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Audi A3 Sportback 1.6 TDI S line

Click to view picture gallery“Downsizing to save money, pay
  less tax and drive a cleaner car is
  now a way of life for many motorists.
  And Audi’s latest A3 Sportback offers
  a way to do this without appearing
  to have moved away from owning
  or driving a premium brand car

MANUFACTURERS ARE NOW OFFERING LESS COSTLY smaller models which are still well equipped and use smaller fuel-efficient engines. In many cases these cost-effective new models still offer a relatively high level of performance as premium brand customers, no matter what their financial situation is, do not seem able to compromise on must-have brand image with get-up-and-go to match.

I have just had a spell in Audi's A3 Sportback (five-door hatchback-cum-estate) fitted with their new 1.6-litre TDI direct injection turbocharged diesel engine with Start-Stop function. My test car had a five-speed gearbox but Audi are now just bringing to market the option of their S tronic twin-clutch auto transmission for this engine and its 1.4-litre TFSI petrol unit counterpart.

The new 104bhp 1.6-litre TDI engine joins A3, A3 Sportback and A3 Cabriolet ranges priced, respectively, from 17,485, 18,025 and 20,645. It replaces the 1.9-litre TDI engine in A3 TDIe and A3 Cabriolet 1.9 TDI models and the new smaller capacity unit is claimed to be 8% more fuel- and CO2-efficient than the outgoing engine.

This new small turbocharged diesel unit features high pressure common rail injection and delivers up to 68.9mpg with the help of Start-Stop and energy recovery systems. As mentioned, it is used in conjunction with a five-speed manual gearbox and, soon, an optional S tronic twin clutch auto box.

Just in case you think small equals slow, the A3 1.6 TDI Sportback has a top speed of 121mph and gets to 62mph from zero in 11.7 seconds. But more importantly, it will officially return 68.9mpg in the combined cycle (42.8mpg for me in real-life) and its 109g/km CO2 output means the minimum road tax bill of just 35 and, for company car users, 13% in Benefit-in-Kind tax.

Talking of cost, the A3 Sportback range starts at an eye-catching 15,805 but that is for the basic 1.6-litre 101bhp petrol engine. If you want the best small petrol engine then spend 17,420 on the new 123bhp 1.4-litre TFSI — it's well known, firstly in Volkswagen models, for its brilliant high torque low-mid range response.

However, for diesel power the A3 Sportback with the new 104bhp 1.6 TDI unit starts at 18,025 and my S line test vehicle — the most popular spec — costs 21,350 on-the-road and without options. Top of the A3 Sportback range is the 261bhp S3 2.0-litre TFSI quattro, at 28,020.

The five-seater
Sportback looks long
and purposeful —
well up to its ‘Sports’
The 1.6 TDI Sportback, like most other derivatives in the range, is available with Standard, SE, Sport and S line levels of trim and equipment. Core features for these premium models includes central door locking, electric windows and door mirrors, air conditioning, alloy wheels, split one/two-thirds folding rear seats, a heated windscreen and a high level of safety equipment. Also standard is first class build quality.

Being an Audi, there is a huge array of extra-cost options to meet user requirements and budgets. S line specifications add larger 18-inch wheels, lowered suspension, upgraded leather and cloth interior trim and multi-function controls on the steering wheel. Outside the vehicle, there's sportier looking front and rear bumpers and chrome trimmed exhaust tailpipes. It's a smart package.

At 4,292mm in length, 1,765 wide and 1,423mm high with a long 2,578mm wheelbase, the five-seater Sportback looks long and purposeful — well up to its 'Sports' branding. Whether you call it a five-door hatchback or estate is open for discussion; it looks more of an estate to me, especially as it can accommodate between 370 and 1,100 litres of luggage. The rear legroom is relatively good too, for what is a medium sector car, but the rear seat headroom is on the low side.

The ride is firm because of the lower suspension and larger wheels — a constant issue with most Audi models. The handling is first class but the ride comfort is hard and the suspension transmits road noise and shocks into the car. My view, if you like comfort, is always to go for standard size wheels and stay away from sports set-up suspension.

As for the new 1.6-litre TDI engine? Getting the A3 Sportback off the line needs some care; not enough engine revs and it will stall even though it's a diesel. Once underway, the 184lb ft of torque from just 1,500rpm does its job and the car pulls strongly without sounding stressed. Being tall geared (fifth and sixth gear ratios are designed for improved fuel economy and lower emissions) means more gearchanging on A and B roads in the 40-55mph speed range.

Once cruising the engine is quiet and relatively fuel-friendly although I wasn't that impressed by the 42.8mpg my car averaged over a week's motoring which, as usual, covered motorway, country and town travel.

The A3 Sportback's build quality and resultant heavy weight is the likely cause of not obtaining close to the 68.9mpg fuel economy the official figures suggest. The Start-Stop function worked well without intrusion or annoyance once the car was up to temperature and with the air conditioning off. I wouldn't pay extra for it, but if it comes as standard then that's fine.

While this Audi can be pricey, with real-life fuel economy much less than the official figure leads you to expect, it is marginally cleaner than its main rival, the BMW 1 Series five-door Hatchback. Officially the Audi has better fuel economy and it costs more or less the same.

As an alternative to the A3 Sportback, the VW Golf 1.6 TDI Estate with the same engine and more or less the same platform is over 3,000 less expensive and it has more load carrying space. But then, as good as it is, it does not carry the Audi brand name.

Apart from a fidgety ride, there's much to recommend the A3 Sportback: it's stylish, high quality and has a tax-friendly engine option and strong residual values. It also comes with a high safety specification and it's roomy and handles well. — David Miles

Audi A3 Sportback 1.6 TDI S line
| 21,350
Maximum speed: 121mph | 0-62mph: 11.7 seconds | Overall test MPG: 42.8mpg
Power: 104bhp | Torque: 184lb ft | CO2 109g/km | Insurance group TBC