I think I drove the new Audi A3 last week.
I am aware that one of the more important qualifications of those of us who drive cars for living is at least to be able to remember what those cars are, but in this case I’m asking for an exception.
I’ll tell you what I do know. The Audi A3 is not a bad car. I know this because, if it were, I would have been sure to remember it. There are few phrases I hate more than ‘there’s no such thing as a bad car any more’ but even I must concede there are fewer than once there were. This is not because technology has advanced to a point where there’s no need for bad cars any more, but rather that the internet has so informed the customer over the last 15 years that car manufacturers simply can’t get away with it the way they once blithely and cynically could.
I know the A3 is not a great car either. Greatness comes in all forms in this business. I think that for those who can make use of one, a Renault Twizy is a great car; likewise the BMW 320d, Land Rover Defender, Ferrari F12 and Rolls Royce Phantom. In a car greatness comes either by doing things other cars cannot do (Twizy and Roller) or by doing them to a standard unapproached by any other (320d, Defender and F12). If in the hours I appear to have spent in the A3 it had shown any aspect of its static or active abilities that made me think ‘that’s why a certain sort of person should try this car before any other’, I’d have been sure to notice it. But I didn’t.
What’s strange is that on paper the A3 has everything going for it. I’ve probably been more critical than most colleagues about Audis over the years but the last two I’ve tried, the A8 and A6, really impressed me. The A6 in particular and relative to the car it replaced, is borderline miraculous. And not only is the A3 an entirely new car, it is also the first to sit on Volkswagen’s all new MQB platform which will go on to underpin most VWs, Audis, Skodas and Seats. It should be brilliant.
In fact my notes tell a tale of a car so normal, so inoffensive, so stylistically, dynamically and creatively safe that you really could drive home and have forgotten how you got there before reaching your front door.
Maybe this is what Audi wants. The old A3 was so successful it survived nine years in the market, which, if you apply my conversion factor of 11 to translate car years into human terms, makes it borderline telegram material. And it was exactly the same: while the Mercedes A-class was a design revolution and the BMW 1-series one of the bravest styling statements to be borne on wheels, the A3 played safe and cashed in.
So if you want a small, high quality hatchback that’ll never surprise or delight you, but that will perform efficiently all reasonable tasks to consistently high standard, the A3 is the car for you.
But I want more, especially from an Audi whose most popular model, the A3 2.0 TDI Sport, costs £22,730. I want a real sense of occasion when I open the door and view the cabin. I want a car that more than merely executes instructions, I want one that also engages me in the process. Less technically accomplished rivals like the Alfa Giulietta and new Volvo V40 may be more flawed, but so too do they leave you with a far warmer feeling at journey’s end.
Now that, objectively, the overall standard of the cars we drive has been so much improved, surely it is now how they make us feel that are the key differentiators between them. And the truth is that for all its undoubted ability, the new A3 left me cold. I think.