FIRST DRIVE: Audi A3 Sportback

AUDI made a big impact in this sector with the original A3, which started life as a three-door only model but the added practicality of the Sportback model really pushed it out to a wider audience. And over each generation it has raised the stakes in terms of cabin quality and driving dynamics to continue to set the benchmark. Now we're on the third iteration, and with the three-door version already proving to be a remarkably well-rounded and capable car, the Sportback promises much.

The extra pair of doors are very well integrated into the overall shape. The A3 is the perfect example of how Audi manages to evolve a design, keeping a clear visual link to the previous model but introducing some fresh elements. The nose is narrowed and looks more purposeful, the headlights have a more edgy appearance, in particular the strong lines produced by the LED elements. The roof curves neatly into the rear, marked out by a pair of chrome roof rails and the way the tailgate slopes steeply away makes the Sportback almost look like a mini-estate; certainly no bad thing. Like most modern cars it looks best on larger alloy wheel options, and it wears both sober metallics and more vibrant shades - even white - very well.

Of course the key thing you're getting with the extra pair of doors is easier access to the rear, and with that option the A3 Sportback genuinely becomes a viable family car. You might hesitate to let sticky-fingered little ones aboard, given how plush the cabin is, but they certainly won't grumble. Big kids have proper head and legroom too, and the third rear window rather than a thick pillar helps more light into the back of the cabin too. And its practical nature continues in the rear where there is 380 litres of boot space with the back seats in place, a full 1,220 litres with the seats folded.

All this is pretty much as you would expect, but in truth it's when you get behind the wheel that you really see where the progress has been made. If you'll excuse the tiniest bit of technobabble, the A3 is the first Audi to use the MQB architecture that will underpin several other Audis and other compact-sized cars in the Volkswagen Group. What that means is lots of money has been poured into developing this crucial element of the car - and they absolutely have to get it right.

The first thing you notice is that the A3 is remarkably quiet on the move. The diesel engines are hushed but you get the best experience in the petrol models, which at rest are virtually silent (even when the stop-start system hasn't yet kicked in) and on the move you rarely hear anything more than a controlled hum as it moves along. That goes a long way to making the Sportback a very comfortable car to spend time in.

The other significant element here is the ride quality. Even in sportier S line trim which has sports suspension and big alloy wheels, the A3 Sportback feels superbly controlled and comfortable, riding with the bumps without divorcing you from them altogether. So whether you're simply cruising to your destination or having a bit of fun on a challenging road, it is extremely capable and feels like a car from the class above.

That certainly also goes for the cabin, which moves the game on yet again. There are numerous options of course and various combinations of trim, but it almost feels like you’re sat in a luxury car rather than something that’s merely premium. The revised MMI system takes up less space and is a cinch to use without taking your eyes off the road, while the big colour screen is crisp and clear without being intrusive.

Maybe you thought Audis were attractive and even a bit flash, but not the kind of car bought by sensible people like you. Well consider yourself told otherwise; the A3 Sportback is practical, comfortable and efficient, and yet it still delivers plenty of luxury and the ‘want factor’ that you might feel a bit guilty about. No need – you can buy one, know you’ve made a fine choice and be smug about it all at the same time…

FACTS AT A GLANCE

Audi A3 1.8 TFSI Sport S tronic, £25,030

Engine: 1.8-litre petrol producing 178bhp and 184lb.ft of torque

Transmission: Six-speed manual gearbox driving the front wheels

Performance: Top speed 144mph, 0-62mph in 7.3 seconds

Economy: 50.4mpg combined

Emissions: 130g/km of CO2

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