ALTHOUGH not historically the largest event on the automotive calendar, the 2012 Geneva International Motor Show nevertheless proved very significant for the popular premium-hatch market. No fewer than three of the most important new models that are set to compete in the upper echelons of the compact hatchback market were revealed during the press days – Audi’s A3, the Volvo V40 and Mercedes’s dramatically redefined A-Class.
While South African audiences will have to wait until May this year to catch a glimpse of the all-new (and rather striking) A-Class in the metal (see sidebar on page 55), Audi has been briskly moving three-door examples of its brand-new A3 hatch off local showroom floors since the end of last year. At around the same time, local deliveries of the new Volvo V40 started taking place in major centres around the country. All three models, as well as the still-fresh F20-generation BMW 1 Series, carry with them significant hopes for each of the brands whose badges are pasted on their respective grilles.
And there are no more significant hopes than those riding on the V40’s sculpted shoulders. The model that replaced the S40 saloon and V50 wagon, and later this year will take the mantle from the outgoing C30 hatch, has been tasked with not only breathing fresh life into this Swedish marque’s thin profit margins, but also with taking the fight directly to the Germans’ doorsteps. Indeed, with the departure of the C30, the new five-door hatch also becomes the sole entry point to the brand.
Designed under the direction of Peter Horbury (the man who is credited with moving Volvo out of its design deadlock) as a parting gift before joining new parent company, Geely, the V40 is built on the same modified Ford C1 platform as the C30, although Volvo claims it has revised nearly every moving part. Where the C30 (launched in 2006) succeeded in introducing a more fun-filled, youthful audience to the Volvo brand, its three-door layout and compromised luggage area hindered its chances of broader appeal. The V40 aims to build on the solid foundations created by the C30, but with the addition of rear doors and a more usable (although still not huge) luggage compartment, to appeal to a larger audience.
Prior to Audi’s 2010 launch of the A1 supermini, the A3 hatch represented an important introduction point for potential customers into the Audi family. As such, since its introduction in 1996, the A3 range has played a vital role in the Ingolstadt-based company’s rejuvenation and continued growth in terms of sales and brand status.
Through various facelifts and continued refinement (including the introduction of the five-door Sportback, S and RS derivatives and, most recently, a convertible model) the second-generation A3 has managed to remain fresh despite having enjoyed a near 10-year lifecycle. With the introduction of the third-generation A3, Audi plans to not only continue offering class-leading levels of perceived quality and sophistication in the hotly contested C-segment, but also to introduce many of its fuel-saving and efficiency-optimising technologies (as developed through the Le Mans racing project) into this market.
One of the most important factors when it comes to ultimate efficiency is weight and, in making use of the Volkswagen Group’s MQB platform (as used by the forthcoming Golf 7; see CAR December 2012), Audi has managed to shave an average of 80 kg off the new car’s total weight compared with equivalent outgoing models.
Although the V40 T4 (fitted with a six-speed manual transmission) weighed only 73 kg more than the Audi A3 1,8T FSI SE S tronic as tested, there was general consensus that the difference felt greater than the figures suggest. From the impressively comfortable leather-upholstered driver’s seat, the Volvo’s classy cabin, complete with floating console, soft-touch facia trim and thick-rimmed multifunction steering wheel, feels suitably well put together, even if some creaks are audible as the body flexes over road imperfections and driveway entrances. One of the biggest improvements over the outgoing Volvo models is the large and user-friendly infotainment system (full colour on Excel models) that lifts this cabin above the ordinary.
In Excel trim, the V40 offers climate control, cruise control, an electrically adjustable driver’s seat, automatic lights and wipers, and rear park sensors. Audi offers the A3 in S, SE, and Quattro specification, with the SE (as featured here) featuring 17-inch alloy wheels, sports suspension, sports seats, Audi Drive Select, climate control, a multifunction, leather-bound steering wheel, and rain and light sensors.
