With its latest A3 1.2-litre TFSI, Audi aims to demonstrate that there's plenty of life left in the petrol engine. Jonathan Crouch reports.
Ten Second Review
You tend to get fobbed off with out of date engines at the entry level to a model range but Audi has done the right thing and instead opted for a modern downsized 1.2-litre petrol engine at the foot of its A3 range. They claim 57.6mpg for it, but it needs to be worked hard and 'real life' consumption figures may well be a little disappointing in comparison.
It's almost become received wisdom nowadays that if you want a cost-effective small car, you buy something with a diesel engine. Economy figures that routinely top 70mpg make small diesels incredibly cheap to fuel, but as this Audi A3 demonstrates, running a petrol-engined model is far from financial folly. One less appreciated trend in recent years has been in the development of downsized petrol engines and the 1.2-litre TFSI engine that Audi uses is a case in point. Time was when an A3 would open with a 1.6-litre engine that wouldn't even make 100bhp. Now we get a 1.2-litre unit that is good for 104bhp and returns fuel economy and emissions figures in a different league from the old 1.6-litre wheezer. While you might justifiably accuse me of selecting a soft target in a petrol engine launched in 1996, it's just a measure as to how far we've come with such powerplants. Later we'll have a look at how this engine stacks up in terms of running costs with modern turbodiesels.
While the A3 1.2 TFSI isn't going to get the crew from evo magazine struggling for new superlatives on the way to North Wales, it's got enough zip about it to make it quick and entertaining enough for most. It's an entry-level car so it's only to be expected that it's not the most concussive accelerative force you've ever experienced, although a sprint to 62mph in 10.3 seconds isn't bad going. That's probably a ten second flat 0-60 in old money which used to be the preserve of warm hatches. Going this briskly with such a sizeable body is largely down to Audi paring weight away from the A3, from its lightweight engine to its efficient MQB modular chassis. The common rail injection system and turbocharger with an electrically actuated wastegate flap combine to enable rapid generation of boost pressure and a decrease in fuel consumption under partial throttle openings. It's an engine that offers a modest 175Nm slug of torque, so you will need to work the throttle and gear box but that's no great hardship. The car's offered as standard with a smooth-shifting six-speed manual although you can also specify the excellent seven-speed S tronic twin-clutch system. This does tack a fair amount onto the asking price though and when you're at the entry-level point, it becomes a bigger proportion of the car's cost.
Design and Build
Let's rewind a little back to that MQB chassis. This is the 'Modularer Querbaukasten', or Modular Transverse Matrix and it's key to the build of this A3. In short, the Volkswagen Group realised that it had too many different chassis systems amongst its various cars and has instead introduced this chassis for transverse-engined cars which features an interchangeable kit of parts that cuts build time by 30 per cent. That means savings for the consumer and a better quality build process. There are also savings in weight, thanks to a hybrid of steel and aluminium panels that pares 40kg from the weight. Park the latest A3 next to its predecessor and it's like looking at a film starlet when she was ten years younger. It's just tauter and prettier. The finely detailed front lights give a quality look to the front end and there's more shape in the flanks. It is in fact 12mm wider than its predecessor (at 1777mm), the same 1421mm height and a mere 1mm shorter than the Mk2 A3, but there's more space inside as the wheelbase has been stretched by 23mm and the boot now houses 365-litres of luggage which better its predecessor by 15-litres. The interior is familiar fare to anybody who speaks fluent Audi design language, with a typically spare look for the interior, with four circular air vents punctuating the dash and a 7in sat-nav screen that emerges from the top. This is controlled by the latest generation of MMI dial, with a very clever feature. The touchpad that first appeared on the A8 is now integrated into the top of the rotary controller.
Market and Model
Although this is the entry-level model, Audi recognises that its customers have paid for a quality product and as such, the A3 1.2-litre TFSI is available in the usual SE, Sport and S Line trim designations. Plus there's the option of both three and five-door hatches and even a saloon. Even the SE comes with alloy wheels, air conditioning, the Audi Music Interface (AMI) linked to an electrically retracting colour MMI display screen, Bluetooth connectivity, a driver's information system and preparation for SD card-based satellite navigation. Sport models feature bigger alloy wheels, front sports seats, sports suspension, the Audi drive select adaptive dynamics system, additional aluminium interior elements and chrome body detailing. Go for the highest specification S line models and you'll get 18-inch alloy wheels, Xenon Plus headlights with LED-daytime running lights, Biathlon cloth and leather upholstery with S line embossing and contrasting silver stitching, matt brushed aluminium inlays and a flat-bottomed S line steering wheel. Numerous options are also available in the passenger compartment, including the LED interior lighting package, a panoramic glass sunroof, sports seats, heated seats, advanced key keyless access, deluxe electronic climate control with economy mode and adaptive light for the xenon plus headlights, which can be supplemented with variable headlight range control. You'll pay from around £18,000 for a manual SE rising to around £23,000 for an S line model with the S tronic twin-clutch transmission.
Cost of Ownership
Whether you opt for the manual 'box or the S tronic system, this A3 1.2 TFSI will return a combined fuel figure of 57.6mpg - on paper at least. What many owners have discovered upon taking delivery of these latest downsized petrol units is that the engines have been very carefully calibrated to perform well on the automated NEDC fuel consumption tests and in the real world they don't perform quite as well. I'd be willing to wager that many owners will get a greater proportion of the 74mpg claimed by an A3 1.6 TDI diesel than they would from the A3 1.2 TFSI in normal conditions. Still, even getting economy in the mid forties would make this a very economical car and if you're not covering huge mileages it'll work out more cost effective, being around £2,000 less than a 1.6 TDI diesel. With no diesel surcharge to consider, it might well make sense as a company car as well. Carbon dioxide emissions are rated at 114g/km which isn't at all bad. Residual values aren't going to be quite as strong as the diesel model but with downsized petrol engines beginning to gain in popularity, perhaps values may firm up still further as demand strengthens.
As an entry-level petrol model, the 1.2-litre TFSI-engined Audi A3 is a respectable performer. The trouble is, there are much better choices to be made in the A3 range. I'd certainly stretch to either the 1.6 TDI diesel or the 1.4 TFSI petrol engine with its more muscular feel and innovative fuel-saving cylinder cut technology. It's worth keeping some perspective on this model though. Entry-level cars used to be all about generating an eye-catching price tag with corners cut in order to do so. That's why you often got lousy old engines and stripped out interiors. Audi isn't playing that game and must therefore be applauded. The 1.2 TFSI is an engine that needs to be worked hard to be kept on the boil and in doing so serves as a constant reminder that you only have 175Nm of torque at your disposal, rather than the 250Nm you get in the 1.6 TDI diesel. I'd choose the 1.2 TFSI motor if I wanted an Audi A3 just for a local commute, school run or shopping duties but try before you buy. Ask any more of the car and the stretch to a diesel model may suddenly appear very tempting.