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SPORT MODE

JUST lookiing at the new Audi A3 Sportback has my head in a spin.

Chin in hand, a ponderous scratch of the head and I still can't figure out what it is supposed to be.

The army of marketing and PR bods clearly state that this is the 5-door version of the delicious compact executive, but I'm not so sure?

Maybe it's the fab winter sunshine playing visual tricks but the jury is still out on whether the automotive gem in front of me is this a shorter Avant or a slightly stretched hatchback?

The unique third side window, the standard roof rails and neat rear spoiler are all traits of a tourer.

Now, I'd be worried if this weren't Audi who make the most desirable estates money can buy.

That'd be a risk too far for a model that has amassed 11,000 loyal fans since it blew the lid off the Irish market in 1996.



SENSATION



It caused such a sensation that it had to be allocated it's own slot -- premium compact segment-- prompting the birth of rivals like the 1 Series BMW, the not so worthy Mercedes A Class and a later contender in the mega Volvo V40.

Now in it's third generation, and still number 1, the A3 is chalk to the MKII's cheese.

If you thought that the Sportback is just an extra pair of doors you'd be very much mistaken.

For starters it's 35mm longer than the current 3-door and a whopping 58mm longer than the previous model.

That means greater leg room in the back and increases space in the boot by over 30 litres -- accommodating a pretty decent 380 litres of luggage.

With the back seats folded down, that triples to 1,220 litres making it even more versatile and bigger than the three rivals I mentioned earlier.

The new offering is lighter too -- 90kgs or the weight of one large adult -- thanks to the use of aluminium bonnet and front wings.

With a class-beating kerb weight now of 1,205kgs (the same as the original '96 A3) it means better fuel consumption and lower emissions. To quantify this the 1.6TDi, 105bhp diesel engine has a CO2 count of 99g/km which is so green that in the UK this car would cost nothing to tax.

Here though, it means that it'll cost €180 a year while returning an eye-watering 74.3mpg.

Other engines in the Irish line-up will be the 1.4 litre, 122bhp petrol and a more powerful 150bhp, 2.0 litre TDi -- all 10 per cent more fuel efficient.

Standard kit includes Bluetooth interface, driver information system, MMI Radio with retractable monitor, leather multifunction steering wheel, 16" alloy wheels and air con.

Shell out an extra €1,000 and you'll find yourself in the SE which comes with cruise control, park assist, fog lights, interior lighting package, front centre armrest, Audi Music Interface, colour driver information system, electric heated mirrors, 3D SE specific inlays and half leather/cloth upholstery.

Drive-wise the latest offering -- designed by talented Dubliner Dave Caffrey who brought us the Q5 -- has for the first time real drive dynamic.

The ride is quiet and comfortable while the steering is precise and engaged even when your not thrashing it about.

Fork out for Audi Drive Select (which electronically remaps the throttle, suspension and steering and you're in hot hatch country, although anything less Torquey than the top end 2.0TDi would be lost on this option.

So is the Sportback worth the €1,000 premium over the three-door and what are the drawbacks?

For build quality alone the A3 would trump executive saloons a class above and is a world away from traditional hatchbacks.

From a practicality point of view it's a no-brainer and one can see why it'll make up for over 80pc of all Irish Sales.

The only real chink on the A3's armour is the price and it's biggest threat could come from within it's own ranks -- namely the new Golf (built on the same MQB chassis) which is a whopping €7,000 cheaper than it's executive cousin.

The Audi A3 Sportback starts at €26,900.


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