This is a curious and intriguing car – and an expensive one when it carries the toys the test car came with. But more on that later. The intriguing part lies under the bonnet, where a 2.0-litre turbodiesel drives Audi’s excellent Direct Shift Gearbox (DSG), whose six speeds can be left to swap themselves if you don’t fancy doing it yourself with the transmission lever or the dinky little paddles tucked behind the steering wheel.
As recorded in the rave reviews the DSG transmission received on its debut appearance in the TT V6, this dual-clutch, sequential gearbox provides astonishingly jerk-free shifts, aided by engine management software that is almost never caught out. And that’s after repeated attempts to provoke a fluffed shift with sudden downchanges and jerky throttle inputs. Just occasionally traffic-jam progress can be a little uncushioned, but that has more to do with the diesel’s forceful engine braking than any transmission deficiencies.
The diesel itself is a VW group pumpe düse device, each cylinder getting its own injection pump. It yields over 40mpg and a fat 236lb ft of twist action between 1750 and 2500rpm and it’s this, rather than its 138bhp, that gives you a true clue to this engine’s ability to tug. Which is considerable.
Not that this is immediately apparent if you plant the transmission lever in D, where the combination of six gears and light throttle openings deliver somewhat lethargic performance – you need to be positive with the throttle to get ahead in the urban melee. This you can fix by pulling the lever into Sport, which has the transmission downshifting on a lighter throttle and hanging onto lower ratios longer. All of a sudden the A3 turns decidedly spritely, that relentless diesel thrust powering it ahead with satisfying authority.
And yes, it really does earn its Sport tag. On a twisty road you can enjoy committed finger-twitching at the paddles to make the most of the chassis’s well-anchored grip, especially if it’s shod with the optional 225/45 R17 tyres. The A3’s chassis isn’t the most communicative thing – though its stiffened springs certainly fire the odd jolt cabin-wards – but decent body control and deft direction-changing provide a solid measure of pleasure.
Yet a sporty drive creates a curious sensation, because the TDi motor never stops broadcasting a diesel backing track. You have a car that drives like a warm hatch, but sounds like an upmarket taxi. Refinement in every other department is impressive, though, making it a fine high-speed cruiser.
It’s also a pleasure to sit aboard – despite a seat cushion too flatly angled – the fine-textured mouldings and a satisfying aura of solidity confirming that you’re in a quality motor.
And one with a luxury price, if you rampage through the options list. An A3 2.0 TDi DSG Sport is £20,650, but red leather trim (£1080), heated seats (£250), 17in alloys (£355), a Bose stereo (£355) and more boosted this to £24,270 in our test car – mad money for a car that’s supposed to be about saving cash. Better value, perhaps, may be the new TDi DSG Sport S Line at £21,350, though it will probably prove a hard rider on 18-inch alloys and Sport suspension.
Still, this A3 is about saving you cash in style, and that it does very well. With DSG, it provides an appealingly intriguing driving experience, too.