The introduction of the A3 again marks another step forward for Audi’s connectivity technologies. The new model features a smart-looking, slim full-colour screen that rises from the dash once the engine is started (not dissimilar to the system in the A8). Indeed, the simplicity of this design is echoed throughout the rest of the A3’s cabin. The CD front-loader has been moved to the glove compartment and the remaining centre-console controls have been neatly placed, ensuring minimal clutter and maximum ease of use. Audi still sets the benchmark in perceived levels of build quality and it’s the uncluttered, sophisticated look and feel of the A3’s cabin that add to the lightweight, classy nature of the new car. It got a universal thumbs-up.
The previous-generation A3 Sportback ultimately outsold its three-door sibling seven-to-one in the South African market and we can expect the same bias towards practicality once the new Sportback arrives here in May. That said, the rear leg- and headroom on offer in the three-door A3 remain relatively impressive (thanks mostly to a 23 mm increase in wheelbase over the outgoing model).
In T4 guise the Volvo V40 features a 132 kW/240 N.m version of the marque’s turbo-charged 1,6-litre engine. Although not ultimately a threat at the traffic lights (we achieved a best 0-100 km/h time of 9,02 seconds), everyone who drove the V40 commented on how pleasantly progressive and smooth the engine’s delivery is. Of course, it helps that there are a pair of reminders within the instrument cluster on how to best achieve optimal fuel consumption (in
the form of a gearchange indicator and Eco gauge); we managed an average fuel consumption of 6,1 litres/100 km over our fuel route.
That the Audi is nearly a second faster than the Volvo from standstill to 100 km/h underscores both the weight saving in the new A3, but also the resources and development that the VW Group has put into harnessing the best from its T FSI engines. The 1 798 cm3 unit delivers 132 kW at 6 200 r/min and 250 N.m of torque that is available from 1 250 to 5 000 r/min. With the seven-speed S tronic transmission (a six-speed manual is also available) set to default drive mode (sport and manual modes are also available), we achieved an average fuel consumption of 6,6 litres/100 km on our fuel route. However, it has to be said that, as good as Audi’s dual-clutch S tronic transmission can be once the A3’s up to speed, we have started to notice some inconsistencies in how these transmissions behave at low speeds. Our A3 test unit (which interestingly did not feature a launch-control function) had a very obvious shudder at crawling speeds.
A dual-clutch Powershift transmission is a cost option on the V40, but our test car’s six-speed manual ‘box was generally highly rated. The positive action of the six-speed manual ‘box (despite the fitment of an optional, and cheap-feeling, illuminated gear knob), together with the light action of the clutch pedal, made our test unit easy to pilot.
Even with optional 17-inch wheels fitted, the V40’s MacPherson strut front/multilink rear setup coped admirably with everyday road imperfections and only when the going got really tough (dynamically) did we notice a slight loss of composure, a reluctance towards getting settled into fast corners, and vague steering. In truth, this fact would probably not have been worth mentioning had the Audi not been so superior in terms of dynamic ability while pushing on. The A3 feels light on its feet and composed no matter what the circumstances. In fact, based on this first (South African) experience with the new MQB platform, we can only assume that the forthcoming Golf 7 will not only significantly narrow the gap in terms of ride and comfort between the perceived premium-hatch category and the rest, but also potentially run away with overall best-in-class awards.
These two cars will undoubtedly feature in many future com-parative tests (especially once the Sportback and A-Class arrive), but this initial meeting of the models has certainly served up some interesting results. While we expected the new A3 to be an evolution of a competent (and popular) product, the under-the-skin developments have afforded the A3 newfound levels of confidence heading into the inevitable stand-off against its two German rivals. Perceived-quality levels are, for the time being, class-leading, and the composure and sophistication with which the A3 handles itself is very impressive.
The fact that the V40 is not disgraced in this company, while arguably also offering a touch more character and individualism than the fairly generic Audi, should be seen as a small victory for Volvo.
Road Test Scores:
Audi A3 1,8T FSI SE S Tronic – 80/100; Volvo V40 T4 Excel – 77/100