Holding the balance of power

Refined performance is the key to the Audi A3 Sport’s success, says Colin Goodwin

Think of the Audi A3 1.8T Sport as a high horsepower, madcap hot hatch, and you’ll be disappointed. It’s just not that sort of car. If you want pin-sharp handling, a chassis that reacts eagerly to the throttle and some serious power, then look towards the Peugeot 306 GTI-6. But if you want a hatchback with strong performance, an entertaining and secure chassis and a level of luxury usually found in a class above, then the A3 1.8T is your bag.

Looking at it, you could easily be fooled into thinking that the A3 is an A4 saloon with its boot chopped off. You’d be wrong. The A3 wears beneath its skin the underpinnings of the next generation VW Golf which, if the Audi is anything to go by, is set to score well on chassis refinement. The A4 showed that after a long break Audi had rediscovered the art of building cars that appeal to the enthusiast driver. The A3 is a further step in the rebirth.

The turbocharged A3 uses the same 1.8-litre 20-valve four as the A4 1.8T. With only 150bhp available, the engine is no powerhouse, but the horsepower figure isn’t the one we should be looking at. The relevant number is the 155lb ft of torque that’s available between 1750 and 4600rpm. On the road you can hardly believe that there’s a turbine spinning away under the bonnet. There’s no power step as the boost arrives, nor any scrabbling of front tyres. What you do get is a smooth spread of pulling power right where you need it for overtaking, and it’s at times like those that the engine feels bigger than an 1800. Apart from the performance, there are two benefits to the flat torque curve. First off, because you’re not having to thrash the engine to get the performance, fuel is saved. Secondly, because this engine isn’t the quietest revver around, your ears benefit too.

Impressive as it is, the A4 saloon has a few niggling faults. The good news is that Audi hasn’t carried them onto the A3 1.8T Sport. Neither the over-servoed brakes nor the awkward gearchange are to be found on this car. Heel-and-toeing which on the A4 is asking for a seat belt bruising is easy in the A3.

The Audi may lack the sparkle and fine edge of the 306 GTI, Alfa 145 Cloverleaf or even the Nissan Almera GTi, but it is still a highly entertaining car to fling down a twisty road. Above all there’s a feeling of security. This is not a car that bites. Lift off the throttle through a tight corner and the A3 just tightens its line with no hint that the tail is about to do something unpleasant and costly. The sports suspension combines with a long wheelbase and wide track to give the Sport high levels of grip. What’s more and this has not often been the case with past Audis the stiffer suspension does not upset the car’s ride. Sure, it’s slightly stiffer than the standard car’s, but it’s a worthwhile price to pay for the extra feel and security.

You buy an Audi because you want quality, and in this case you are not disappointed. Unlike the BMW 3-series Compact, the A3 isn’t compromised by cost-cutting measures. The same level and quality of equipment that you’ll find on the saloon is here on its little brother. No other hatchback has the same feeling of solidity, the feeling that even after the mileometer is on its second lap, the car will still feel tight.

Add together the A3 1.8T Sport’s badge, stylish looks and quality; throw in its entertaining but safe chassis and you can understand why, despite a quite high £18,470 price, Audi’s order books for the hottest A3 are full.