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2014 Audi A3 Saloon 1.6 TDI S tronic review

Adding an automatic gearbox to Audi's most economical A3 Saloon pushes up its price and CO2 emissions - bad news for company car drivers. So, is it worth doing, or are you better off with the manual?

Words ByRory White

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Executive cars have a tough job to do. Not only do they have to be refined and good to drive, but their cabins need to be high quality and they need make financial sense for company car drivers.

The Audi A3 Saloon is one of our favourites: a five-star small saloon that offers all of the above for less money than its closest rivals, the BMW 3 Series and Mercedes CLA.

It makes the most sense to company car drivers in 1.6 diesel form, thanks to CO2 emissions of just 99g/km. However, adding the dual-clutch automatic gearbox causes emissions to go up to 102g/km, which in turn pushes it up to the next tax band. So, is this the A3 Saloon to buy?

What’s the Audi A3 Saloon 1.6 TDI S tronic like to drive?

If you're considering a diesel A3 Saloon, and choosing between the 1.6- and more powerful 2.0 TDI is proving difficult, the 39bhp and 66lb ft difference between them isn't as wide a gap as you may fear.

Granted, the 2.0 pulls harder once the turbo has kicked-in, and it's quicker in an outright sprint, but the 1.6 never feels sluggish, whether that's in town or accelerating down a motorway slip road.

Where it's weaker is refinement. There's slightly more engine noise in the cabin over the 2.0 when the 1.6 is revved out, and you'll notice a little more vibration through the pedals, too. That said, all A3 Saloon models do a good job of keeping wind and tyre noise to a minimum, and it remains top of its class in this respect.

Around town the seven-speed, dual-clutch S tronic automatic (a Β£1480 addition) tends to dither slightly from standstill and when asked to deliver a quick burst of acceleration, as it pauses to decide on a gear and feed in the power. Once up and running at a cruise, however, the shifts are fast and super smooth.

Audi Drive Select is standard on all A3 Saloons, and allows you to sharpen or relax the car's throttle response, steering weight and, in this case, the urgency of the gearbox. In sharpest Dynamic mode, there's less of a pause from the gearbox when pulling away, but it also holds on to gears longer, making the coarse engine noise more noticeable in the cabin.

Unlike the A3 hatch, the A3 Saloon isn't available in entry-level SE trim, which means sports suspension comes fitted as standard. This isn’t a good thing; the firmer set-up jostles you around a bit too much on bumpy roads.

However, for no extra cost, you can spec optional Comfort suspension – and we’d definitely recommend ticking the box because it brings a much smoother ride. There’s still a slightly firm edge at low speeds, but the A3 Saloon rides superbly on motorways and A-roads.

Even with the optional softer suspension, the A3 changes direction tidily and hangs on gamely through corners. The steering is light and accurate at low speeds, and Dynamic mode adds a bit more weight for extra reassurance in faster cornering.

What’s the Audi A3 Saloon 1.6 TDI S tronic like inside?

The A3 Saloon is 15cm longer than the Sportback, and this extra length has increased boot capacity by 45 litres (to 425 litres). Being a saloon, the boot opening is fairly shallow, although the rear seats fold almost completely flat, making it easy to carry longer items.

The wheelbase is exactly the same on the A3 Saloon and Sportback, so you don't get any more legroom, and rear headroom is actually marginally worse due to a lower roofline in the saloon. Still, four six-foot adults will fit comfortably, even if a BMW 3 Series offers even more rear space.

The 3 Series comes off second best for interior quality, though. Every switch in the A3 is beautifully damped, and the materials throughout the cabin feel classy. The fit and finish seem close to flawless, too, meaning anyone downsizing from a larger executive saloon won't feel short-changed.

It's pretty high-tech, as you get the latest version of Audi's MMI (multimedia interface) infotainment system as standard. This has the central control dial and retractable colour screen that Audi drivers will be familiar with, but the shortcut buttons have been replaced by raised toggle switches, which are easier to use without looking at the buttons.

Finding a comfortable driving position is also simple because there's loads of adjustment to the seat and steering wheel, and visibility is very good all-round.

Only two trims are available: Sport and S line. Sport trim gets you alloys, Bluetooth, dual-zone climate control and sports seats, while S line versions add bigger alloys, part-leather seats and xenon headlights.

Given the A3 saloon’s tempting price, it’s perhaps understandable that cruise control, rear parking sensors and automatic lights and wipers cost extra. However, all of the things are available with the optional (Β£605) Comfort Package, which also brings acoustic side windows and an auto-dimming rear-view mirror.

Should I buy one?

There are genuine reasons for picking the 1.6 TDI over the 2.0, mainly the savings it offers for both private and company car drivers. For that reason, we'd avoid the extra cost and higher CO2 emissions the automatic gearbox brings and stick with the cheaper, cleaner manual instead. It'll save you more than Β£570 over three years in company car tax.

Still, while this automatic A3 Saloon might not be our pick of the range, it still makes more sense than its rivals if you really don't want a manual. For instance, a BMW 316d auto might be slightly more spacious and have more lively handling, but it's more expensive to buy, emits more CO2, and its cabin isn't quite as well-finished as the A3's, either. Mercedes' CLA 220 CDI auto also makes less sense to company car drivers financially, as well as having a less comfortable ride and less room inside for passengers.

What Car? says…

Rivals

BMW 3 Series

Mercedes CLA

Audi A3 1.6 TDI S tronic

Engine size

1.6-litre diesel

Price from

Β£24,405

Power

108bhp

Torque

184lb ft

0-62mph

10.7 seconds

Top speed

126mph

Fuel economy

72.4mpg

CO2

102g/km