On the surface, the new Audi A3 is hardly radical. If I said it was just a facelift, you'd probably believe me. But it's as near to an all-new car as I've driven all year. It's the first car from the Volkswagen Group's new modular building kit, abbreviated to MQB in German. Eventually, every transverse-engined vehicle in the VW Group, apart from the little Up family, will use this kit.
For Audi, that means the next TT, next A1, next Q3 and possibly a Q1 too. For VW, it means the next generations of Golf (due this year already) and Polo and Passat and Tiguan and Beetle and Touran and Sharan dot dot dot. Plus bucketloads of Skodas and Seats. In all, maybe 10 million cars will be built on the MQB every year.
Which means it really needs to be good.
The MQB isn't a platform in the old sense. Remember how the current A1 is just a poshed-up Skoda Fabia? Well, this'll put an end to all that. Many parts will be shared, and so the group can buy them in vast numbers and drive down their price. But others can be swapped out: they'll all use an agreed set of mounts and assembly methods, but they'll allow the cars to be more different. Wheelbase, track and dashboard height can be changed, so the MQB can cover everything from bigger-than-Passat saloons down to superminis via off-roaders, sports roadsters and MPVs. And it's not just the sizes that can be changed, but the qualities of many of the parts too, and that means each model and brand can be free to have its own character.
And the character of the A3 is a success. Like any Audi, it feels reassuringly expensive and solid. The doors and seats feel rigid, and they move with a greased and confident action. All the levers and controls have a nicely damped plumpness. Nothing flexes or creaks. So you infer it's going to drive with equal heaviness. And, of course, that's what we don't like about Audis. They often feel heavy, clumsy and bogged down by inertia. Not this one, though.
It's a whole lot more agile and fleet than the last A3. If you want to swerve around a bit, well, it's happy to join in. There's a lot less understeer and more opportunity to keep it trimmed by using the accelerator. The steering is electrically powered, but we seem finally to be getting to the point where that needn't be an insult.
Yet it rides nicely too, with decent compliance over small-depth irritations in the surface and softness on bigger stuff. If the road has a lot of three-dimensional corners, you might want better damping. The test car had standard suspension, but you can get a sport set-up and an S line. They don't cost much, but, on past Audi form, they tend to harm the ride. There's also an optional set of magnetic ride dampers. Link them to the standard suspension, and you might well have the answer.
So what's the cause of all this good news? Back to the MQB. This modular kit is designed so that the more expensive cars (the Audis, the VW GTIs, the sportier and more top-end stuff) can substitute better parts in certain places. So the A3 has a lightweight aluminium front subframe and front-suspension hub carriers. The cheaper cars in the group will get by with steel, but will use the same mounts. In fact, Audi has gone seriously into lightening the front end of the A3, opting for aluminium for front wings, bonnet and the crossmember behind the bumper. The seats are lighter than before, even the support bracket for the centre armrest is now a magnesium casting. I said to an interior engineer that I was impressed with how few carry-over parts they used - the only thing I recognised from other Audis were the grab handles. "Oh no," he shot back. "They look the same, but they're not. They're lighter." The A3 2.0 diesel weighs 200kg less than the equivalent Honda Civic I drive daily.
The MQB's tightly sized engine bay demanded a range of all-new engines. All have their exhaust side to the rear, and they all lie backwards at 12 degrees. I tried the 1.8 petrol and 2.0 TDi. They're both flexible, smooth and happy to rev. The diesel is, for a diesel, remarkably quiet. The petrol, for a petrol, wouldn't hurt for sounding more charismatic.
The A3's cabin is amazing. Audi has raised the quality bar again. The air vents, for instance, don't just have aluminium rings to control volume and direction, but also a button that varies the flow from a tight jet to a wider breeze. Each vent has 30 components, and there are four of them. That's how Audi has spent some of the huge purchasing savings from MQB.
1968cc, 4cyl, FWD, 150bhp, 236lb ft, 68.9mpg, 106g/km CO2, 0-62mph in 8.6 secs, 134mph, 1280kg
Cautious design update hides significant progress in handling, ride, efficiency and quality. Still not exciting, but more desirable than ever.