acceptable in terms of ride. The chassis is so stiff that Audi has managed to slap on particularly soft spring and damper ratings and it results in a ride that one would normally associate with more expensive and luxurious cars. And this is without the bobbing and pitching of the nose that the softly-b sprung A4 throws up when tackling the expressway at speed.
The engine range is exhaustive: 1.2-, 1.4- and 1.8-litre petrols, 1.6- and 2.0-litre diesels and all in different states of tune. India should get the 1.4-litre turbo-charged direct-injection petrol (which you will find in the VW Jetta) makes 138bhp and delivers strong performance while the 1.6-litre diesel makes 104bhp and is sure to be the best-seller. In case you’re thinking parts sharing this 1.6 is not the same as the Vento’s diesel mill, and in any case there’s a new 1.5 diesel being developed for the VW. For India these engines will be mated to 7-Speed twin-clutch S tronic transmissions.
On the final leg of the drive, into Budapest, I found myself in the ideal spec for India: 1.6 diesel, manual transmission, cloth seats, 16-inch wheels and no sunroof. A gusty engine with even better fuel efficiency all packaged in a car that looks far more expensive than it will be priced at. And a car that, no matter the road surface, will feel properly luxurious.
AUDI A3 1.6 TDI
Engine In-line, 4-cyl, 1598cc
Transmission 6-speed manual
Power 105bhp @ 3000-4000rpm
Torque 250Nm @ 1500-2750rpm
0-100kmph 10.7 seconds
Top speed 195kmph