THE gloves are off in Australia's premium car fight.
BMW landed the first punch more than one year ago with the 1 Series at under $40 grand, now Mercedes-Benz and Audi are throwing roundhouses.
Audi has just launched its A3 Sportback range, matching the recently released A-Class with a starting price of $35,600.
Mercedes-Benz has surged in 2013, enjoying a 43% sales increase in the first three months on the back of the A-Class.
With A-Class demand currently outweighing supply, timing could be everything for Audi's new Sportback.
The A3 is one capable plush offering, and the Sportback is the tip of the iceberg as Audi aims to sell more than 15,000 for the first time Down Under in a calendar year.
Also coming this year is the athletic S3 all-wheel drive derivative in December, followed by the sedan versions early next year, then a convertible and a plug-in hybrid.
Chic minimalism is a highlight of the interior.
The CD slot is hidden in the glovebox, along with SD card slots, leaving two rows of dash buttons.
Most of the key operations are within the central computer system, controlled by a central dial and four primary toggles for ease of menu access. It can still take some time to gain your bearings within the system - and scrolling down menus requires an unnatural anti-clockwise turn - but Audi has again made it simpler.
It is now even easier to navigate your way around the dual zone air con system (the fan even has its own dial unlike many other Audis).
Propeller-looking circular air vents can be adjusted in just about all directions, while pushing or pulling the centre knob alters the flow from concentrated to peripheral.
Head, leg and knee room is good front and back. Four passengers can be carried without being too cramped, so long as they aren't much over 180cm, and there are also air vents for the back.
All pews are nicely supportive and the materials feel top-notch even in entry-level Attraction guise.
On the road
Well balanced and confident, the A3 has metropolitan and rural dexterity.
On the highway, through twisty terrain and in traffic, the hatch is difficult to fault. Coarse chip bitumen saw some road rumble enter the cabin yet the A3 maintains its premium composure in just about all conditions.
There are four powerplant choices, two petrol and two diesel.
For value, it's hard to beat the entry-level 1.4-litre turbocharged petrol. It might not have the poke of its 1.8-litre brother, but rarely would many find the need for extra mumbo.
The A3 is light and nimble enough to get away with the 90 kilowatt engine. It is also well planted in the bends and can handle being thrown in opposing directions.
For those seeking frugality, there is a 1.6-litre turbo diesel that is Audi Australia's most fuel-efficient vehicle averaging 3.9 litres for every 100km. But most private buyers will opt for the 2.0-litre oil-burner, which is probably the most sensible top-spec choice with strong mid-range power delivery.
What do you get?
The Attraction spec includes 16-inch alloys, rear parking sensors, leather trim, dual zone climate controlled air con with rear seat vents, Bluetooth phone connectivity with audio streaming, 14.7cm colour display, auto lights and wipers along with a leather-wrapped steering wheel with paddle shifters.
Step up to Ambition trim and it gains larger 17-inch alloys, sports front seats, aluminium look interior features and sill trims, fog lights, Audi Drive Select (which sharpens or dulls acceleration and steering response), colour driver information system and a three-spoke sports steering wheel.
It also has five-star safety with the traditional suite of technology like stability control and anti-lock brakes.
There are some optional packs available, along with a host of extras, but probably the best is the Technik pack ($2990) which includes sat nav, rear view camera and park assist.
Inside the glovebox is an attachment port for smartphones and MP3 players, but special Audi cords (which cost about $100) are needed depending on the device.
The key rival is the Mercedes-Benz A-Class (from $35,600), while also in the sights is the Volvo V40 (from $41,990) and the BMW 1 Series (from $39,993).
Those new to the premium genre should investigate servicing costs to avoid any nasty shocks come maintenance time.
Fuel consumption is impressively good across the range, with nothing above six litres for every 100km. Some heavy hoofing can see that climb, but even with spirited driving we never achieved much more than eight litres/100km.
With slightly more space than its twin under the skin, the Volkswagen Golf 7, Audi's A3 is actually a useful little hauler.
A couple of large suitcases can be accommodated in the boot while there are three child seat anchorage points in the seatbacks.
The two cup holders in the centre console can handle larger bottles or they can be slotted in the doors.
The A3 walks a line between regality and utilitarian. It has an almost compact wagon-like silhouette which doesn't scream sexy, but refinement.
What matters most
The good stuff: Minimalist interior design, powerplant choices, interior space, on-road composure.
What we'd like to see: True USB port rather than the special cord set-up, less options but that's all the rage in the premium segment, rear view camera as standard.
Warranty and servicing: Three year/unlimited kilometre warranty with roadside assist (option to extend). Servicing is every 15,000km or 12 months.
Model: Audi A3 Sportback.
Details: Five-door front-wheel drive compact luxury hatch.
Engines: 1.4-litre turbocharged petrol generating maximum power of 90kW @ 5000-6000rpm and peak torque of 200Nm @ 1400-4000rpm; 1.6-litre common rail turbo diesel 77kW @ 3000-4000rpm/250Nm @ 1500-2750rpm; 1.8 turbocharged petrol 132kW @ 5100-6200rpm/250Nm 1250-5000rpm; 2.0 common rail turbo diesel 110kW @ 3500-4000rpm/320Nm 1750-3000rpm.
Transmission: Seven-speed dual-clutch automatic.
Consumption: 5.0-litres/100km (combined average); 3.9L/100km; 5.6L/100km; 4.5L/100km.
Bottom line: Attraction 1.4 TFSI $35,600, Attraction 1.6 TDI $36,500, Ambition 1.8 TFSI $42,500, Ambition 2.0 TDI $42,500. Plus on-roads.
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