By Anthony Andrew
Context is all. Earlier this year I drove a black Audi A3 up into the hills of the Cévennes, that area of southern France that acts as a kind of bucolic refuge for Frenchmen and Frenchwomen who never really adapted to the failure of their 1968 dreams. As a consequence, it’s a little bit recherché in some of its tastes and outlook. Backward would be a less kind way of putting it.
Anyway, when I arrived in the small town of Ganges, I might as well have been driving a Bentley, given the looks the A3 drew from the locals, a curious combination of envy and hostility. It made me want to get out, flash large-denomination euro notes around and scream, “Achetez!” into my mobile phone. It also made me look again at the A3, and see an impressive, handsome car that was only a slight diminution of the excellent A4.
Wind forward six months and that’s not exactly what I think of the three-door A3 TDI 1.6 I’m negotiating through the cramped streets of north London. For a start, it’s red, which is seldom suggestive of automotive heaven, and also it’s overshadowed by far too many superior cars, including Bentleys, that, for better or worse, tend to clog up the more fragrant areas of the capital.
Suddenly it feels as if I’m driving a slightly upmarket VW Golf. Nothing wrong with that, of course. But let’s face it, it’s not an Audi, or it shouldn’t be. That was what the A3 originally brought to the party. It took all the benefits of the Golf and added some proper style, making something quite distinct in the process.
The strange thing is that although the A3 comes with a Bentley-style new grille, this A3 is somehow more Golf-like, at least in the quality of the ride. Actually that’s a bit of an insult to a Golf because the A3 is noticeably dull to drive. It lacks responsiveness, especially in lower gears, and it’s generally a bit stodgy and unremarkable.
But that’s the output side of driving, which in the grand or global scheme of things is of diminishing significance. On the input side, this A3 is something else entirely. Thrifty rather than nifty, it’s an absolute gem of a hatchback that knocks your average hybrid into a cocked recycling dump, almost single-handedly saves the planet and also does almost 75 miles to the gallon.
From that perspective, the A3 suddenly becomes a very attractive prospect. As you’d expect, it’s ergonomically well-thought out, with a commendably clear dashboard and straightforward set of controls. It’s even got a key-start ignition, and no fiddly design nonsense. It may not turn heads (outside of the Cévennes) but it will change a few minds