In recent years Audi – as a brand – has upped its game to such a level that their vehicles are now perceived as being on par with the traditional German automotive manufacturers: Mercedes-Benz and BMW. And rightfully so, I might add: Since the local release of the A4, the perception of the marque has shifted dramatically from average and everyday to up-market. Only released a few years back, it was in my opinion the first A3 variants that truly gave Audi a more noticeable presence on South African roads – the small coupe-hatchback with nippy 1.8-litre engines was an up-market alternative to the VW Golf and – in sales terms – fitted snugly between the volume-moving A4 and the sluggish A6.

When Audi released the new A3 last year, A3 was bigger in almost every aspect: size, price tag and aspirational value. With BMW’s ugly 3-series coupe-disaster due for replacement with the much anticipated 1-series, A3 needed to grow and improve. However, competent as the coupe-version was – and with Audi’s new ‘face’ being implemented on most models – they deemed it necessary to further ‘up’ the stakes. Enter the A3 Sportback. Described by many as a cross between a coupe and a station wagon, the Sportback has a lower roof and sportier look than other five-doors that follow the high-roof family transport profile. The Sportback also introduced Audi’s new ‘face’ to the A3-range and subsequently, with more space at the rear, created a true competitor for BMW’s 1-series.

It is the A3 Sportback – in 2.0T FSI guise – that is the first nominee in the 2006 South African Car of the Year competition (COTY). Available in front-wheel drive, the Sportback has the familiar turbocharged engine that already powers several Audis as well as the already-legendary new Golf GTI. Delivering 147kW and 280Nm of torque, the Sportback is capable of a top speed of 236km/h and a 0-100km/h acceleration time of only seven seconds. I recently had the opportunity of experiencing this engine in the A4 Avant, and if performance in the bigger station wagon is anything to go by, then it should be a pure thrill in the slightly smaller Sportback.

By offering the practicality of two rear doors Audi has managed to increase cabin space as well, even though the wheelbase is the same as the coupe. The boot will take 370 litres of cargo with the seats up, and will expand to 1120 litres when folded. Interior styling is similar to that of the TT and A4 Cabriolet and affirms and perpetuates Audi’s reputation as a class leader when it comes to cockpit styling and quality. The prices might seem high, but then again: so are the specifications.

All Sportback models have anti-lock brakes, traction control, four airbags, a CD audio system, power windows and air-conditioning. A huge number of optional extras are available, including satellite navigation, power adjustable seats, a panoramic sunroof, cruise control, roof rails, xenon headlights and seat heaters. Like the coupe, the Sportback has electro-mechanical steering with speed-dependent power assistance. Sports suspension and 17″ wheels with low-profile tyres are standard on the high-powered models, which results in a firm, but not uncomfortable, ride. The pick of the transmissions is the (optional) DSG transmission, which is still considered the best robotised manual gearbox in the industry. Along with the convenience of not having to operate a clutch pedal, DSG makes smooth and lightning-quick shifts – either automatically or via paddles on the steering.

Excellent characteristics aside, I must admit that the Sportback is a look you need to get accustomed to. I have always considered the A3 coupe to be too long (albeit not out of proportion), and the Sportback subsequently looks like a chopped station wagon to me rather than a sporty five-door hatch.

The Audi A3 Sportback 2.0T FSI with 6-speed manual gearbox retails for R255 000 while the brilliant DSG gearbox will add R16 000 to that. In terms of direct competitors, I guess one can throw in a number of them. However, when looking at premium-rated, five-door hatchbacks, there really is only the One, and the only remaining question one needs to ask is whether you would you buy an A3 Sportback when shopping in that segment.

Based solely on appearance, my answer would be no. Personally I find the BMW 1-series’ design more sporty than the A3 albeit another slightly odd-looking car. In 120i guise (R218 000), performance can’t really compare though the price is better. The new 130i – a performance car of note – would be the better option, but at R312 500 it’s considerably more expensive. But, as is usual the case when buying a premium-rated car, it is brand perception and brand loyalty that will be the decision clincher. However, if you’re looking for a five-door hatchback that won’t cost an arm and a leg and has hot-hatch performance to boot, the only remaining choice is the Volkswagen Golf GTI.

The latest GTI-incarnation is probably the closest VW has come to the original. Performance is guaranteed (it uses the same FSI turbo-engine as the A3) and in terms of looks it is sexy, sporty yet traditional and inoffensive. Add in its competitive price-tag (R240 000 or R253 500 with DSG)) and it becomes clear that the GTI is simply the best all-rounder in the group – a car whose absence from the list of COTY nominees makes absolutely no sense. The A3 Sportback 2.0T FSI is a good, solid car that should be fairly popular in South Africa, but I doubt whether it’s good enough to snatch the 2006 title.

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