The Same But Different (Audi A3 2.0 TDI Sport Long Term Test Month One

FOR all its bold and glossy advertising, Audi's latest A3 is, well, conservatively styled. Yes, you are looking at the new-for-2012 car. If there's one thing Audi does well it's know its customers. The decision to opt for a visually safe design has more to do with boosting customer confidence than the designers being on a three-day working week.

The casual observer might view this variant as a dead-ringer for the last one. Except that on closer inspection the car’s lights, grille and overall stance are all subtly different. That word, subtle, crops up a lot when assessing this A3. The changes to the car’s switchgear, the increase in cabin space, overall refinement and comfort are all, well, subtle. But, and here’s the important bit, they’re all for the better.

Why run an Audi for six months when it’s common knowledge that they fly out the door of showrooms because they’re so popular? True, the brand is hugely popular in the UK but the firm works exceptionally hard to maintain this enviable position.

The primary motivation for running a new A3 is to see if it’s an enjoyable experience. Sure, this particular car, a 2.0-litre diesel Sport, comes with a wide selection of kit to help make it happen. But as a tool for keen drivers the old A3 and other previous Audi models weren't never top of the heap in this regard.

Better news than the (optional) inclusion of the high-spec sat-nav system and spangly 18-inch alloy wheels for OY12PKV is the knowledge that the new A3 runs on a completely new platform, and one designed to make driving enjoyable again. Crucially this also forms the cornerstone of numerous future VW Group cars. So, no pressure to get it right, then.

So what does it mean for me? As someone who’s never been completely won over by Audi’s old trademark over-firm ride and disconnected steering, this is going to be an interesting period of ownership. Audi claims the new set-up is more sophisticated while also delivering a more engaging and responsive driving experience so we shall see.

And while Audi’s too successful as a brand for the A3 to be a make-or-break car, it’s got to successfully move the premium hatchback story on to maintain its dominant market position. Design-wise, first impressions are that it's succeeded if the car’s crisp lines, clever detailing and wide but not aggressive stance are anything to go by.

Inside, this A3 is as inviting and well built as any contemporary Audi. The designers have thankfully avoided the temptation to cover the fascia in buttons, instead making full use of the now familiar MMI controller behind the gearlever. This, coupled with the retractable main display, ensures clutter has been eliminated.

There will be plenty of time to explore the A3's long and tempting options list and the merits of say-nav with a surprisingly smart traffic feature, xenon headlights or the LED cabin mood lighting (yes, really). For now, the decision to opt for the 2.0-litre 150 horsepower diesel appears to have been a good one. Granted, work-related commutes regularly run to 200 miles, which makes the official 68.9mpg figure something to aim for. Staying with the cost-saving theme, the car's 106g/km CO2 rating is a good compromise between sprightly real world performance and donating as little as possible to the tax man.

Sport specification includes a noticeably firm suspension set-up and complimentary supportive front seats, ensuing roll and the unpleasant after effects are kept to a pleasing minimum. The car's variable rate power steering weights up nicely when you're at speed yet is almost fingertip-light at parking pace. The only downside so far is the modest amount of rear legroom. This A3 is the three-door model not the more roomy five-door Sportback, so compromise is inevitable. Children are unlikely to complain but adult passengers are unlikely to be forming a queue.

Overall, though, the experience from the driving seat is shaping up to be a good one. The various convenience items - standard and optional - are proving easy to use, while refinement levels and cabin ambience are living up to Audi's premium reputation. All that remains is to see if the current honeymoon period continues as I pile on the miles.

FACTS AT A GLANCE

Model: Audi A3 2.0 TDI Sport 3dr, from £22,730 on the road.Engine: 2.0-litre diesel unit developing 150bhp.Transmission: 6-speed manual transmission as standard, driving the front wheels.Performance: Maximum speed 134mph, 0-62mph 8.6 seconds.Economy: 68.9mpg.CO2 Rating: 106g/km.

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